Seattle Aquarium’s oldest sea otter dies at 23

Seattle Aquarium sea otter Lootas cuddles a day-old pup on May 14, 2001.

SEATTLE —The Seattle Aquarium’s oldest sea otter, Lootas, died Sunday at age 23. She was the oldest living sea otter in a North American aquarium or zoo.

Lootas came to the aquarium in 1997 after her mother was killed in a boating accident in Alaska. Aquarium staff raised her by hand but didn’t know if she’d be able to be part of the breeding program, said Traci Belting, a curator of birds and mammals for the aquarium. At that point, human-raised otters hadn’t successfully given birth to pups that had lived to adulthood.

But Lootas successfully raised three pups, including Aniak, who still resides at the aquarium. Her success in breeding was a sign that the aquarium “cracked the code” and all of the otters’ physiological needs were being met, Belting said.

Lootas went on to be an “iconic” part of the aquarium and a teacher to new aquarium staff, Belting said.

“When we had new staff come on and learn the science of animal care and welfare, she was a wonderful teacher,” Belting, who had worked with Lootas for 15 years, said. “If we were making mistakes, she was very generous and patient. She’ll have a huge part of all of our hearts.”

Sea otters have large molars to crush and eat shellfish, and they’ll bite trainers if they make a mistake. But Lootas was patient even when trainers got too close or moved too fast, Belting said.

Using rewards and positive reinforcement, Lootas learned to get on an X-ray plate and present different body parts for diagnostic exams. After exams she was rewarded with her favorite snack: Dungeness crab.

Lootas was euthanized Sunday morning after she “let her caregivers know that she had reached the end of her time,” the aquarium said in a news release.

Lootas’ remains will go to the University of Washington’s Burke Museum for research and education, Belting said. The aquarium will provide tissue samples for DNA research, as well as the otter’s skeleton and fur.

The Seattle Aquarium is now home to three sea otters: Aniak, Adaa and Mishka. The family won’t be growing anytime soon because of risks to both staff and otters. COVID-19 precautions would make it difficult to transport and raise a new otter, Belting said, because of the tight spaces and close proximity required.

The aquarium is also taking extra precautions because sea otters may also be at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, Belting said. The coronavirus has devastated mink populations across Europe and parts of the United States, and otters are in the same mammal family.

“All of the strict PPE and social distancing that we’re doing, we’re doing that with the otters as well,” Belting said. “There hasn’t been a positive case in a sea otter, but we don’t want to be the first.”

The aquarium is temporarily closed to the public because of COVID-19 restrictions, but you can still keep an eye on the otters’ antics with the aquarium’s live webcams.

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