The Monterey Bay Aquarium regrets to announce the passing of Toola, a female Sea Otter who was arguably the most important animal in the 28-year history of the aquarium’s pioneering Sea Otter Research and Conservation program. Toola died early Saturday morning (March 3) in the aquarium’s veterinary care center, of natural causes and infirmities of age.
She was the first rescued Sea Otter ever to raise pups that were successfully returned to the wild; and was the inspiration for state legislation that better protects Sea Otters.
Toola was about 15 or 16 years old when she died. She was rescued as a mature adult (5+ years of age) when she was found stranded on Pismo Beach on July 21, 2001. She suffered from neurological disorders, likely caused by infection of her brain by the protozoan parasite, Toxoplasma gondii. The resulting seizure disorder required twice-daily anticonvulsant medication and prevented her release back into the wild.
But she quickly became a pioneer for the aquarium – on exhibit and behind the scenes. Toola was the first Otter ever to serve as a surrogate mother for stranded pups. She raised 13 pups over the years, including one that was weaned from her on Friday as her health declined. Of the 11 pups already released to the wild, at least 5 are still surviving – including the first animal she reared in 2001. Her pups have matured in the wild and gone on to give birth to 7 pups of their own, 5 of which have weaned successfully. Two more of her pups are still behind the scenes, on track for release later this year.
Toola’s most famous pup is the subject of a new feature film, Otter 501, which debuted in February at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.
On exhibit, Toola’s story of exposure to the toxoplasmosis parasite that can be carried by cats inspired then-California State Assemblymember (now Insurance Commissioner) Dave Jones to introduce legislation to better protect California’s threatened sea otter population. His bill, co-authored with current California Resources Secretary John Laird, became law in 2006. Among other provisions, it created the California Sea Otter Fund that has generated more than $1 million in voluntary taxpayer contributions to support research into disease and other threats facing Sea Otters in the wild.
“Toola was without question the most important animal in the history of our program,” said Andrew Johnson, manager of the aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation program. “She showed us that captive otters could successfully raise orphaned pups for return to the wild. She inspired a critical piece of legislation that is helping protect sea otters. And she inspired millions of visitors to care more about sea otters. We will miss her.”
“I will argue that there is no other single sea otter that had a greater impact upon the sea otter species, the sea otter programs worldwide, and upon the interface between the sea otters’ scientific community and the public,” said aquarium veterinarian Dr. Mike Murray.Although she was at the aquarium for more than a decade, she remained a wild animal at heart, said Associate Curator of Mammals Christine DeAngelo – and a strong-willed one, too.
“It was clear to everyone on the sea otter exhibit team that Toola, not me, was really in charge,” DeAngelo said. “When she wanted to work on something in a training session, she’d give me a ‘look’ or vocalize and I’d immediately cave in and do whatever she wanted. Now that she’s passed, we’re joking that we need to hire ‘another head trainer’ to run the place.”
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation program has been studying and trying to save the threatened southern sea otter since 1984. With the support of its research, exhibit and policy teams, and the backing of donors and members, the aquarium has rescued nearly 600 ill and injured otters, raises and releases stranded pups, and has placed non-releasable animals on exhibit in Monterey and at other accredited aquariums across North America.
The research team plays a key role in field studies of sea otters in California, Alaska and Russia. The aquarium also works on behalf of policies at the state and federal level that will advance the recovery of sea otter populations.