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.