Photos by Asia Morris.
Watching an otter undergo its annual physical and dental exam is a little bit frightening for the common observer. It’s a bit like watching a good friend or family member drift off in a cloud of anesthesia before getting their wisdom teeth pulled. To see something so adorable, fluffy and sedated succumb to the whirring, grinding sound of a tooth polisher is at first somewhat shocking, but then immediately fascinating when you’re told that procedures like these are the reason an otter can live sometimes ten years longer than if they were in the wild.
Dr. Lance Adams of the Aquarium of the Pacific, who performed 14-year-old Maggie’s annual physical exam on Thursday, explained, “She's been a very good otter for us since we've had her. She doesn't have too many problems. She is sort of upper middle-aged, so the procedures that we did today are very important; where we're cleaning all that tartar off of her teeth.”
“Younger otters don't necessarily have that until they start hitting about five years old,” he continued. “As they get older they have more broken teeth or cracked teeth and more of this tartar, more gingivitis, and those are all sources of bacteria that slowly can get into our body and cause inflammation in our organs and other problems. So we want to get rid of that and keep her gums healthy. In that way, her body's going to be healthier and she's going to live longer.”
Because otters have fur, instead of blubber like most marine mammals, they have to intake a certain amount of food each day to maintain their body temperature. If they can’t eat enough food because their teeth hurt, that can pose a major health problem in the wild. According to Dr. Adams, an issue like that isn’t a huge deal if they’re living in captivity where their food can be cut up into smaller pieces for them.
Dr. Adams said that in the wild, an otter’s typical lifespan is 15 to 20 years, while in captivity an otter can live to be 25 years old. The Aquarium acquired Maggie from the Monterey Bay Aquarium where she was a part of their surrogate program where the female sea otters would raise orphaned otters, which they would then release back into the wild.
The first of the six otters at the Aquarium to receive their annual exam, Maggie’s skin, eyes, ears, nose, throat, abdomen, heart, lungs, joints, her musculoskeletal system and of course, teeth and gums, were checked for abnormalities. If an abnormality is found, explained Dr. Adams, the Aquarium team will investigate the matter further. However, if everything seems normal and all goes well, she is woken up and moved back to the exhibit.
Before the exam, he explained, “We restrain the otter upstairs and I give them an injection of an anaesthetic agent which takes about 12 to 15 minutes for the animal to become sedated. We bring it down here to the hospital, get it out, hook it up on all the support equipment so we can monitor its vital signs and provide gas anaesthesia through a tracheal tube as it's breathing and then we start our procedure.”
After the procedure the otter is given a reversal to the anaesthetic agent and given the time and space to slowly drift back into consciousness. “Once it looks like the animal is alert and pretty stable we'll wheel it back up to the exhibit. It'll stay in the back holding area by itself for about an hour and then it'll get fed. If it holds down its food and seems like it's recovering normally, it gets released back into the exhibit with the other animals,” concluded Adams.
Maggie made a little squeak as she started blinking her eyes to the six Aquarium personnel waiting patiently for her to wake up. She turned her face around and brought her nose to the edge of her cage, as Dr. Adams scratched the top of her head. Children visiting the aquarium crowded behind the windows, trying to catch a glimpse of, arguably, one of the Aquarium’s cutest residents.