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Sea otter that inspired legislation to protect species dies

March 3, 2012 |  4:58 pm

Toola the sea otter is seen at left.

Toola, the female sea otter who inspired state legislation to better protect her species and was a pioneer in surrogate motherhood for stranded pups, died Saturday of natural causes and age-related ill-health, according to  Monterey Bay Aquarium officials.  She was about 15 or 16 years old.

Considered by aquarium officials as “the most important animal” in the history of the facility’s 28-year Sea Otter Research and Conservation program,  Toola suffered from neurological disorders, thought to be caused by exposure to the toxoplasmosis parasite. The condition, which caused seizures and required Toola to take anti-convulsion medication, prevented her release back into the wild, officials said.

“It’s a real problem to try to give sea otters oral medication,” said  Dr. Mike Murray, the aquarium veterinarian. But Toola defied that notion.

“She was very special in the way she fought the disease and worked to get better and in the way we were able to work with her,” Murray said. “We were able to keep the seizures under control for an extended period. That was pretty magical for me as a vet.”

Toola came to the aquarium as a mature adult after she was found stranded on Pismo Beach on July 21, 2001. She became the first rescued sea otter ever to raise pups that were successfully returned to the wild, according to aquarium staff. She served as a surrogate mother  to 13 pups over the years, including one that was weaned from her on Friday as her health declined, officials said.

At least five of 11 pups that were released to the wild before Toola died are still alive, according to aquarium staff. Her pups gave birth to seven of their own off-spring, five of which have been weaned successfully.

Toola’s most famous pup is the subject of a new feature film, "Otter 501," which debuted in February at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

Stories about the intrepid sea otter’s exposure to the toxoplasmosis parasite, a tick that can be carried by cats, prompted former state Assemblyman Dave Jones to introduce legislation to better protect the state’s endangered sea otter population.

Jones, now the state insurance commissioner, co-authored a 2006 bill  that led to the creation of the California Sea Otter Fund, which has generated more than $1 million in voluntary taxpayer contributions to support research into disease and other threats facing sea otters in the wild, aquarium officials say.

Last month, the U.S. Geological Survey reported that after being brought back from the brink of extinction, sea otters were again in danger, with a record-high 335 otters reported dead, sick or injured along the California coast in 2011.

Ecological researchers said shark bites accounted for 15% of otter deaths in the late 1990s, but that percentage nearly doubled in 2010 and 2011.

Ken Peterson, an aquarium spokesman, said  the facility’s Sea Otter Research and Conservation program has been working to save the threatened southern sea otter since 1984.

“When people come they love our jelly fish, but there’s something really endearing about sea otters that really made her a draw,” Peterson said.

Christine DeAngelo, the aquarium’s associate curator of mammals, remembered Toola as a “strong-willed” creature, who took  charge during training sessions.

“When she wanted to work on something…she’d give me a ‘look’ or vocalize and I’d immediately cave in and do whatever she wanted,” DeAngelo said in prepared remarks.  “Now that she’s passed, we’re in need of another 'head trainer’ to run the place.”


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Photo: Toola the sea otter is seen at left. Credit: Randy Wildner / Monterey Bay Aquarium

Toola, arguably the most important sea otter ever kept at Monterey Bay Aquarium, because of her role in raising stranded pups for release and inspiring key legislation to protect California's threatened sea otters, with surrogate SORAC pup. The images below are being provided to the Los Angeles Times for use and distribution in conjunction with the story about the death of sea otter Toola, and you have permission to use and distribute the images. All the images are the copyrighted property of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation and are being provided for use only in conjunction with the story mentioned above and associated online content. ( RANDY WILDNER / MONTEREY BAY AQUARIUM )