MUSEUM CAMPUS — A female sea otter brought to the Shedd Aquarium after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was euthanized Tuesday for complications related to old age.
Ken Ramirez, an aquarium animal care executive who assisted with the wildlife resuce efforts at the Valdez site, said the decision to euthanize Kenai was heartwrenching.
"I think we all knew that that was likely to happen, but because of how she's bounced back so many times from things that seemed impossible to bounce back from, we hoped that she would surprise us once again," Ramirez said. "But once it became clear that the delay would be uncomfortable and painful for her, that's when we had to make that difficult decision."
He said staff noticed a decrease in Kenai's appetite last week that had worsened to a point where a medical exam was conducted that showed signs of organ failure often associated with old age. Veterinary doctors managed her pain and growing infections with medication, but by Monday, "it was obvious that no pain relief or other treatments would really help her," Ramirez said.
At age 23, Kenai had far exceeded the average lifespan of most sea otters, which is generally 15 to 18 years, according to the Shedd Aquarium. She leaves behind only one remaining otter survivor of the 1989 oil spill in the U.S., another female housed at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash.
Kenai's rescue set an important precedent for Shedd's involvement in oil spill recovery, preparing aquarium staff to take an active role in animal rehabilitation after the Deepwater Horizon incident on the Gulf Coast in 2010.
Kenai also contributed to the body of research on geriatric animal care and the long-term effects of oil spills on wildlife, according to the aquarium. Her health issues also expanded the aquarium's repertoire of care procedures, including a successful root canal procedure she underwent in 2010.
Kenai was protective of other young rescue otters, including the latest addition to the Shedd family, Cayucos, an orphaned sea otter pup found on the California coastline who came to the aquarium earlier this year.
"Otters can be feisty, playful and difficult to get along with sometimes, but she was tolerant of every otter that came through our program," Ramirez said. "Being the oldest matriarch of the groups, the younger otters respected her. So if the other otters were fighting or playing and one young otter wanted to be protected, he would swim over to safety by Kenai."
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