Published Dec. 12, 2021
By Erika Allen
Senior Marine Mammal Trainer at Indianapolis Zoo
For decades, the Indianapolis Zoo has proudly provided a permanent home to many rescued animals. One of the youngest is Aku, a 4-year-old male Pacific walrus who was rescued and rehabilitated by the Alaska SeaLife Center. Located in Seward, Alaska, the Alaska SeaLife Center is the only facility in the state that can rehabilitate marine mammals. Their goal is to recuperate and release animals back into the wild, but when that isn’t possible, they transfer the rescued animals to other facilities that can provide lifelong care.
I reached out to Halley Werner and Savannah Costner, animal care specialists at the Alaska SeaLife Center, to ask them about their personal experiences rehabilitating wild walruses.
The walrus we rescue are all dependent calves, meaning they can’t survive without their mothers. Walrus are typically considered dependent on mom for the first 18 months to two years of their life. All the calves to come through our program were separated from their mothers, though we almost never know why. By the time they come to us, they are usually extremely underweight and are often very sick, too.
Aku was so emaciated, he looked like a wrinkly sack of bones. He had no energy, and didn’t move very much. He was also covered in sea lice, which look a little bit like ticks and feed on the blood of marine mammals. We picked thousands of sea lice off him within the first week he was with us.
From top to bottom, rehabilitating a walrus calf is no small feat. They need larger and more of everything. Probably the biggest challenge of rehabilitating a walrus is their size. A newborn can weigh almost 200 pounds, so just getting them to ASLC takes a lot of effort and coordination. Walrus need 24-hour care with round-the-clock bottle feedings for their physical wellbeing and 24-hour companionship for their mental wellbeing. The first step once they arrive is getting them rehydrated, so we can start feeding them a specialized formula that’s high in calories and nutrients to help them grow strong again. We feed them with a large bottle that was made for feeding baby cows. They also receive a thorough veterinary exam, so medicine can be given to treat any infection or other medical needs. Walrus are very social animals, so they need to be with someone at all times. When only one walrus is being rehabilitated, their caretakers stand in as their temporary buddies. This is one of my favorite parts of my job!
The hardest part is knowing no matter how hard you try, how many hours or medicines or fluids or compassion, you just can’t save them all. Another hard aspect is that our jobs truly are around the clock, every hour of the day, no matter what day it is. This means we miss a lot of time with our friends, pets and families to ensure these animals get the care that they need to survive. However, the ones we can save — the animals we see go from nearly dying to a healthy weight, eating solids and watching their personalities develop — those are the ones that make me love my job and make me thankful to be a part of their second chance at life.
I have two memories that are tied for most memorable. First is when Aku was healthy enough to be in an outdoor enclosure, I had the absolute pleasure of bottle feeding him under STEVE (Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement). Think of it like the Northern lights, but it is basically a strong white/purple ribbon in the night sky. So surreal! It was the last time I sat with Aku to keep him company, and he just peed all over my leg. Joke’s on me for not wearing slicks, but thankfully we always have spare clothes at work.
There are only a handful of walrus left in human care in the United States. While Pacific walrus are not currently labeled as a threatened species, they are suffering catastrophic habitat loss from Arctic sea ice disappearing at a record rate. Male walrus need sea ice around 2 feet thick to haul out and rest. They are having to swim farther and rest less between foraging trips, causing them to expend more calories than they are taking in. There could be a point in the near future to see a world that doesn’t have walruses in it. I hope Aku’s story and his amazing personality cause you to fall in love with not just him but his species. I hope he inspires everyone to want to help conserve the planet that we all share so that for generations to come, no one has to live in a world without walrus.
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