The Seattle Aquarium has a new sea otter pup named Mishka – that’s “little bear” in Russian. She was orphaned in Alaska last July, after she got caught in a fishing net.
Now she's getting used to her new home. At the aquarium earlier this week, Dr. Lesanna Lahner stands among throngs of elementary school kids.
“What kind of animal is that?” asks one little girl. "It's a sea otter, a little baby sea otter," Lahner says.
Lahner nods to Mishka behind the glass and explains what she's doing now. The sea otter pup is undergoing a beauty parlor type treatment. A biologist is fluffing her fur, blowing it dry with a blow dryer and combing out little knots.
Clean fur is crucial, Lahner says, because if her coat is compromised, she can’t thermo-regulate.
“She’s in there all fluffy and happy and eating. That makes me happy,” she says.
The signs to watch are really quite simple: “Eating, sleeping and pooping. Really just like a baby.”
In a lot of ways, Mishka is just like a human baby. She drinks formula from a bottle. She plays. And just like the mom of a newborn, Lahner is sleep deprived. She’s been with Mishka almost around the clock.
“They are really cute little critters,” Lahner says. But also, “it’s important not to anthropomorphize too much, because it may not be the best thing for the animal.”
A sea otter needs things that sea otters need, Lahner says, not needs they might have if they were human. Like, say, cuddling.
“People will, for example, hug their dogs, whereas for a dog that’s almost a dominant body language that you’re telling them to submit or something," she says. "A lot of dogs, if you watch their body language when you do that, their eyes get wide and they're like, ‘Oh my gosh what have I done wrong?’”
Mishka has fallen asleep to the fur fluffing, which she finds soothing. She seems to wake up for a second, sigh, and go back to sleep. “Ohhh, deep breath! There you go,” says Lahner, her voice rising.
It’s a combination of adoring this creature but remembering it is a wild animal. “It’s cute,” Lahner says. “She’s a cute baby otter. It’s impossible not to think so."
Within the next week, if she's still doing well, Mishka will meet other sea otters for the first time since she was orphaned. That will be a huge moment. That's when her new life will really begin.