“This is way different than a horse, right?” said Dr. Mindy Smith, as she positioned a portable X-ray machine over a drowsy but wiggly otter pup at the Downtown Aquarium in Denver. The CSU Equine Field Service intern had an unusual assignment for a horse doctor: examine 3-month-old otters for signs of metabolic bone disease using a portable digital radiograph.
The two wild river otter pups were abandoned in Alaska and didn’t receive adequate nutrition as babies, resulting in weakened bones. Aquarium curators consulted with Dr. Terry Campbell, CSU professor of avian, exotic and zoological medicine, and they devised a plan to build up the otters’ strength through a diet of shrimp, trout and smelt, physical therapy, and plenty of playtime.
The North American river otters, Emilia and Olivia, are now almost 6 months old and will make their public debut this weekend at the aquarium’s Otter Weekend event. “The girls,” as the aquarium staff calls them, join Slater, 18, Emmet, 6, and Olive, a 9-month-old rescued from a Florida gas station. (For aquarium otter fans: Wildlife rehabilitators in Florida thought the pup was male, but Campbell and the Denver curators confirmed that “Oliver” is actually female, hence the name change.)
“Nothing is more cruel than Mother Nature, but my staff said, ‘We can get these animals over the hump,’” said Jim Prappas, director of animal operations for Landry’s, the aquarium’s parent company. “We are trying improve their quality of life – that’s the whole purpose of wildlife rehabilitation. For us, it was the right thing to do.”
For Smith and her colleagues, the otters offered a chance to work with a “way different” species than their usual hooved patients. “We were surprised,” said Jess Martin, a fourth-year veterinary student who plans to specialize in equine medicine. “On the equine service, we move from farm to farm every day, so this was not something you would expect. That’s what’s great about veterinary medicine, it’s so diverse.”
The CSU Equine Field Service often uses a portable digital radiograph machine to diagnose orthopedic problems in horses, so Smith and her students were called in to X-ray the otters to determine the extent of their metabolic bone disease. It’s a familiar scenario at Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital: Clinicians – and the students under their wings – are called in to help assess and treat animal patients, regardless of species, if the area of medical expertise fits the need. Thus, specialized equipment and orthopedic knowledge may be applied to help both horses and otters.
“The exciting thing about working with CSU is that they helped evaluate their diet, and worked on the physical therapy,” said LynnLee Schmidt, the aquarium’s curator of birds and mammals.
Unique learning opportunity
Colorado State’s animal rehabilitation specialist Sasha Foster had already been treating Slater’s arthritis with cold laser therapy and exercises to flex his spine and bear weight on his legs. Christine Montgomery, assistant curator of birds and mammals, said the old man otter seems to be feeling better and is cooperating with his trainers to do his exercises more often.
When the babies arrived, Foster and CSU orthopaedics professor Dr. Nic Lambrechts worked with the aquarium staff to help the otters build up strength in their legs. Using bits of fish and clicker training, keepers entice the otters to run up a narrow wooden chute that forces the pups to run correctly – with their legs underneath them, rather than splayed out. Emilia and Olivia also train on a giant green “hamster wheel” designed for domestic cats, and push a skateboard around their backstage digs.
“I think the therapy helped speed their recovery,” said Campbell. Little did the otters know they were also providing a unique learning opportunity for CSU’s veterinarians-in-training.
“My passion in veterinary medicine has always been exotic and zoo animals, so it was an amazing opportunity to work with these adorable otter kits,” said fourth-year veterinary student Nikki Sahagun, who ran the anesthesia on the wiggly pups so they would hold still for the x-rays. “That was a great hands-on learning experience that I may not get elsewhere.”