Tacked to a wall in the Otter Rescue Center, amid thank you notes and poems denouncing Exxon and charcoal drawings of prostrate otters, is a letter from Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper. Other notes on the wall effusively praise the workers at the center for "saving the animals" or urge them to continue their "good work." Cowper's tone is more subdued. He thanks the otter center workers, and wishes them luck in their "Quixotic mission."
And quixotic it is. Exxon has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to save a total of 53 otters. Almost 10 times that many lie frozen in plastic garbage sacks; no one knows how many more carcasses there are on uninhabited beaches or in the blueblack depths of the Sound.
Even the center's director, a Sea World biologist hired by Exxon, says that the rescue effort has been little more than a token gesture.
"In terms of the otter population of Alaska, the numbers we've treated or saved are insignificant," said Randall Davis, director of the Valdez Otter Rescue Center and a biologist at the Sea World Research Institute, the nonprofit arm of a San Diego amusement park and aquarium chain.
Despite pressure from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and environmental groups to build more rescue centers and process more otters, the biologists and veterinarians at the Valdez center have long since given up the notion that their work will save very many animals.
The scientists running the rescue center now see their work as an experiment in otter biology, with the center a huge, makeshift laboratory designed to help them understand what makes the sensitive, little studied animals live and die.
Their hope is that next time, they'll know what to do.
"We've learned a tremendous amount about facilities, management, pathology, toxicology, husbandry, feeding," Davis said. "We'll be better prepared for the next time it happens and it will happen again."
And an oil spill anywhere else otters live could be even more devastating than the one in Prince William Sound. Otter populations outside Alaska are small and could be devastated by a spill a fraction the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster.
Alaska otter populations have rebounded since the turn of the century, when fur traders hunted them almost to extinction. Today more than 150,000 animals live in Alaska waters, including a population of 10,000 to 12,000 in Prince William Sound when the spill hit, said Tom Early, the Fish and Wildlife Service's coordinator for the Seward rescue.
But the number of otters living Outside is much smaller. A few hundred live off Washington state, and only 1,700 of the animals remain in California. The bulk of those live off Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties, near one of the busiest oil tanker lanes in the country. Without the rescue information learned in Alaska, an oil spill could easily wipe out the entire population, said Glenn Van Blaricom, a fish and wildlife service officer from Santa Cruz, Calif.
The Fish and Wildlife Service refuses to guess how much damage has been done to the otter populations in the Sound and along the Kenai Peninsula. In the first week of the spill the it estimated that as many as half the Sound's 10,000 otters would be killed or injured.
The service has since refused to issue any otter death estimates until it can conduct more surveys, said Bruce Batten, service spokesman.
Before the Exxon Valdez spill, no one knew exactly what oil does to otters, or how best to treat them after a spill.
Otters died by the dozen in the two weeks before R.V. Chalam, a toxicologist from the University of San Diego, suggested feeding the otters an activated charcoal mixture called Toxiban. Toxiban, used on farm animals that have eaten pesticides, clings to toxins and helps animals excrete them.
After using Toxiban, otter death rates dropped from 50 percent to about 10 percent, said Suzanne Stolpe, rescue center spokeswoman.
But the laboratory that made this knowledge possible has come with a hefty price tag, and Exxon has balked at extending the experiment.
Exxon officials refuse to say how much the Valdez otter center has cost. But a crew of as many as 30 carpenters worked for three weeks to construct the center's cages and washing pens at an average wage of $17 an hour, according to a spokesman for the Valdez union hall. After two weeks of using volunteers, Exxon hired about 160 workers for $150 a day to tend the animals. At its peak, that would amount to more than $24,000 a day in wages.
That's not counting the fees paid to any of the 21 veterinarians, biologists, pathologists and veterinary technicians that Exxon has flown to Valdez; the food and housing the company supplies those specialists; the fees for renting boats to capture the otters; or leases on the buildings and trailers used on the site.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has been pressuring Exxon to open a second center in Seward. For the past two weeks, as Exxon and Seward city officials wrangled over a lease, otters retrieved off the Kenai Peninsula have been shipped to Valdez. Fish and Wildlife regional director Walt Stieglitz publicly accused Exxon of foot dragging, and said the stress of transport, and of holding otters in inadequate facilities, could kill many more.
"It is unbelievable that a major company that has created such a massive adverse impact on natural resources can assume such a nonchalant attitude on this matter," Stieglitz said in a written statement Monday.
Stieglitz was in Juneau and unavailable for comment Tuesday. Batten said the agency would require every reasonable effort to save as many otters as possible.
"It's like the whale story," said Batten, referring to the million dollar rescue of two California gray whales caught in the ice near Barrow last winter. "You don't really want to compare dollars spent to otters saved. As an agency, we have to do what we can do to save as many animals as possible."
Batten expected the Seward center to be open later this week. Citizens in Homer and Kodiak have also set up smaller rescue centers, although how much of the cost Exxon will pay is still unclear.
Although bird rescues have been organized and carried out with decidedly limited success for more than 20 years, the Prince William Sound oil spill is the first time a large otter population has encountered oil.
Biologists knew otters would be at particular risk in an oil spill because the animals' fur provides its only insulation. Once the fur is dirtied, otters become hypothermic and die. They also don't seem to avoid oil a fact that makes wildlife workers wonder what will happen when some of the 15 animals ready for release are let loose near Cordova this week.
"We'll be tracking them with radio tags attached to their flippers to see if they try to go back to the areas they usually frequent," Batten said. "Potentially, they could be exposed to the oil again." The sea otter's homing instinct is well documented. Some animals that have been transported away from their traditional ranges in California swam more than 200 miles including 70 miles across open water, where they were unable to feed back to their original homes.
"They'll return virtually to the exact capture point, right down to the right kelp plant," said Fish and Wildlife's Van Blaricom.
There are other reasons scientists are reluctant to release the rescued animals into the Sound.
Many biologists connected with the rescue say further research is necessary to track the oil's long term effects, such as genetic and reproductive damage. That would require that some of the otters spend the rest of their lives in captivity, and that others swim around the Sound with cigarette pack sized radio transmitters implanted in their bellies.
"We have no idea what the long term effect of oil really is, whether there is chromosome damage, whether they'll be able to produce viable young," said Gil Hewlett, a biologist and general curator at the nonprofit Vancouver Aquarium, one of five facilities that has accepted rescued otters. "I think it would be a shame not to know."