Snuggling with a baby walrus feels like being pinned under a warm, very chubby person who is wearing a damp velour jumpsuit that smells faintly, almost pleasantly, like low tide.
It's kind of nice, say the people here who do it every day, though there's also an element of risk. Even as babies, walruses weigh hundreds of pounds. (Full grown, they're heavier than a Honda Civic.) You need to watch it, or you'll be trapped until someone can lure them off you.
I visited 4-month-old walruses Pakak and Mitik at the Alaska SeaLife Center last week. I thought they would be aloof or afraid when I approached, like you'd expect from any wild animal. But they lumbered right over to me and photographer Marc Lester and smacked us with their velvety bowling ball heads. Then they started barking. They sounded like a couple of smokers hacking into a megaphone.
Eventually, Mitik, who weighs about 250 pounds, went back to lying on one of the center's lab techs. Pakak, who weighs 350 pounds, galumphed after us, snorting at my notebook and nosing Marc's camera. If we crouched, he crawled up and pressed himself onto us. He wanted to cuddle. Baby walruses are hyper-social and love to be touched. They're obsessive spooners. The only thing they like better than snuggling is slurping milk from a giant baby bottle. They'll bond to anything that moves.
Videos of baby walruses cuddling with people and each other are why the Internet was invented. Pakak and Mitik have only been in captivity since July, but have developed a sizeable YouTube following. Their most popular video has more than 150,000 views. And that's nothing compared to how famous they will soon be.
Both leave Alaska on Wednesday — Pakak to the Indianapolis Zoo and Mitik to the New York Aquarium in Brooklyn. (Price tag to Fed Ex a
baby walrus across country? Between $10,000 to $15,000.) Both have public relations teams waiting. They appeared in Wednesday's New York Times.
Pakak, Mitik, and a walrus calf that later died were apparently left behind as a herd drifted off
Barrow in July. Local residents rescued them.
"We figure (leaving baby walruses behind) is probably a common situation," said SeaLife Center President Tara Riemer Jones. "It just happened close to a community this time."
Pacific walruses, an estimated 200,000 of them, migrate along with the southern edge of pack ice from the Bering Sea to the Chukchi and Beaufort seas as it expands and recedes through the seasons. Shrinking ice means less walrus habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recommend they be protected under the Endangered Species Act. There are only seven facilities in the U.S. that house the abandoned animals, Jones told me. Walruses have to live with other walruses, she said.
Pakak and Mitik were 4 to 6 weeks old when they lost track of their herd, she said. Pakak got wound up in some fishing nets. Mitik tried to climb into a boat, Jones said.
Walruses live off mothers' milk for the first couple of years. Separated from their mothers, they can't survive.
The Sealife Center organized the transport to Seward and subsequent care, financed in part through donations from Conoco Phillips Alaska, BP and Shell, she said. Since the center stopped getting earmarks from Congress, it's been reliant on donations, Jones said. Oil companies have a stake in supporting Alaska marine mammal rescue as part of oil spill readiness, Jones said.
Pakak, whose name means "one that gets into everything" in Inupiaq, was healthy, but Mitik, who was named for the daughter of a seal hunter who found the animal, had an infection and other complications, Jones said. They have been in Seward for about two and a half months.
Staff members tend Pakak and Mitik around the clock, feeding them a special walrus formula developed at SeaWorld every four hours. A large percentage of time is devoted to cuddling them. The walruses sleep about 12 hours a day.
If caregivers want them to move to another room, they all just get up and leave. The walruses follow.
"They don't want to be left alone," Jones said.
They were infants when they came to the center. Now they're approaching toddlerhood. As they've gotten older, the snuggling has gotten more complicated because the walruses are getting bigger by the day. The night before my visit, Jones spent some time caring for them, she said.
"The big guy was sitting on top of me," she said. "I couldn't get up until feeding time."
Pakak, the big guy, sniffed my pockets like a golden retriever. Earlier, he'd parked himself in front of the door between the main walrus room and a caretaker office, trapping his vet in the office until he got distracted, pushing a stool around with his nose.
Shauna Gallagher, a trainer from Indianapolis, has been working with him for several weeks, getting him accustomed to his travel cage. She wore rain bibs, raincoat and boots. Pakak eased into her lap and started gumming her knee cap through her pant leg. He's teething, she said. His tusk buds just came in. She invited me to feel his whiskers. They are exquisitely sensitive, she said. Each is a direct line to nerve endings. I ran my hand along his scrub-brushy face, the lids drooped on his pink eyes.
Mitik stirred from his nap, resting on the lap of Robert Walton, a Sealife Center lab tech. He pressed his muzzle into Walton's palm.
"Most dogs don't even want to get this close," Walton said.
Gallagher took Pakak to his own small enclosure. The trainers are trying to get them used to spending time apart. Each will go through a 30-day quarantine period before they are introduced to walruses at their new homes. Pakak joins a female walrus whose companion died recently, Jones said. Mitik will join two female walruses in New York. In their separate spaces, the baby walruses sucked down bottles in what seemed like seconds.
After that, I watched Mitik shamble over to his tank, testing the water with his nose before sliding in. Everything awkward about a walrus body on land melts away in water. Wrinkly flab goes aerodynamic. Mitik moved like a bullet. He dove and rolled, spraying water out of his nostrils. Then he did a headstand, wiggling his flippers in the air like a little kid at the pool.
Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Read her blog at adn.com/jomalley, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at www.twitter.com/adn_jomalley.