With round-the-clock care and cuddles, an orphaned walrus starts to rebound

SEWARD — Katy Valentine sat on a grate over the damp floor of a quarantine area at the Alaska SeaLife Center, holding hands with a baby walrus's flipper. The velvety 1-month-old pressed his whiskery nose into her sleeve and nuzzled her arm with his toothless gums.

This is the fun part of Valentine's job as an animal care specialist, she said, and she's loving every minute.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she said of the time she's spending with a species few get the chance to work with so closely.

"This guy is an amazing learning opportunity as well," Valentine added, smiling at the animal's movements and noises like a dog lover does with a puppy.

Valentine is one of several SeaLife Center employees who rotate in and out of the room to care for the orphaned walrus, which has been in their care since June 17. Two people stay in quarantine with the yet-to-be-named male calf 24 hours a day, to keep him hydrated, nourished, medicated and monitored.

But walruses are uniquely social, so the SeaLife animal care staff must provide another service: "tactile feedback" that the orphan might otherwise get from his mother while hauled out in a herd.

In other words, someone is on hand to cuddle the baby walrus around the clock.

Brett Long, husbandry director for the SeaLife Center, said the calf was "severely compromised" when he came to the Seward center. He had crawled onto a mining barge outside Nome, where gold miners discovered him on June 14. Seeing no mother around, the crew reported the orphan to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Progress was slow, but the animal — which was dehydrated, weak and lethargic when he arrived in Seward — began to respond to tube feeding and medications. Long said the calf reached an important milestone last week when he learned to drink from a bottle.

Last week, Long held the high-fat formula as the walrus drank. The calf then splashed slowly through a red kiddie pool of water before drinking the rest. High above on the wall, SeaLife Center visitors watched through a window and smiled at the adorable, wrinkly creature as a staff interpreter explained what they were seeing.

The walrus now weighs 142 pounds, which is 22 more than when he arrived. The calf's not out of the woods yet, but Long says the fact that he moves around to investigate his enclosure, and perks up when he senses it's time for a feeding, is a good sign.

"He's starting to get a little energy back now," Long said.

The SeaLife Center took in the animal as part of its Wildlife Response Program, which takes reports of sick, injured and orphaned marine animals statewide. The walrus is one of several animals the team is currently caring for. At the moment, others include a ringed seal, two harbor seals and a sea otter.

But a walrus calf is an uncommon opportunity, Long said.

"The SeaLife Center's Wildlife Response Program has been active for about 20 years, and we've seen about 10 walrus calves in that time," he said. This is the first since 2012, he said.

Although the calf can't be released into the wild because he won't have the skills to survive, SeaLife staff are making the most of their time with him. Long said they're testing his blood and recording his caloric needs and growth rates, information that could help biologists who work with the species.

Down the hall in a SeaLife Center lab, staff scientist Katrina Counihan said the calf will assist her research into the diets of walruses in the wild.

Her ongoing project analyzes DNA from scat samples for a better understanding of what clams and fish walruses eat. Better baseline data should help scientists understand if and how the walrus diet changes with sea ice conditions in the future.

A walrus in captivity would help validate the study's testing procedure and provide a negative control for the DNA analysis.

Last week, Long straightened the animal, which was flopped against Valentine's leg. The walrus protested with baritone grumbles and woofs as Long wrapped a tape measure around his body.

Soon, SeaLife Center staff will determine a name for the calf.

"We'll likely try to work with either the community up in Nome, or with some of our visitors or our staff to come up with a name that's very appropriate and represents where he came from," Long said.

Eight zoo and aquarium facilities in the U.S. are equipped to potentially provide the walrus a permanent home, according to SeaLife Center spokeswoman Jennifer Gibbins. No decision has been made yet about where he will go.

In the meantime, the two-person round-the-clock watch is likely to continue for several more weeks. It's an exciting time for the staff, but it means long days and nights in a cool, damp room, Long said. Care staff must change clothes upon entering and shower upon leaving the quarantined space.

It's fulfilling work, but tiring, Long said.

Valentine will take all she can get of the walrus-cuddling part of her job. She gave his chin gentle scratches, then the charismatic pinniped resumed sucking on her upper arm as she sat with the orphan in his circular enclosure.

"When I'm not in here, I'm constantly thinking about being in here," she said.