Walrus calf saved in Alaska headed for Brooklyn

Walrus calf rescued in Alaska is putting on weight, showing pluck and headed to Big Apple

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 October, 2012, 4:01am

How do you transport a 106kg baby to New York? If he's a 15-week-old walrus rescued from the open ocean off Alaska, the answer is a jumbo-size crate aboard a FedEx cargo jet, accompanied by a veterinarian and a handler.

"If he's calm and comfortable, no worries," said Jon Forrest Dohlin, director of the New York Aquarium, which will receive the walrus calf, named Mitik, today. "But his needs and comfort come first. So he may very well travel with his head in our keeper's lap."

Mitik will arrive at an important moment for the Brooklyn aquarium. Situated just off the Coney Island Boardwalk, the aquarium, part of the Wildlife Conservation Society, is one of only several institutions in the United States that exhibit walruses. One of its two walruses, Nuka, is 30, an old-timer by walrus standards.

Because walruses are such social animals, the aquarium would be hard-pressed to keep the other walrus, the 17-year-old female Kulu, were Nuka to die.

"Our concern is that our very elderly walrus could pass away, as these things go," Dohlin said, "and that would leave us in a pickle because we really wouldn't want to have a solitary animal."

Since late July, Mitik and a second orphaned walrus, Pakak, have been nursed to health with bottle feedings and exercise at the Alaska SeaLife Centre, an aquarium in Seward that conducts research and responds to strandings of marine mammals. (Pakak, nicknamed Pak, will arrive at the Indianapolis Zoo tomorrow.) Mitik - or Mit, for short - was weak from illness and smaller than Pakak when he was found by a hunting vessel several kilometres offshore.

Mit initially suffered from bladder problems and could not take a bottle, requiring both a catheter and feeding tube. But he is now sucking assertively from a bottle and putting on 1kg every two days.

"It was very touch-and-go for several weeks," said Dr Tara Riemer Jones, president of the SeaLife Centre. "They were treating him for a lot of different things."

With his multiple chins and doleful expression, Mit is exhibiting an undeniable pluck that should serve him well in his new surroundings. Martha Hiatt, the aquarium's behavioural husbandry supervisor, travelled to Alaska to help care for him. At first, she said, Pakak totally dominated him, but no longer.

"If Mit is resting with his head on my lap, sucking my fingers, looking sweetly into my eyes, and Pak comes anywhere near us, he pops up, yells at Pak and tries to head-butt him," she said.

"Then he'll turn to me and be all cuddly again. We say he's small, but scrappy - the perfect New Yorker."

There remains the possibility the relationship between Mit and Kulu may become more than platonic. Whether sparks fly in the May-December mating period, remains to be seen.

"Kulu is a proven breeder," Dohlin said. "But it's not clear that she would still be of reproductive age. What's driving this is Mit's rescue. He's an orphaned calf, and we have the room and expertise. It's a great opportunity for him and meets a number of our goals."