June 29, 2005

Abandoned Walrus Pup Finds New Home

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Word spread fast in the northwest Alaska village of Kivalina: a baby walrus was sitting on the beach, alone, apparently abandoned.

By the time James Booth reached the site, villagers had surrounded the tiny whiskered mammal. Conrad Koenig was feeding it store-bought milk from a baby bottle as one by one, everyone had a chance to pet the pup, which took frequent breaks from its meal to bark at the crowd.

"It's the first time something happened like this that I know of, for a baby walrus to come on shore and just be fed," Booth, 20, said Tuesday. "It was not really too shy."

But there was no way such a young walrus could survive on its own in the region's harsh conditions. So villagers launched an effort Monday that found the female pup a temporary home across the state at the Alaska SeaLife Center, which named her "Bocce" soon after her arrival in Seward early Tuesday.

SeaLife Center officials estimated the 70-pound animal is no more than 10 days old because she still bears a raw umbilical scar. They believe she was abandoned as much as a week ago. She's a bit dehydrated and a little thin, but otherwise in fairly good shape when center staffers started her on a diet of cow milk-based formula.

"The fact that she was on her own for so long is pretty remarkable," said Carrie Goertz, a center veterinarian focusing on animal rehabilitation. Goertz said it's only the third time a young walrus has recovered at the center.

"Walrus pups are intensely social, so intense they become very dependent on people, so they're not releasable," she said in a telephone interview, while Bocce's booming barks could be heard in the background. "We'll stabilize her so she can be placed in a permanent home."

In this case, Sea World in San Diego has indicated interest in taking Bocce, which would make her the second Alaska walrus pup rehabilitated at the center to go there, Goertz said.

Bocce was alone when she first washed ashore last week in Kivalina, a community of 390 people about 625 miles northwest of Anchorage. With hunting season over in the area, it's difficult to say what happened to the pup's mother. Some villagers guided the pup back to the Chukchi Sea, but she was back on the beach on Monday, looking thinner.

Koenig spotted the pup on his way to the village dump and figured she could used some sustenance. When he returned with the milk, Koenig had no trouble persuading the animal to take the bottle.

"It was hungry. It looked like the milk tasted good," he said. "It was not afraid of people at all."

Villagers called Alaska State Troopers in Kotzebue, a regional hub about 80 to the southeast. SeaLife Center officials were called, and they agreed to take possession of the walrus, then notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has jurisdiction over the marine mammals.

Officials at the federal agency agreed that the SeaLife Center gave the pup the best chance of survival.

Meanwhile, a local airline - Bering Air - volunteered to fly Bocce to Kotzebue for free Monday evening. From there, Alaska Airlines flew the pup to Anchorage, where SeaLife staffers picked her up for the drive to Seward.

"It easily fit into a large dog kennel," said trooper Sgt. Karl Erickson, who helped watch Bocce the few hours she was in Kotzebue. "Once it tried to crawl out when the kennel door was open, and it was very vocal. It was definitely letting us know it wanted its mommy or it was confused."


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