The Maymont family is grieving the loss of Ella, the female North American river otter, who died unexpectedly on Sunday, April 8. Ella was transported on Saturday from her habitat in The Robins Nature and Visitor Center at Maymont to Wellesley Animal Hospital, where many of Maymont’s animals receive veterinary care, for an oral/dental exam as well as an overall exam. She was exhibiting behaviors that were indicative of tooth sensitivity and pain. Sadly, she did not survive the procedure due to complications while under anesthesia.
“Ella was a spunky and energetic girl,” recalled Maymont Aquarist, Delaney Sheire. “She never failed to put a smile on my face, especially when playing with clam shells and straw piles.”
Dr. Kelly Gottschalk, the veterinarian in charge of the procedure, said that since arriving at Maymont, Ella has received excellent care. In fact, specialized training by Maymont professionals has mitigated the stress associated with medical procedures for Ella and many other rescued wild animals that live at the estate.
“The staff had been preparing Ella for any possible medically necessary procedures,” said Dr. Gottschalk. “This preparation included good nutrition and training. Ella was trained to lie down in a plastic tube so that she could be radiographed without any sedation, and she was accustomed to entering a confined area to receive injections.”
Maymont is home to hundreds of animals, many of which have been injured, orphaned or otherwise cannot live in the wild. While maintaining a sanctuary for animals in need, the staff also has prioritized animal training in recent years. The training is considered an enrichment activity based on natural behaviors. Rescued animals like Ella, with an unknown history and no former veterinary care, may exhibit anxiety and fear when handled for treatment. The Maymont trainers work to make the interactions easier for the animals and their care providers.
A preliminary necropsy did not indicate any abnormalities. Maymont is awaiting the results of an in-depth laboratory necropsy that will include analysis of brain tissue. Dr. Gottschalk explained the events from her perspective: “We experienced an emergency during her anesthesia for the root canals. Her heart stopped unexpectedly and there was a quick buildup of carbon dioxide. She was on monitoring equipment and an anesthetic machine and she had an intravenous catheter in place, so we were able to respond quickly to ventilate the carbon dioxide off. Her heart restarted spontaneously and returned to normal rhythm. It appeared that the incident was short and she was stabilized, but we believe she suffered a brain injury as a result of the episode. She never fully recovered and passed away the next day in spite of doing everything possible to support her.”
Ella, along with her male otter companion, Louis, arrived at Maymont last May after they were found raiding crayfish farms in their home state of Louisiana. Local authorities in Louisiana categorized them as “nuisances” to be removed from the wild, and with assistance from state game and fisheries officials and partner zoos and aquariums, Maymont was able to rescue the pair.
Louis will continue to live in the otter habitat at the Nature Center where he will be carefully monitored and provided with special enrichments from the animal keepers to keep him stimulated. Maymont officials will evaluate procedures for care before beginning the search for a new companion for Louis.
Otters are semi-aquatic members of the family Mustelidae, cousins to weasels, badgers, ferrets and mink. They can be found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia. There are 13 species of otters; the ones native to this area, including Ella, are river otters (Lontra canadensis). In Virginia, their habitat includes the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and the rivers, lakes, and marshes along the Bay watershed. They are identified by their elongated body, short legs and long tail. They can swim at speeds up to six miles an hour, dive to depths of 60 feet, and stay submerged for more than four minutes.