Walrus pup rescued in Alaska needs 24/7 human cuddling

August 10, 2023

The walrus pup was writhing slowly on the frozen ground of an Alaskan oil field, and it was clearly in distress. About four miles inland from the Beaufort Sea, a worker saw the 150-pound calf on the North Slope tundra near a road running through a ConocoPhillips oil field. The baby Pacific walrus was alone, and there were no adult walruses in sight, reports The Washington Post.

Walrus pups in the wild rely on near-constant maternal care in their first two years of life, so the orphaned calf was clearly in trouble. After consulting with several wildlife agencies, ConocoPhillips airlifted the dehydrated walrus about 700 miles for treatment to the Alaska SeaLife Center’s Wildlife Response Program in Seward, said Carrie Goertz, a veterinarian who is director of animal health at the center.

“It’s unusual to get a walrus here. We’ve only had ten of them [in 25 years],” Goertz said. “We don’t know how this particular baby became separated from his mother, but we knew that he wouldn’t survive without immediate intervention.”

He’d apparently been out there for a while because he was in starvation mode,” Goertz added about the pup, which was found on July 31.

She and her staff quickly put together a plan to care for the walrus, which included antibiotics for a possible infection, treating him for dehydration and bottle-feeding him one liter of formula every three hours.

And there was one more critical element: The baby walrus would need to have someone available to cuddle with him, 24/7.

“Walruses are incredibly social,” Goertz explained. “Walruses love lying up against each other, so we want to emulate that closeness the best that we can.”

Veterinary staff members have been taking turns sitting next to the whiskered marine mammal, so he can snuggle up next to them if he wants to. He spends about 75% of his time sleeping.

“He basically cuddles us,” Goertz said. “We leave it up to him to decide, and he usually wants to. He’s also taking a bottle well, and that’s making his care a lot easier.”

Since August 1, veterinary assistant Hanna Beane has been working eight-hour shifts bottle feeding and cuddling the calf she likes to call a “giant baked potato.”

“He’s really wrinkly and his skin is rough, and he seriously does remind me of a baked potato,” said Beane, 30. “I especially love his whiskers.”

Beane said the walrus usually rests his head and one flipper in her lap while he’s napping.“Honestly, to have him lean up against you while he’s sleeping is magical,” she said.

She and other caregivers position themselves so the baby walrus can’t roll over on them and cause accidental injuries. Staff members say they’ll take additional safety measures as he grows.

The calf will be cared for and monitored carefully for several months before he is healthy enough to send to a wildlife facility or zoo somewhere in the Lower 48, Goertz said.

“In the wild, he would spend up to two years with his mother, and she’d be teaching him to be the best walrus he can be,” she said. “But he doesn’t have that, so as he gets healthier, we’ll be working with people to determine the best placement for him.”

It’s a mystery how the calf ended up four miles inland, but Alaskan wildlife biologist Anthony Fischbach says there are a few possible scenarios.

“Typically, the female is always with her calf, so something could have happened to her,” he said. “Maybe there was a polar bear involved, or an orca—they prey on walruses.”

Research contact: @washingtonpost