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Wounded by shotgun, sea otter fights for survival at Vancouver Aquarium

Lindsaye Akhurst, Vancouver Aquarium marine mammal rescue manager, blow-dries and grooms an injured sea otter after medical procedures.

Neil Fisher/Vancouver Aquarium

An adult sea otter found with severe gunshot wounds to its head and body is fighting for its life after being rescued by the Vancouver Aquarium rescue centre.

Veterinarian Martin Haulena said the animal was rescued last Friday near Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It was blinded and in very rough shape.

The sea otter was found by people who described the animal as being very approachable and friendly – a sign that something was very wrong, as sea otters tend to be aggressive, Dr. Haulena said.

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After bringing the wounded animal to the Vancouver Aquarium's rescue centre for treatment, Dr. Haulena said it was obvious from radiographs that it had been shot with a shotgun from some distance.

"There were dozens of bird-shot pellets throughout him, that's obviously the reason for his blindness," Dr. Haulena told reporters Tuesday. "A lot of the pellets were concentrated over his face and front limbs, but there were pellets on his hind limbs and his tail."

The sea otter is now receiving around-the-clock care following several medical procedures. One of its flippers was severely lacerated, and the veterinary team had to amputate a digit. One of its eyes is now permanently blind and the team is not sure whether the other damaged eye can ever see clearly again, Dr. Haulena said.

"One of his big problems is he has very severe anemia," he said. "That's probably from primary blood loss, but it's also probably just because he's been sick and unable to forage for some weeks … that's probably how old the wounds are; we're looking at weeks, not days."

Dr. Haulena said he doesn't know why the sea otter was shot, but it's possible that some people saw it as a "competitor for different resources."

"[Sea otters] don't tend to go after fin fish so much, but they do certainly go after things like urchins, shellfish, crabs … so I'm sure that some people perceive them as competitors for some resources," he said.

Despite the severity of its injuries, which has affected its ability to groom, Haulena said the sea otter is eating well.

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On Wednesday, it was seen swimming in a tank at the Vancouver Aquarium's rescue centre, twirling occasionally. It often rubbed its head and Dr. Haulena suggested it might be trying to deal with the pain in its face or to groom itself.

Even though the sea otter appears to be recovering, Haulena said it remains in critical condition and it is too early to tell whether the animal can be released into the wild again.

"I think we have a long way to go," he said. "The anemia is extremely concerning. He's got some digestive upsets as well that I'm concerned about, and we don't know all the damage that all the pellets could have done, or all the secondary damage that happened as a result of being debilitated and not being [able to] feed himself."

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