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Orphaned Alaska walrus to find home at New York aquarium

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Posted: Wednesday, October 10, 2012 6:58 am

NEW YORK - How do you transport a 234-pound baby to New York City? 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, on Thursday. "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 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 Center, an aquarium in Seward that conducts research and responds to strandings of marine mammals. (Pakak, nicknamed Pak, will arrive at the Indianapolis Zoo on Thursday.) Mitik - or Mit, for short - was weak from illness and considerably smaller than Pakak when he was found by a hunting vessel several miles 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 a pound a day.

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

With his multiple chins and doleful expression, Mit is also exhibiting an undeniable pluck that should serve him well in his new surroundings. Martha Hiatt, the aquarium's behavioral husbandry supervisor, traveled to Alaska in September 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 is small, but scrappy - the perfect New Yorker."

At the New York Aquarium on Tuesday, Mit's future companions were gliding back and forth under spitting skies, doing graceful flip turns in their boulder-flecked pool - or at least as graceful as creatures of their girth can manage. Kulu weighs in at 1,278 pounds, and Nuka at 1,850.

The two females will not meet Mit for some months, however. He will spend the first 30 days in quarantine inside the aquarium's medical facility.

''The period of quarantine might be extended because he's nursing and we'll have to wean him," said Dohlin, explaining that Mit will graduate to clams, squid and herring. He will join the exhibit next spring, after he has had a chance to meet and interact with Kulu and Nuka.

The society's conservative approach stems, in part, from a painful loss in 2009 when Kulu's only offspring - a male bred and reared at the aquarium - died after developing a bacterial infection.

''Births in captivity are exceedingly rare and our guy made it to two years," Dohlin said. "It was crushing."

Whether sparks eventually fly between Mit and Kulu, in what would be a decidedly May-December mating, 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."

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