NEW YORK — A team of 15 is caring for him around the clock. His favorite toy is a large plastic bucket. He has taken swimmingly to a large pool. And on Friday, he had his first taste of solid food – surf clams.
“He's hitting every milestone we're hoping to see,” said John Forrest Dohlin, director of the New York Aquarium in Coney Island, Brooklyn, part of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “He still has some issues with his bladder, but they are trending in the right direction. Behaviorally, he's doing great and we're feeling good about his progress.”
He was describing Mitik, or Mit for short, one of two walrus calves separated from a herd and orphaned in Alaska in July. The Alaska SeaLife Center took them in and found new homes for each. (The other walrus, Pakak, went to the Indianapolis Zoo.) The New York Aquarium, eager for a young companion for its two older walruses, stepped up, flying a staff member, Martha Hiatt, to Alaska to work with Mit for a month.
On Oct. 11, Hiatt, the aquarium's behavioral husbandry supervisor, along with a veterinarian, accompanied Mit on a FedEx cargo jet from Anchorage to Newark, N.J. The walrus, believed to be about 16 weeks old, stayed in his crate during the six-hour flight.
“It was loud,” Hiatt said of the trip. “He pretty much sang to us the entire time. We stayed with him, talked to him and hosed him off now and then.”
At the aquarium this week, Mit has adapted to his new environment, a state-of-the-art medical facility built in 2008 that was designed for marine mammals. There is a large, 10-foot-deep pool that is a considerable leap from the one he used in Alaska.
“He's in it from the time he wakes up to the time he goes to sleep,” Hiatt said. “He's a big swimmer. He plays and swims literally until he falls asleep.”
With his curious, playful personality and expressive eyes, it is tempting, aquarium officials say, to think of Mit as a big, slippery toddler. (The giant bottle of formula does not help.) He still needs – and receives – a lot of human contact.
“He likes us to be physical, grab his flippers and roll him over,” Hiatt said. “And he still really loves to snuggle in close.”
But the veterinarian technicians and keepers caring for Mit are trying to dial that physicality back a bit, both for their safety and his own good. For one thing, he now weighs 242 pounds, a size that could start to pose risks for staff members. More important, Mit must begin to identify with his own species, in preparation for his eventual debut in the walrus exhibit.
“We want to make sure that we don't give him so much contact that the day he actually meets his buddies he's more interested in us than the other walruses,” Hiatt said. “He needs to know he's a walrus.”
Still, much of Mit's day consists of play, which helps his development and encourages his cooperation during medical procedures and feedings. One of his favorite activities is to scoop up a giant white bucket with holes on the outside.
“He loves to run around with that on his head and vocalize,” Hiatt said. “I think it echoes. And we put our faces up to the holes and shout in there.”
One interesting quirk of Mit's was his initial aversion to women. At the SeaLife Center in Alaska, he gradually adjusted to his female caregivers, but Hiatt said she thought Mit might regress after the stress of his trek east. So for now, Mit's entourage of trainers, technicians and keepers is entirely female.
“He was rescued by a group of men, and he showed a great preference for men after that,” Hiatt explained.
He had better get used to the opposite sex. Sometime next spring, Mit will join the two other walruses at the aquarium, both females: 30-year-old Nuka and 17-year-old Kulu.