Correction: Mae was the first surrogate mother to raise a pup on exhibit, but other otters preceded her as surrogate mothers at the aquarium. An earlier version of this story and headline were incorrect.
Otter lovers will be missing "Mae," a popular 11-year-old California sea otter at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, who died suddenly Saturday.
Rescued as a two-day-old pup near Santa Cruz in 2001, she became the first otter to raise a pup on exhibit during her life at the aquarium, said spokesman Ken Peterson.
Mae had seizures for several days before she died, said Peterson. Although laboratory test results were normal, her seizures became more frequent and she didn't respond to intensive veterinary care, he said.
She passed her routine physical exam without problem two months ago. It will be several days before necropsy results are available from Melissa Miller, wildlife veterinarian for the Department of Fish and Game.
"She loved big buckets," said senior sea otter aquarist Cecelia Azhderian in a statement. "She could hardly wait for them to be filled with water before she'd get inside ..."
Although Mae was named after a truck-stop waitress in John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath," her caretakers nicknamed her "Mayhem." The mischievous otter would make eye contact with and stick her tongue out at trainers when displeased, staff members said.
The sea otter staff also called Mae "the monkey" because she would hold objects like ice molds and toys with her tail, leaving her paws open to accept whatever came next, said Chris DeAngelo, associate curator of marine mammals. It was a trick she passed on to some of the pups she raised, DeAngelo said.
Mae leaves exhibit otters 12-year-old Rosa, and 5-year-old Abby. Neither of these otters has shown any signs of sickness, said Peterson. Both have the "surrogate skills" needed to teach an orphaned pup to fend for itself.
Otters can give birth to pups any time during the year. But, when the winter storms start, pups are more likely to get separated from their "mom," he said.
In February 2010, Mae served as a companion for Kit, an 11-week old southern sea otter.
"We'll all miss her terribly," DeAngelo said in a statement.
It's been a difficult year for sea otter friends at the aquarium, said Peterson. Former exhibit-mates Joy and Toola, died earlier this year of complications from old age.
"There are kids who grew up with these otters," he said.
Mae's fans have posted more than 200 messages on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Facebook page.
The sea otter exhibit is closed for renovations and will reopen in mid-March.
Elizabeth Devitt can be reached at 684-1188 or email@example.com