Toola may not be a household name, but she made quite an impression on the staff of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where she lived most of her adult life.
Just look at how Dr. Mike Murray, an aquarium veterinarian, described the sea otter:
"I will argue that there is no other single sea otter that had a greater impact upon the sea otter species, the sea otter programs worldwide, and upon the interface between the sea otters' scientific community and the public."
Toola was the first captive otter to ever serve as a surrogate mother. And that changed the way researchers rehabilitated injured otters. In the past, otters could not be released to the wild because they had grown too accustomed to interactions with humans. Toola changed all that and she also inspired legislation that created the California Sea Otter Fund, which supports research into "disease and other threats facing sea otters in the wild."
Toola died early Saturday morning. She was thought to be 15 or 16 years old.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium says Toola was rescued when she was about 5 years old. She was found pregnant and stranded on a beach, suffering from a neurological disorder caused by a parasite that is spread by cat feces.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that shortly after her rescue, Toola gave birth to a stillborn pup. But at the same time, the aquarium received a pup that was only two weeks old and that's when "Toola's motherhood miracle happened."
The Chronicle reports:
"Toola didn't hesitate. She nursed the orphaned pup like he was her own, taught him to open clamshells with rocks, how to eat a crab without getting pinched, and other tricks of sea otter life.
"That pup, raised by Toola instead of humans, was able to return to the Pacific, where he's now king of a pack at Elkhorn Slough and has fathered countless pups himself."
"Toola was without question the most important animal in the history of our program," Andrew Johnson, manager of the Aquarium's Sea Otter Research and Conservation program, said in a statement. "She showed us that captive otters could successfully raise orphaned pups for return to the wild. She inspired a critical piece of legislation that is helping protect sea otters. And she inspired millions of visitors to care more about sea otters. We will miss her."
Toola could never be released into the wild herself, because she required twice-daily medication to control her convulsions. But she raised 13 pups over the years, 11 of which have been released to the wild.
The San Jose Mercury News reports that her keepers first noticed something was wrong on Wednesday, and by Thursday blood work showed a problem with her kidneys. When vets treated her, "she appeared to bounce back." The staff said Toola cared for her last pup until Friday. The staff left her on Saturday at 2:45 a.m. thinking she was stable, but when they came back at 6 a.m., she had passed.
"Toola did what she has always done. She went out her way on her terms, and I believe died with dignity," Murray told the Mercury News. "May we all be blessed to go out the same way."