From Barrow To The Big Cities: The Story Behind Two Orphan Walruses

You may recall stories recently about two Alaska walrus pups going to new homes in big city zoos.

The pudgy cute faces of Patak and Mitik were seen nationwide as the youngsters made their way to Indianapolis and New York City zoos.

National reports indicated they were rescued from the ocean off Alaska.  But that’s a pretty big place.

KTOO’s Rosemarie Alexander narrowed it down with the help of a former Juneau resident who lives in Barrow and visited with one of the walrus pups.

On Sunday, July 22nd, Barrow veterinarian Sarah Coburn — also accompanist for the Ukpiaġvik Presbyterian Church choir — was talking about a young walrus at the vet clinic that had been found hanging around a fisherman’s net near town.

“So Cathy and I jumped in the car and ran over.  They were basically packing him up getting ready to stick him on one of the air cargo planes to send him down to Seward,” Anderegg said.

When stories of the two walrus pups hit the news last week, Anderegg sent KTOO a picture.

“All of a sudden, man it  just like hit the news and I was seeing it everywhere,” he said.

All  these articles said  the pups had been rescued from the ocean of Alaska.  Anderegg said that’s why he emailed the picture to his hometown station.  “I thought we should get some credit here,” Anderegg said.

Patak was one of three walruses to be rescued from Barrow area beaches over a two-week period in late June and early July.

Dr. Robert Suydam is a wildlife biologist for the North Slope Borough.

“Three or four days, five days before the pups were found there was a group of at least a thousand walruses that drifted by on some ice flows, less than a mile off shore on the Chukchi Sea side, so it seems very likely the pups got separated from their mom,” Suydam said.

One walrus pup was quite sick and died within a week, despite intensive veterinary care at Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward.

Suydam rescued the first pup, who was given the Inupiat Eskimo name Patak.

“Patak means to get into things, to mess around with things and he was there hanging around the fishnet, and in fact the first time the fisherman saw him the walrus pup was pulling on the net, so he was Pataking with the net,” Suydam said.

He said the pup was in pretty good condition, but getting more lethargic by the day.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has management responsibility for stranded marine mammals.  That’s where biologist Joel Garlich-Miller entered the picture.

“The calves are very dependent on their mother for a period two years, so they can’t really survive on their own if they’re abandoned during that critical time,” Garlich-Miller said. “So if we hear of reports of an orphaned animal, we try to assess the situation, give them an opportunity to rejoin a herd if possible, and if that doesn’t seem likely after a period of about 48 hours then we consider capturing the animal for rehabilitation.”

That was the case for both Patak and Mitik.

Dr. Suydam captured Patak with a large round hoop net that he uses for beluga whales, when attaching satellite trackers.

“So I basically snuck up on one side of him, my wife, Leslie Pierce, was on the other side of him, distracting him, and I walked right up to him, put the hoop net over him, then we picked him up with a lot of effort and wrestled him into the SUV,” Suydam said.

He initially thought the walrus pup was about 70 pounds, but Patak turned out to be 250. Patak stayed in the SUV.

That’s where the Anderegg’s saw him.

“What was really amusing is one of the stories I saw in the media talked about how they were so cuddly and it seemed a little funny because they’re what–  a couple hundred pounds of cuddly,” Anderegg said.

He said one of veterinarian Coburn’s assistants was in the cage with Patak in the back of the SUV.  “And that walrus just looked as comfortable as could be, all curled up with her.  She had a bottle and was feeding him and he didn’t look stressed at all,” Anderegg said.

Patak and Mitik spent the rest of the summer at the SeaLife Center, until the right homes could be found at aquariums that already have walrus.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Garlich-Miller saw them both as they headed out of Alaska – Patak toIndianapolis Zoo and Mitik to the New York Aquarium in Brooklyn.

He said they’ll serve as good ambassadors for Alaska wildlife, and educate zoo visitors about the growing problem of the loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic.

“Walrus in Alaska used to spend all their summer months out in floating sea ice habitats, but in recent years the sea ice has moved beyond the shallow continental shelf waters where walrus feed, so they’ve been forced ashore along the coast,” Garlich-Miller said.

There has been a proliferation of walrus haul outs on the Arctic coast, with thousands of animals coming ashore at a time.

And now you know the rest of the story of Patak and Mitik.

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Rosemarie Alexander is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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