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When a Mother and Daughter Reverse Roles

Marlene Adelstein | Longreads | November 3, 2017 | 2,061 words
Posted inEssays & Criticism, Featured, Nonfiction, Story

When a Mother and Daughter Reverse Roles

An obsession with an orphaned sea otter helps Marlene Adelstein process her grief over her Alzheimers-afflicted mom.
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Marlene Adelstein | Longreads | November 2017 | 8 minutes (2,061 words)

Recently my boyfriend and I became completely absorbed in a PBS nature documentary about baby sea otters separated from their mothers in Monterey Bay, and the group of passionate scientists whose mission it was to rescue and rehabilitate them. One particular pup, a bundle of brown fur, dark soulful eyes and long whiskers, whom the scientists named 501, was weak and sickly and couldn’t groom or forage for food, crucial tasks its mother would normally perform. So the scientists took the pup to their research facility to nurse the orphan back to health.

At the rehabilitation lab, handlers wore dark ponchos and faceless Darth Vader-like welder’s masks so the otters wouldn’t become attached to them. Eventually the trainers brought in Tula, an older rescued otter, to act as a surrogate mother. Tula spent months teaching 501 essential otter skills, like how to roll, lick and rub her thick fur to keep buoyant and waterproof. After a few months, the trainers motored out to a protected cove on the Monterey coastline called Elkhorn Slough, a popular otter hang-out, and released 501 into the bay. As the pup swam off without her real mother, without her surrogate, and without her human mask-wearing protectors, I began to sniffle.

“Sweetie, are you crying?” my boyfriend asked.

“Me? No,” I lied as a wave of otter worry washed over me.

“The otter’s been trained to survive,” he said. “She’ll be okay. She was meant to live in the wild.” I knew all this but still, there I was, blubbering over a sea otter. How would 501 manage without her surrogate mother? Would she remember how to lick and roll? Would she find other otters? Would she survive?

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