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Originally published Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at 9:01 PM

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Northwest Wanderings: 1989 oil-spill otter outlives them all

The last otter on the planet known to have experienced the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska is alive and comfortable at Tacoma's Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

Seattle Times staff photographer

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Homer the northern sea otter at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium is named for the town on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska near where she was rescued after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.

She is the last known otter on the planet to experience the oil spill, according to John Houck, deputy director of the zoo. The spill of almost 11 million gallons spread over hundreds of miles of Alaska coastline.

Homer was one of 11,000 otters placed in danger by the oil. Houck, who was an otter wrangler searching for distressed animals, brought her back to the Tacoma zoo.

Though she'd been cleaned in Alaska, an oily sheen soon appeared in her pool.

More daily washings and then drying under heat finally removed the oil from her fur.

The spill killed an estimated 2,650 otters.

Homer already has lived longer than the average life expectancy for her kind and is less than two years from the record for one in captivity: 26 years.

The matriarch of the five otters at the zoo, she is laid back, says senior staff biologist Lisa Triggs. "But, don't mess with her."

Homer can be choosy.

She no longer wants to climb aboard a scale to be weighed and sometimes can be finicky about meals.

Her daily diet includes clams, mussels, crab, shrimp, squid and capelins, which are similar to smelt.

With age has come a lightening of her hair, as well as arthritis and cataracts.

And a mischievousness. There's a protective acrylic liner to the underwater glass window so the shells she uses to leave a message won't leave permanent scratches.

Alan Berner: 206-464-8133 or aberner@seattletimes.com

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