When Jelly the river otter first arrived at Long Island Aquarium in 2008, she captured the hearts of staff members and guests alike with her inquisitive and energetic nature.
No one knew then that Jelly’s playful charm was only the beginning of an extraordinary journey that would impact lives far beyond the water of her pool in Otter Falls.
Last Wednesday, Jelly died after spending most of her life at the Long Island Aquarium. Staff members estimate she was between 18 and 20 years old.
To say Jelly had an exceptional life would be an understatement. In addition to being the anchor of the Otter Falls exhibit and a photogenic social media star, Jelly did something many animals unfortunately can’t: survive multiple encounters with breast cancer.
“She was strong. She went through a lot,” said Candy Paparo, 46, the aquarium’s director of animal training, in an interview Wednesday.
A North American river otter, Jelly was rescued from somewhere in the midwest in 2008. She arrived at Long Island Aquarium with her mate, who was aptly named Peanut Butter. In the years since, Jelly gave birth to two litters of pups. A playful, intelligent otter, she could often be found cuddling and playing with her pup, Stark, in the habitat they shared together.
Now the sole resident of Otter Falls, Stark resembles his mother, sharing a similar absence of the “mustache markings” below their noses that humans typically use to tell otters apart. Stark also reminds Paparo of Jelly in his behavior.
“He’s pretty high energy,” Paparo said, “like she was when she was younger.”
Veterinarians first found tumors in Jelly’s mammary glands in 2017. In the years since, Jelly underwent three surgeries to remove tumors. Although veterinarians could not say with certainty whether the cancerous tumors were completely removed, she got great marks from her doctor after every surgery.
“[With] the type of cancer that was diagnosed, [the veterinarian] didn’t actually expect her to live more than a couple of months after that first surgery, because of the aggressive type of cancer that it was,” Paparo said. “But she lasted several years and several more surgeries.”
In addition to surgeries to remove tumors, she also went through surgeries to remove an infected tooth and an infection on the base of her tail.
Surgeries can be dangerous for animals like a river otter, Paparo said, due to the dive reflex developed by aquatic mammals. This physiological response occurs when they go under water, allowing them to hold their breath and dive at a moment’s notice. But anesthesia has the potential to trigger a river otter’s dive reflex, and the animal could forget to breathe, leading to complications or even death.
For animals as old as Jelly was when she received surgery, the risks can be even higher.
“We were always nervous, but she survived and did amazingly with several surgeries,” Paparo said.
The autumn after Jelly’s breast cancer diagnosis and first surgery, a staff member suggested the aquarium feature Jelly as the mascot of a fundraising and awareness campaign for breast cancer awareness month. They hoped Jelly would be an inspiration to humans going through similar medical problems.
“There’s been so many of us that just envy and are inspired by her strength and her resilience to just come back after those situations that came about for her,” Paparo said. “So she was just a really strong girl.”
Thus began the “Jelly Strong” movement in October 2017. The aquarium designed buttons with pictures of Jelly on them that could be purchased to raise funds. Since its inception, the Jelly Strong campaign has raised roughly $1,000 for the North Fork Breast Health Coalition and for the American Cancer Society, according to the aquarium.
Even though Jelly is gone, the aquarium plans to continue the Jelly Strong campaign for years to come during breast cancer awareness month, Paparo said.
Right now, staff members, including Paparo, are mourning the loss of Jelly, who was estimated to have been between 18 and 20 years old.
The typical North American river otter lives until between 10 and 15 years in the wild, Paparo said, while animals in captivity can live a few years longer.
Paparo got choked up as she described Jelly’s personality and reminisced about some of the moments they shared together.
“She knew what she wanted. So she would eat when she wanted and she would skip feeds, and a lot of times she would sleep in the morning and not eat until like midday or so,” Paparo said. “Some of us get here very early in the morning. So we’re always envious of her ability to just cuddle in her nest and in her den, and just sleep as long as she wanted.”
Jelly, like many otters, would use almost anything to make a bed to cuddle in, including plastic bins. “She would always sleep in some very small places, small objects that we’d give her. But she’d just curl up really cute, so there’s a lot of cute memories,” Paparo said.
Julianna Dovi, 21, an educator at the aquarium, said Jelly was “a charismatic animal that a lot of people came from all over to see and learn about.”
“So I think just because of the way that she would interact with her trainers and with the guests, even as they were walking by, I think that brought a lot of special memories to people,” Dovi said.
Paparo said some of her favorite memories with Jelly include when she would chase small bugs around her habitat in an attempt to have them for a snack.
Another memory involved a feeding of crayfish, where one of the crayfish grabbed onto Jelly’s whisker and wouldn’t let go. “She picked her head up and it was hanging from her whisker. And she just walked to the water like, ‘this is how I’m carrying my crayfish.’ And then she started eating it,” Paparo said with a laugh.
“That’s very anthropomorphic of me to think that she was doing it on purpose. But it was a cute memory,” she said.
Jelly later became “a very laid back animal, very relaxed and easy-going” in her old age, Paparo said. “When we trained new staff on the otters to work with them, we would have them start with her first.”
Paparo said the loss of Jelly, coupled with other older animals the aquarium has lost over the last few months, have been hard on her staff.
“We put our lives and our heart and soul into caring for these animals. And we know that we’re going to outlive them most of the time, right? So we know what’s going to happen. But it’s very hard. It’s very hard to deal with sometimes and to go through it,” Paparo said.
“We know that she was aging, we know that she had cancer. And we saw her slowing down, so we saw those signs of age. So I think when it’s a little bit more expected, it’s a little bit easier to deal with,” Paparo said. “But it’s still hard. There’s still an emptiness. There’s still a void of her not being there.”
Dovi said Jelly’s death was “heartbreaking.”
“It’s certainly affecting a lot of us and it’s pretty hard to get past that right now,” Dovi said.
For Paparo personally, Jelly’s death is the loss of a 15-year relationship that has spanned a majority of her 23-year-long career at the Long Island Aquarium. The two of them got to the point where they were physically comfortable with each other that they could have free contact — meaning no physical barriers were necessary for Paparo to engage with Jelly. It allowed Paparo to regularly examine Jelly for tumors.
“It took a long time to build up that relationship and that trust. So that coming to an end is hard,” she said.
Paparo said Jelly had developed other tumors before her death, but eventually succumbed to kidney failure, a disease common for older animals.
To memorialize Jelly, the staff will have a paver engraved in her honor and add it among other engraved pavers located near the aquarium’s koi pond outside, and just a few yards away from the river otter exhibit.
The aquarium is also posting staff members near Otter Falls to answer any questions for people who come to the exhibit and notice she is absent. Part of that is keeping Jelly’s story of strength and perseverance alive now that she is gone.
“She was an inspiration,” Paparo said, “a very strong girl.”
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