This baby walrus was admitted to the Alaska SeaLife Centre Wildlife Response Programme on Aug. 1, after it was spotted alone on Alaska's North Slope. Image Credit: Alaska SeaLiife Centre photo by Kaiti Grant

Despite ceaseless rescue efforts that included around-the-clock cuddles, a walrus pup saved from a frozen Alaskan oil field died after succumbing to complications of malnutrition, said the Alaska SeaLife Centre.

“While often rewarding, wildlife rescue is inherently unpredictable and comes with it the possibility of great loss,” the centre said in a statement on Friday. “For those that dedicate their lives to animal care, this is the hardest part of the job.”

The 68-kg walrus calf was found alone and suffering from malnutrition and dehydration about four miles inland from the Beaufort Sea, with no adult walruses in sight. Normally, young walruses are constantly cared for by their mothers for the first two years of life, so the orphaned pup’s solitude immediately signalled trouble to wildlife rescue workers.

The pup was airlifted 1,130km and admitted to the Alaska SeaLife Centre’s Wildlife Response Program in Seward, Alaska. There, wildlife rescue workers organized a 24/7 rotation so that the baby walrus would never be without care, which included bottle-feedings and near-constant physical contact from human caretakers, who offered cuddles and comfort during the pup’s final days.

Finding an orphaned walrus pup is very rare, Carrie Goertz, a veterinarian who is director of animal health at the centre, told The Washington Post last week. The rescue programme has received only about 10 walruses over the last 25 years, she said. The highly social animals spend most of their time lying together in the wild, so rescuers wanted to reproduce those conditions as much as possible by providing human companions for the pup to snuggle, Goertz added.

Unfortunately, despite rescuers’ best efforts, the young mammal suffered nutrient malabsorption that caused other complications, including hypoglycemia and gastrointestinal problems in the day before he died, the center said.

“Though our animal care teams worked tirelessly to provide round-the-clock critical care treatments, never leaving his side, the calf ultimately succumbed to his condition,” the center said in a statement, adding that a veterinarian would perform a necropsy to learn more about what caused the animal’s death.