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Don't Touch : Beached Baby Seals Cuddly, but They'll Bite

April 28, 1985|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

Word's out along the coast from Santa Barbara to Laguna Beach: Keep your hands off the pinniped pups.

Dozens of newly born elephant seals and harbor seals bred on the Channel Islands have washed up on Southland beaches during the past several weeks, marking the opening of what marine biologists describe as the annual pinniped stranding season.

The wild pups, some just weeks old and not yet versed in the ways of the sea, flop up on area beaches in search of food, rest or a missing mother. Many are dehydrated, undernourished or infested with parasites. Some are close to death.

"Yes, they look cute and cuddly, but they are wild animals," said Frank Turner, an official with the Los Angeles County Animal Care and Control Center in Agoura Hills. "People should never touch wildlife. They can be dangerous--especially when they feel threatened."

Bites Reported Every Year

Indeed, several bites by pinnipeds--a group that include seals, walruses and other aquatic mammals with flippers--are reported every year in Southern California to local, state and federal officials by fishermen, animal control officers, lifeguards and inquisitive sunbathers.

Last year, a boy was bitten in the face by a California sea lion near Ventura. The year before, a girl suffered a severe bite to her abdomen when she tried to pet a distressed sea lion at Zuma Beach.

In less than a week early this month, four orphan elephant seal pups washed ashore near the Strand in Manhattan Beach. The wide-eyed waifs inspired a flood of phone calls to the city's animal control office, which in turn prompted a stern warning to concerned residents to look but not to touch.

"Part of our job is to protect the people, too," said Art Yaskin, a Manhattan Beach animal control officer. "No matter how cuddly the seals may look, when they bite it does hurt and there is a big chance of infection. They have microorganisms on their skin that can enter our bodies, too."

Recommended Actions

Marine biologists and animal control officials recommend that people who spot a stranded pinniped follow several guidelines:

- First, do not touch, tease or threaten the animal.

- Second, identify the type of pinniped, or if you are not familiar with the animals, make a mental note of what it looks like (does it have ears, how big is it, what color is it) and whether it appears to be dehydrated or injured.

- Third, contact a lifeguard, a police officer or a municipal or county animal control office and be prepared to give as much information as possible about the appearance of the animal and its location.

- Fourth, keep pets and small children away from the animal. Many healthy pinnipeds lounge on beaches for more than 24 hours before returning to the ocean.

Protected by Law

Warnings about pinnipeds are not based solely on the danger that the normally innocuous creatures can pose to curious humans. Federal law protects the marine mammals from the human hand--even the most well-intentioned. The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits anyone from disturbing, moving or even touching pinnipeds without authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Severe violations of the act can result in imprisonment and civil penalties as high as $10,000.

"A lot of animals come into the shore dead or in need of help," said Sheridan Stone, a wildlife biologist who heads the California Marine Mammal Stranding Network for the National Marine Fisheries Service on Terminal Island. "But there are a whole group of animals that come in and rest and then go back out."

Stone said that residents and beachgoers sometimes are so distraught when they spot a beached pinniped that they act irrationally and actually do more harm than good to the pups.

Not All Orphans

"People see tiny harbor seals on the beach and pick them up and bring them in thinking that they are orphans," he said. "The pups are often only a few weeks old, are still with their mothers, but are merely resting. Once separated from their mothers, most of them end up dying."

While misguided animal lovers are rarely prosecuted under the federal act, the tragic incidents underscore the need to educate the public about the pinnipeds' right to sunbathe alongside humans, Stone said.

In an effort to increase public awareness of the issue, the California Marine Mammal Stranding Network provides municipalities and animal control offices with signs to post near a stranded animal. The signs warn beachgoers that the animals are protected by federal law and that violators face stiff penalties.

Beginning this summer, the network will begin distributing posters donated by the Cousteau Society that list phone numbers people can call when they spot a distressed animal. Stone said the posters will be given to lifeguards, beachside restaurants, hot dog stands--anyone who will take them.

Educating the Public

"It is an education problem," Stone said. "We are trying to encourage common sense."

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