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Maverick Sea Lion's Killing Jars Community

July 09, 2004|William Wan | Times Staff Writer

No one really knew him well, but those who spent time with the adventurer remembered him fondly.

He seemed to like motorcycles, they said, as well as long swims in the local river. Sure, he was hairy and even smelled a little, but he never harmed anyone. So why, they ask, would anyone harm him?

Shopper the sea lion was shot this week, killed by a single bullet to the muzzle below his left eye.

His killing in the Napa Valley has shocked those who followed his unusual journey inland and puzzled federal investigators now on the trail of his killer. The shooting has also drawn attention to an inexplicable rise in sea lion shootings in California, which have quadrupled in recent years.

As is often the case, those looking into Shopper's death have no suspects, no gun and no motive.

The sea lion was last seen on Saturday by marine officials under a bridge in St. Helena. Two days later, a worker at a nearby vineyard found the sea lion lying lifeless amid a row of grapes.

"There were no markings or anything, just a little blood around the mouth," said vineyard salesman Andy Gridley, who helped lift the brownish black carcass onto a truck. "I just wish we could have gotten to the big guy sooner. Maybe we could have helped him."

Veterinarians, who have been studying Shopper's body for clues, say this kind of man-on-marine-mammal violence is all too common. Sea lion shootings reported in the state jumped from 19 in 1999 to 83 in 2002, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"We don't know what exactly is driving these numbers," said Joe Cordaro, a federal marine biologist. "One factor is the sea lion population is just getting larger."

Over the last four years, the number of California sea lions has risen 5% to 10% each year, said Cordaro, who estimates the current population at more than 200,000.

There is a history of bad blood between sea lions and humans --especially fishermen, said Paul Ortiz, a federal prosecutor specializing in marine issues. "They're competing for the same thing: fish. Some sea lions even bite the fish right off a fisherman's hook."

Also to blame are humans who use the animals for target practice. The shooters can be "people who are bored and drunk. Sometimes, it doesn't have to get any more complex than that," Ortiz said.

So far, the investigation into Shopper's death has yielded few leads.

In the necropsy, experts determined Shopper's weight (286 pounds) and age (4 to 8 years old), but could deduce little else.

"The body had basically been cooking in the hot sun," said veterinarian Frances Gulland. She found no bullet or exit wound, only fragments of a large-caliber bullet in the sea lion's muzzle. She estimated Shopper had been dead for two days before the carcass was found.

Shortly before his death, Shopper grabbed headlines with his daring forays inland from the waters near San Francisco Bay. On his first trip in June, he traveled more than a dozen miles up a river before making a pit stop at a motorcycle shop in Petaluma.

"He was rolling around the dirt parking lot, having himself a good time," said store manager Kerry MacLeod.

The sea lion perused the rows of Honda and Suzuki models as if he was looking to buy. Onlookers decided to call him 'Shopper.' "

But the animal grew tired of the oglers and cellphone photographers and stormed back to a nearby slough, crossing 200 yards of shrubbery and hopping a 2-foot-high metal gate.

Marine rescuers were called in to capture the animal and return it to the ocean, but Shopper eluded them, slipping and sliding out of their grasp until midnight, when the crew gave up and headed home.

He showed up the next day at the same parking lot, rolling under a Chevy Suburban. This time the marine biologists were ready and caught him with a net.

Finding no wounds or diseases, they tagged and released him back into the Pacific Ocean on June 22 at Point Reyes National Seashore, north of San Francisco.

The sea lion, however, swam back to San Francisco Bay, passing under the Golden Gate Bridge and several highway overpasses, then heading 30 miles up the Napa River.

He finally settled under a bridge in St. Helena, where police and town officials let him alone to splash in peace. But a few days later, he was dead.

The mood was dark this week at the cycle shop, where patrons and employees mourned the animal.

"I'm a fairly calm person, but the whole day, I've been thinking bad thoughts about whoever did this," said MacLeod, 36.

The Napa Humane Society has offered a $6,000 reward for information that could lead to Shopper's shooter.

"These kinds of shootings are probably the hardest to solve," said Deputy Special Agent Brett Schneider, heading the case for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "In almost every case, we need a witness ... and right now, we have zero leads."

Meanwhile, his fans have been flipping through pictures of their late, furry friend.

"It's so sad," said Lynn Ford, a Shopper fan in Napa. "I mean, why would anyone shoot a sea lion? That's just mean."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Wayward sea lion

1. June 17: Swam up the Petaluma River from San Pablo Bay, appearing at the Cycle West motorcycle shop in Petaluma. 2. June 18: Captured in Petaluma and transported to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. 3. June 22: Released at Point Reyes National Seashore. 4. July 2: Spotted in St. Helena after it reentered the bay and swam up the Napa River. July 6: Found dead at a nearby vineyard.

Graphics reporting by William Wan

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