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Dog vs. baby sea lion: An upsetting case, but a federal one?

April 03, 2013|By Karin Klein
  • Juvenile sea lions at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach.
Juvenile sea lions at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach. (Los Angeles Times )

Did former Rep. Gabby Giffords’ stepdaughter do no wrong when her dog broke free from her in Laguna Beach and killed a baby sea lion? Was she so in the wrong that this should become a (literal) federal case?

The 18-year-old had the American bulldog mix on a leash, as the law requires, while she walked him on the  beach. But when the dog saw the baby sea lion, he managed to pull the leash out of her hands. He then attacked the seal, and by the time the dog could be pulled off — by former astronaut Mark Kelly, Gifford’s husband and the young woman’s father — it already had inflicted fatal wounds.

Sad, but was this irresponsible? Criminally or civilly irresponsible?

At first, Laguna Beach police seemed disinclined to pursue the matter, saying it appeared that no laws had been broken. But now, according to a local online news publication, StuNewsLaguna, city officials said they are referring the matter to the federal government for possible criminal or civil prosecution.

Neither option seems right.

Certainly, the owner seems to have meant to do the right thing. That doesn’t mean enough care was taken in this case — and there are municipal codes that appear to cover the matter. The city’s leash law says both that a dog on public property must be properly restrained on a leash, and that the owner must be competent to maintain control of the dog. That pretty clearly didn’t happen in this case; in fact, the young woman not only was unable to keep hold of her dog, but was unable to get the dog to release the seal. That can be hard with bulldogs, renowned for their lock-jaw grip, but that’s all the more reason for laws that require an owner to be able to handle the dog.

But a federal case, handed to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration because it oversees the Marine Mammal Protection Act?

There are probably better ways for the NOAA to spend its time protecting sea lions — such as by putting full-bore effort into trying to figure out why nearly 1,000 severely underweight baby sea lions have washed up on Southern California beaches since the beginning of the year, and providing emergency funds and equipment to the overwhelmed marine mammal rescue centers along the coast.

So: A citation or a federal case? What do you think?

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