But the pup did not find sustenance. National Park Service officials said Monday that the small critter’s foray into the vast expanse of coastline located about 30 miles northwest of San Francisco was cut short when it was attacked and killed by an off-leash dog last month.
The seal, which was not even 1 year old, died on the beach before rescuers could reach it, Emily Whitmer, a veterinarian with the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., told The Washington Post. Guadalupe fur seals are threatened and scientists estimate at least 34,000 exist in the wild.
“It is very upsetting,” Whitmer said. “For a threatened species, each individual matters.”
The attack happened in an area of the beach where snowy plover birds, another threatened species, are known to nest. To protect the birds, the spot is now closed to dogs, the Park Service said. In addition, any pets brought to the seashore “must be restrained at all times” on leashes no longer than six feet, according to the park’s rules. Photos of the beach show several prominent signs informing people of where pets are allowed and reminding them to keep their animals leashed.
On April 22, one dog owner decided not to listen.
Park officials said another visitor saw an off-leash dog attack the seal. The person called the Marine Mammal Center, which rescues and cares for animals such as seals, sea lions and dolphins, but by the time help arrived, it was too late.
A postmortem examination showed the pup had sustained multiple bite wounds to its chest, neck and head that caused “severe trauma,” including “bleeding into the chest cavity and bleeding from the lungs,” Whitmer told The Post.
On Monday, park officials said they were still looking for the dog’s owner, who left the scene of the attack. The seals are protected by law in the United States and Mexico, according to the center. More than 200 miles off the coast of Mexico, the species’ only known breeding colony is located on Guadalupe Island, which has been designated as a sanctuary.
“This is an incredible park where there’s a lot of habitat for animals to feed and rest,” Stock told SFGate about Point Reyes National Seashore. “A dog off-leash is a real threat to wildlife and habitat.”
If a dog without a leash is in an area where its presence is prohibited and kills a species protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the person responsible for the canine could face steep fines and even jail time, Stock said.
Whitmer called the attack a “really unfortunate accident,” but advised people to use the incident as a learning moment.
“It presents a really great opportunity for all of us as humans to reflect on the opportunities we have to do better and to make sure that we’re really enjoying the outdoor world and taking care of other species that might be around us,” she said.
On social media, news of the seal’s untimely passing left many enraged.
“As a dog owner I am often appalled by the arrogance of other dog owners,” one person commented on Facebook. “Mine will never bite anyone because I refuse to pretend she never will — animals are never 100% trustworthy especially in strange situations around strange creatures or people. I get a dog sitter if I’m going to any national park. Not the place for them!”
But although the seal ultimately died of its injuries, Whitmer said the necropsy revealed that the pup was also “severely malnourished,” a concerning trend scientists have noticed among the seals’ population in recent years that may reflect worsening ocean conditions.
“Even if this negative interaction with the dog had not occurred, this patient would be in a severe state of illness and would have needed rehabilitative care to survive,” she said.
There are seven Guadalupe fur seals at the center, and many are in a “very similar condition” to the pup that died, Whitmer said. At the time of its death, the young seal weighed just over 13 pounds. Adult females usually grow to be 100 pounds, while males can reach up to 300 pounds.
“This pup was essentially failing to thrive out in the ocean on its own,” she said, noting that the animals “rarely come to shore,” and when they do it’s either to breed or because they are very sick. She added: “This is a species that just cannot get enough food.”
Guadalupe fur seals are pelagic, meaning they spend almost their entire lives in the open ocean where they usually forage for their meals, eating squid and lanternfish, according to the center. Because of their lifestyle, the seals are threatened by climate change and the depletion of fisheries, which are some of the same issues negatively impacting oceans in general, Whitmer said. The seal population is still recovering after it was nearly hunted to extinction in the 1800s.
“The Guadalupe fur seal, overall, can be a sentinel for the health of our oceans,” she said.
Though she has seen her fair share of malnourished seals, Whitmer said she hasn’t come across another case of one being killed by a dog.
It would have been easy for a large canine to pick up the sickly female pup, she said.
“The dog may have even thought he was just playing with a toy,” she said. “There’s no malice assumed to this dog. It’s just that it had a really unfortunate consequence for this animal.”