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Who's Shooting Sea Lions? How We Scapegoat Animals

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The violent shooting deaths of eight marine mammals on the shores of Puget Sound near Seattle is not just disturbing news followed around the world -- it's personal. And statistics don't tell the whole story.

For those of us who live near Puget Sound -- known locally as the Salish Sea -- these murdered sea lions and seals are a loss in a wider kinship and ecosystem. Indicator species, these marine mammals reveal to us the health of our waters.

This vital connection between species can make for good neighbors and volunteer science. Since 2007, our West Seattle neighborhood has engaged in patrolling and conserving our shores for both humans and marine life. Even though Washington State has a healthy population of harbor seals, there is a 50 percent mortality rate for the first year of a seal's life. Predators of marine mammals include dogs off leash onshore and humans.

During pup season, we protect seal pups who must rest onshore and warm up. And sea lions must come ashore to molt. Call it day care for marine mammals or just expanding our Neighborhood Block Watch to include other animals. Throughout the year, we keep watch for sea lions and seals as part of a larger stranding network. In 2007, our group of citizen naturalists, called Seal Sitters, received official training from NOAA stranding expert, Kristin Wilkinson. We are fortunate to work with PAWS Wildlife Center who tirelessly rehabs and then releases seals back into the wild.

Seal Sitters counts volunteers from every walk of life. Even some local fishermen, have given of their time and energy to help us protect marine mammals. So we recognize this is a much bigger story than "Who's Shooting Sea Lions?" or man vs. nature.

That real story is: Why do we scapegoat animals instead of looking at our own environmental impacts? Like us, seals and sea lions in our Salish Sea must also reckon with increasing development, pollution, overfishing, and global warming. As the marine life goes, so go we.

We must decide how to conserve our troubled waters; and whether to share our prey with other predators. Unless we are sustainably hunting for our food, shooting other animals is a simplistic, immature, and short-sighted answer to our complex ethical and environmental issues. A gun is never a solution. Education is the key. And getting involved. The Sea Shepherd has issued a $10,000 reward for information about these shootings.

The first time I ever witnessed the death of a marine mammal from a bullet wound was on my backyard beach years ago. A neighborhood boy, Zach, stumbled over a seal pup. The juvenile seal was panting in terror and pain. I'd grown up with enough hunters to recognize the bullet holes in the side of the pup's head and chest. They looked fatal. We called a local wildlife rehab center and a gangly man, Bob, came right out in his makeshift car/ambulance.

"Looks really bad," Bob said, after a quick scrutiny of the pup's wounds. "I can take this pup now to the rehab center... but the trauma of moving him off the beach will probably kill him enroute. Or... "

"Or what?" We instinctively knew to keep our distance from this pup protected by federal law.

"Or, you could just be with this pup. Nobody likes to be alone when they die."

"I'll sit with him!" Zach, a budding scientist, volunteered.

"We'll all stay... until... he doesn't need us anymore," my neighbor said.

"Good," Bob nodded in satisfaction. "Call me back when it's over and I'll take him in for necropsy. We want to report this violence and maybe find out who did it."

So several of us neighbors sat on driftwood about 100 yards away from the pup. Through binoculars, we watched him struggle to breathe, his great, wide eyes pools of darkness. But open. Our respectful presence seemed to calm the pup and he quit panting. But over the next hour, his breathing ebbed as more blood poured out of his mouth and nose. Still he kept his eyes on us as if to anchor himself for another journey, a dive deep into death.

At last the pup lay on his side, his little flippers unfurling like wings. One of the children started to cry softly, but Zach began to sing in his high and pure tenor tones.

Hearing is always the first and last sense to go in us mammals. Though the pup was fading, his head turned toward the song, listening. And Zach kept singing. At last, the pup's beautiful eyes fixed. Staring at us but no longer seeing us. Then for just one instant those eyes brightened, and then doused. The pup took his final breath and was still.

We didn't get to bury the pup, but we held a small funeral on the beach. Now these many years later, we Seal Sitters have buried more marine mammals than I want to remember. This winter's sea lion in our neighborhood park was shot in the lung and the head. Such a violent season of bullet-ridden marine mammals is haunting. Each shooting brings back the memory of that first pup to die on our beach.

One of the ways we measure our humanity is how well we treat other animals. Let our humanity be remembered not in bullets or death tallies; but in how well we learn to graciously share our lands, our waters, and our shores.

Brenda Peterson is a National Geographic author and the co-founder of Seal Sitters. Her recent memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, was named among "Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Books of 2010," by The Christian Science Monitor. Her new picture book with photographer and Seal Sitter first responder Robin Lindsey is Leopard and Silkie: One Boy's Quest to Save Seal Pups. For more: www.IWantToBeLeftBehind.com

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