Who Would Kill A Monk Seal?
May 8, 2013, by Jon Mooallem in The New York Times Magazine
Exerpts from "Who Would Kill a Monk Seal?" For the whole article please go here and also look for it in this Sunday's print edition.
|Source: New York Times Magazine|
"The Hawaiian monk seal has wiry whiskers and the deep, round eyes of an apologetic child. The animals will eat a variety of fish and shellfish, or turn over rocks for eel and octopus, then haul out on the beach and lie there most of the day, digesting. On the south side of Kauai one afternoon, I saw one sneeze in its sleep: its convex body shuddered, then spilled again over the sand the way a raw, boneless chicken breast will settle on a cutting board. The seals can grow to seven feet long and weigh 450 pounds. They are adorable, but also a little gross: the Zach Galifianakises of marine mammals. "
"But the seals' appearance has not been universally appreciated. The animals have been met by many islanders with a convoluted mix of resentment and spite. This fury has led to what the government is calling a string of "suspicious deaths." But spend a little time in Hawaii, and you come to recognize these deaths for what they are - something loaded and forbidding. A word that came to my mind was "assassination."
The most recent wave of Hawaiian-monk-seal murders began on the island of Molokai in November 2011. An 8-year-old male seal was found slain on a secluded beach. A month later, the body of a female, not yet 2 years old, turned up in the same area. Then, in early January, a third victim was found on Kauai. The government tries to keep the details of such killings secret, though it is known that some monk seals have been beaten to death and some have been shot. (In 2009, on Kauai, a man was charged with shooting a female seal twice with a .22; one round lodged in the fetus she was carrying.) In the incident on Kauai last January, the killer was said to have left a "suspicious object" lodged in the animal's head.
Killing an endangered species in Hawaii is both a state and federal offense. Quickly, the State of Hawaii and the Humane Society of the United States put up a reward for information. "We're all in agreement that somebody knows who did this," one Humane Society official told me. The islands are close-knit but also loyal, particularly the native Hawaiian communities. In January, when I met with the state wildlife agency's chief law-enforcement officer for Kauai - a man named Bully Mission - he confessed that, after a year, Kauai's tip line hadn't received a single call. In fact, there was still a reward out from a seal killing in 2009."
"We live in a country, and an age, with extraordinary empathy for endangered species. We also live at a time when alarming numbers of protected animals are being shot in the head, cudgeled to death or worse.
In North Carolina, for example, hundreds of brown pelicans have recently been washing ashore dead with broken wings. The birds, nearly wiped out by DDT in the 1970s, are now plentiful and often become semi-tame; they're known to land on fishing boats and swipe at the catch. One theory is that irritated fishermen are simply reaching out and cracking their wings in half with their hands. In March, in Florida, someone shoved a pelican's head through a beer can.
Around the country, at any given time, small towers of reward money sit waiting for whistle-blowers to come forward. This winter four bald eagles were gunned down and left floating in a Washington lake (reward: $20,250); three were shot in Mississippi ($7,500); and two in Arkansas ($3,500). Someone drove through a flock of dunlins - brittle-legged little shorebirds - on a beach in Washington, killing 93 of them ($5,500). In Arizona, a javelina, a piglike mammal, was shot and dragged down a street with an extension cord strung through its mouth ($500), and in North Carolina, 8 of only 100 red wolves left in the wild were shot within a few weeks around Christmas ($2,500). Seven dolphins died suspiciously on the Gulf Coast last year; one was found with a screwdriver in its head ($10,000). Sometimes, these incidents are just "thrill kills" - fits of ugliness without logic or meaning. But often they read as retaliation, a disturbing corollary to how successful the conservation of those animals has been.
Since the passage of the Endangered Species Act 40 years ago, so much wildlife conservation has been defensive at its core, striving only to keep animals from disappearing forever. But now that we've recovered many of those species, we don't quite know how to coexist with them. We suddenly remember why many of us didn't want them around in the first place. Gray wolves, sandhill cranes, sea otters: species like these, once nearly exterminated, are now rising up to cause ranchers, farmers and fishermen some of the same frustrations all over again. These animals can feel like illegitimate parts of the landscape to people who, for generations, have lived without any of them around - for whom their absence seems, in a word, natural. As Holly Doremus, an environmental legal scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, writes, America has saved so much without ever asking "how much wild nature society needs, and how much society can accept."
The monk seal is not one of these success stories. The species, as a whole, is still slipping toward extinction. But the situation in Hawaii follows the same script: there used to be zero monk seals living around the main Hawaiian islands; there are now between 150 and 200. And I heard story after story from fishermen about seals stealing fish from their nets or hooks, or lurking at favorite fishing spots and scaring away everything else. A lot of fishing in Hawaii is done for subsistence - a way for working-class people to eat better food than they can afford to buy. The monk seals are perceived as direct competition, or at least an unnecessary inconvenience. "They're troublemakers," a young spear fisherman told me one morning at Kauai's Port Allen pier."
"In Hawaii, so many circumstances had knotted together to snare this species."
To view the original article on the New York Times website go here.