16 min read

Killing Hawaiian Monk Seals Is Not O.K.

I am a born vegetarian. By that, I mean I've never eaten beef, pork, or poultry. Not as a toddler. Not as a child. Not as an adult. For one simple reason: I don't like it.

Yet, earlier this summer, at age 51, I found myself in a Kentucky Fried Chicken for the first time. I bought eight chicken thighs-seven grilled and one original recipe. But I didn't take a single bite. Instead, I willingly wore the stench of fried chicken in the strands of my grey hair and the cotton fibers of my t-shirt--the one with the words "Monk Seal Response Team" in bold, blue letters--in the hopeful effort to bait a trap and catch the dog (or dogs) that attacked five resting Hawaiian monk seals on a beach the night before.

One of the seals, a recently weaned pup, most likely survived by retreating to the water. Another seal pup, one-month-old and still nursing, endured more than 60 puncture wounds. But a third, a two-week-old nursing pup, wasn't so lucky. He died.

It should be noted that like any good mother, both nursing moms defended their offspring and, for that, felt the dog's canines pierce their own skin, as well. Even so, the moms didn't desert their pups for the safety of the sea. Indeed, the mother of the dead pup was found nudging his lifeless body the next day.

With the help of antibiotics, the one month-old monk seal-a female-recovered from the multiple bite wounds and a subsequent massive infection. She was later tagged RF58.

Sadly, four months later, while sleeping on another beach, RF58 didn't survive a "blunt force trauma" to the head, which authorities suspect was inflicted by a human.

Hers was not an easy life. Nor an easy death. Officials reported that RF58 did not die instantly on Sunday, November 30 but from complications due to the bludgeoning and subsequent internal bleeding. She was just five-months-and-two-days old.

This is the ninth suspicious Hawaiian monk seal death since 2009. It's well known in Hawaii that not everyone likes the state mammal. With fewer than 1,100 individuals, Hawaiian monk seals are considered critically endangered and protected by the Endangered Species Act, as well as, the state of Hawaii, where whoever killed RF58, if convicted, could face fines of up to $50,000 and five years in prison.

It had been two-and-a-half years since the last known intentional killing of a Hawaiian monk seal. I thought our days of murdering monk seals were behind us. I was wrong.

When I first heard the news of RF58's death, I was saddened. This was a seal I knew well. But I was not surprised. Not again, I thought. How could someone kill an innocent animal-a baby-sleeping peacefully on the beach? And, The killer must be punished. I was ready to picket and protest, and paper trees and bulletin boards and beaches with reward posters. Even brave Kentucky Fried Chicken again. Since learning about the killing, I've talked with biologists, nurses, fishermen, teachers, plumbers, surfers, and a roomful of school children about it.

I think of monk seals as scapegoats of the sea. They take the brunt of misdirected anger and misinformation.

The anger goes back more than 100 years ago. Because monk seals are federally protected, they are perceived stand-ins for a government--so this line of thinking goes--that has done nothing but disregard and marginalize the people of Hawaii since the unlawful overthrow of the Kingdom in 1893.

The misinformation may have taken seed in the mid 1990s when government scientists quietly caught 21 troublesome adult male seals from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands-a string of uninhabited islands, islets, and atolls spread over 1,100 miles where 85% of the monk seal population lives today--and translocated them to the Main Hawaiian Islands. The males joined an existing few who had been spotted sporadically over the decades. Today, there are upwards of 200 monk seals resident to the shores of Kauai, Niihau, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, Kahoolawe, and Hawaii islands.

But their appearance came as a surprise to many who had spent their lives foraging along Hawaii's coastlines without ever seeing-or hearing from elders about-monk seals. They couldn't recall stories of monk seals in the culture-not in hula or chants or as aumakua, family guardians.

Knowing little about monk seals, some saw them as competition for food. Wild speculation grew about how much fish the marine mammals ate each day. Some saw their appearance on beaches as the arrival of simply another invasive species. Outlandish rumors circulated like the one that suggested the government imported the seals to deplete fish stocks.

Make no mistake. Hawaiian monk seals are native to Hawaii, arriving here by way of a watery passage that existed between North and South America many millions of years before the first Polynesians landed their double-hulled voyaging canoes on Hawaii's shores. Many Hawaiian cultural practitioners posit the marine mammal makes little appearance in Hawaii's culture, because they were extirpated early on, the same way several species of flightless birds disappeared when humans appeared.

Scientific estimates put monk seal daily biomass intake at four to 10% of their body weight, far less than the pound-for-pound inflammatory conjecture sometimes tossed about. Even so, the seals' relatively few numbers in the Main Hawaiian Islands would hardly impact Hawaii's fisheries. Furthermore, fecal studies indicate monk seals consume a variety of marine life, not just fish, and they do so in places-deeper and farther offshore-where few fishermen venture.

But preferred perceptions of a few often persist in the face of scientific reality.

In the eight years since I've volunteered for the Kauai Monk Seal Conservation Hui, I've attended public meetings in packed community centers with irate people who wanted nothing more than to see the Hawaiian monk seal go extinct. I've watched a man playing in the water with his two children bend over, drop his surf trunks, and moon a monk seal on the beach. Two months before RF58 met her demise, I walked a beach and, from across a cove, witnessed a man nonchalantly bend down to pick up a baseball-sized rock, piece of coral, or chunk of wood, and saunter across a 50-feet span of beach to toss the object at her. RF58 woke from her nap, head swinging left and right, before settling back to sleep.

But I've also met just as many people who have trekked miles of beaches in search of an injured monk seal. Those who have testified to the Hawaii state senate on behalf of the `ilio holo i ka uaua, which translates from Hawaiian to English as, "dog running in the rough seas." I've met those who have put up their own money as a reward to find the killer(s) of another monk seal. And a man, clearly upset, report that he'd hooked a monk seal on his fishing line.

Since the announcement of RF58's death, several groups have pledged reward monies-the Humane Society of the United States, Conservation Council of Hawaii, Center for Biological Diversity, Monk Seal Foundation, and The Garden Island newspaper. Most recently, Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, added $5,000, pushing the total to $25,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the death of RF58.

Now, more than a week after hearing the news of RF58's murder my thoughts have evolved. I realize her killing is bigger than "a monk seal thing." It's about a disregard for ocean health and biodiversity and, really, for all life whether we fully understand its place in our ecosystem or not and even when its presence in our lives is somewhat inconvenient.

Like other endangered species-wolves, brown pelicans, sea otters, bald eagles, the list, sadly, goes on and on-much of the conservation hopes of Hawaiian monk seals fall squarely on the shoulders of school children, banking on their generation to effect change, and I'm hopeful they will. But not all endangered species have time to wait for kids to grow up.

I've finally accepted we will not change everyone's minds about Hawaiian monk seals and other species that cause people distress. But we don't have to. We just need to surround the dissidents with enough people who will stand up and say, "It's not O.K. to kill." We need moms and dads and aunties and uncles and sisters and brothers and cousins and friends and neighbors and children to say, "Not one more." Even if a few dentists and postal workers and the cashier at the grocery store don't particularly like the animal, we need them to say, "Not in our neighborhood."

We need an uprising in our backyards. In our very communities.

If the threats of fines and prison don't prevent these kinds of murders, maybe good, old-fashioned shame and disgrace will. Sometimes, people, even adults, need to be taught what to think, so the next time, these potential murderers run across a sleeping monk seal on the beach, they will think twice about picking up a rock or club or gun.

So, forget the reward. Forget the fines. Forget the imprisonment. The loss of RF58 is a great blow to the survival of the Hawaiian monk seal species. But what would be even better than finding her killer is creating a community in which something like this could never happen again.

A rising tide lifts all boats. Even derelict ones. Now is the time to raise our voices.

Kim Steutermann Rogers lives on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai with three chickens, two dogs, and one husband and writes regularly about Hawaii's natural history. Follow her blog at www.kimsrogers.com and her Twitter feed @kimsrogers.