Thursday, September 29, 2011

Another adorable aquatic menace

What is it about being an aquatic mammal that messes with people's minds? Dolphins are not the only one of these sleek wet creatures whose reputation is far more positive than the reality. When you think of seals and sea lions, you no doubt think of cute circus tricks or those adorable fuzzy white babies - the ones that people all over the world banded to together to save from cruel slaughter for their fur.

This positive attitude is encouraged by gushing articles like this one, where a nature photographer thinks it's just perfectly adorable when a seal chews on her diving flippers and tries to eat a camera.

That article compares the seal to a playful puppy. Sure, the kind of cute puppy who drags helpless five-year-old children into the water, and kills scientists who've dedicated their lives to studying marine biology.

The private lives of these animals is also far from adorable. Like dolphins, they make a regular practice of sexual assault and infanticide. In one highly endangered seal species, one of the main threats to their survival is that the males have the habit of ganging up on females in breeding season so violently that they kill them. Not the best strategy if you're trying to perpetuate the species, guys.

And a couple of recent stories show that their more of their bad behavior is heading our way. In Prince Edward Island, Canada, Chris MacLeod and Mary MacDonald took their dogs to swim at the same beach they always do, but this time it led to tragedy:

On Aug. 27 one of their dogs, Dipstick, swam into the water. MacLeod said seals surrounded his dog, and stopped her from coming back to shore. MacDonald made an effort to swim out and clear a path for the dog, but failed.

"The seals were actually meeting Mary, and not letting her, more or less, go any farther and Mary was kind of scared," said MacLeod.

Unable to rescue their pet, the couple could do nothing but watch as the seals mobbed the dog for two hours till it drowned. And adding the usual insult to this painful injury, a naturalist consulted by the news media just made excuses, rationalizing that "seals are curious creatures and that might explain their behavior" and insisting that they "almost never" attack humans or dogs.

And it seems you're not even safe from these creatures anymore if you avoid the shore. In Victoria, Australia, a man looked out his window to see something shocking peering back:
A sea lion swam on to Dendy Beach in Brighton, made its way up the sand and beach stairs, waddled along the Esplanade, then crossed the road into the garden of Esplanade resident John Battersby.

Note that while Australia has a wide range of exotic wildlife, this is not a common occurrence. The neighbor who spotted the animal crossing the road at first thought it was a bear, which was apparently only a slightly less ridiculous theory than the truth. This is a part of the country where sea lions are spotted at most once or twice a year, and never - till now - on someone's front porch.

So if you live on the coast, watch your back. If they gang up with the dolphins, we're really in trouble.

PS: You'd know all that stuff about seals if you read the book. Also, that hard-won law that made it illegal to club baby seals to death? It only applies until they are twelve days old and start losing the white fur. I'm sure they think we've done them a HUGE favor.

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