Are Hawaiian Monk Seals (Finally) Gaining Respect?

She’s not the prettiest seal. It’s neither the doe eyes nor the Buddha smile that draw you to her. It’s the scars.

I’ve always said 17-year-old K30 is the poster child of threats to monk seals. After the events of this week, now more so than ever.

K30 with F30 Her Good Side
Two years ago: K30 with her pup F30. Trust me, this is her good side.

If this were one of those games of scar one-upmanship, the endangered Hawaiian monk seal known as RK30 would win hands down. Or shall we say, flippers down.

Let me enumerate. There’s the indentation around her neck, the remains of a rope that entangled her from quite some time. How she didn’t die from strangulation—or infection—is a mystery.

Then, there’s the hunk of flesh missing from her left side, possibly from where a shark—a big shark, perhaps a Tiger shark—tried to make a meal out of her.

Also, a series of parallel lines presumably from a boat propeller.

Those are the glaringly obvious ones.

There are also series of round scars around her body. They look like someone used her for target practice but instead come from cookie cutter sharks. They are rarely deadly.

Then, there are the internal scars. The ones we cannot see nor know if she carries them with her in some way. The time she lost her pup in big waves when neither it nor she could get it back to shore, no matter how much she cried to it and it to her.

And this week, a young man woke her as she rested on the beach and beat her with his fists.

A fuzzy video of the beating that took place just after sunset was posted to a private Facebook group within seconds of the incident. Immediately, comments started piling up. Almost to a one, the commenters said to call the police. Others offered to come right down and give that man a taste of his own medicine—and that was one of the milder suggestions. Some tagged the local TV stations, and the video was picked up and ran on the news the next day. Then, got picked up by international news media. All the while, more posts and comments clogged social media. Kaua‘i’s mayor called on the community’s help in identifying the man. An online petition was started encouraging authorities to make an example out of the attacker, using the fullest extent of the federal law as mandated in the Endangered Species Act, to sentence the guilty party to five years in prison and fine him $50,000. The group known Sea Shepherd Conservation Society put up $5,000 as a reward for tips leading to the guy’s arrest and conviction.

Here are some other things that came to light:

After a visual exa by NOAA and the Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui, K30 appears none the worse for the wear.

The person who took the video and posted it to Facebook was a 15-year-old girl. That quieted the people who were questioning why the photographer wasn’t trying to intervene on behalf of the seal.

The endangered monk seal, K30, is pregnant. With, at least, her seventh pup.

Two days later, a man was arrested.

That was fast.

It was also unusual. In fact, everything in the wake of the attack was unusual.

In November 2014, another monk seal was found bludgeoned to death on a Kaua‘i beach. She was five months old. A baby. A couple months before, she had survived an attack by a dog (or two) in an overnight incident that resulted in an even younger monk seal’s death. And it wasn’t the first monk seal intentionally killed by humans. There have been other times. Somehow, monk seals have been caught in the misdirected crosshairs of blame and anger and flat-out ignorance. As a species, they are the scapegoats for what’s happening to our fisheries.But these other times, people weren’t upset in quite the same way as this week. No arrest was ever made in the death of F58.

So what gives? Why was the outrage so great this time around? Was it that the monk seal was pregnant? Was it that the act was caught on video? And in the dark, allowing the imagination to run wild with the atrocity of the attack?

Or has enough science and sense finally been disseminated to the general public about monk seals? Do people finally believe that their arrival in Hawai‘i predates humans by not just hundreds or even thousands of years but by millions. That they don’t eat their weight in fish every day, as some have erroneously claimed, but much less and, heck, while they are opportunistic eaters and may snatch a fish or two off the reef as they pass to and from the beaches where they rest, they much prefer to forage deeper parts of the ocean far off shore for benthic critters. That said, sure, they’ll harass a fisherman in the water for their catch. But it’s not the monk seals that are depleting our reefs of fish. It’s us. Maybe enough of us are waking up to that fact. To all these facts.

Maybe something else is at work, too. Something more global.

In the past couple years, I’ve felt a general shift in attitudes toward animals. Last year, the National Institute of Health ruled they would no longer support bio-medical research on chimpanzees. About the same time, SeaWorld has announced it would phase out theatrical orca shows, and, then, this year agreed to stop breeding captive killer whales.

Too, I’m noticing scientists publishing books in the mainstream media that explore animal intelligence in a new way and, even, acknowledging that animal’s have feelings—some like ours; some not so much. There’s Carl Safina’s Beyond Words: How Animals Think and Feel and Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? and Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds. And forthcoming, Jonathan Balcombe’s What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins.

Even plants are gaining in respect. Take Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World.  And to some extent Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, a book I recently wrote about.

It seems after decades of comparing animal intelligence to ours, we are conceding that nature has its own unique kind of intelligence. It may not be like ours. We may not even be able to understand it. But that doesn’t mean animals and plants aren’t thinking and feeling.

Of course, when I saw the video of K30 being attacked, I had to wonder what she was thinking and feeling? Hopefully, she didn’t think the guy much of a threat. She didn’t even swim away but rather returned to napping on the beach. And that makes me even more curious about the public response to the situation.

Whatever the reason, I am grateful. So very grateful for the outpouring of concern and caring for the majestic–if not pretty–Hawaiian monk seal known as K30.

But what do you think? Why do you think there was such an outcry in the wake of K30’s attack?

 

UPDATE: RK30 has given birth to a healthy pup!

2 thoughts on “Are Hawaiian Monk Seals (Finally) Gaining Respect?

  • As I thought about this atrocity, my mind went to the “Sleeping Giant” (not our Kapa`a Sleeping Giant) but the silent majority of our country. I believe people are tired of the “bullies” being in control and are beginning to speak out and step up. I’m not just referring to our RK30, but to many different situations–ie, our election process, sex trafficking, abuse and the list goes on. Maybe, just maybe we are finally realizing that we need to take care of the things and living beings that surround us. We need to know our neighbors and have relationships with them. We need to care about our environment and treat one another with kindness and respect. I really do hope that giant is stirring. Stepping off my soap box now……

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    • First, please do not ever step off your soap box! Clearly, I cannot. We can keep each other company;-) And great insight. As a people and society, we do need to get outside ourselves and recognize we are part of something much bigger. Kindness. Respect. Care. And helping action. Thank you for caring and acting and adding to this conversation, Val. You make a difference!

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