LIHUE — RK28, a local Hawaiian monk seal, spent all of Tuesday desperately scouring the beach and nearshore waters for her two-week-old pup.
The scene was difficult to watch, according to Jamie Thomton, the Kauai marine mammal response program coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service.
“The mother was calling for the pup and not getting a response,” he said, adding that she appeared agitated.
The Kauai pup was found dead early Tuesday on a secluded North Shore beach, with deep puncture wounds to the neck sustained in a dog attack. Thomton said the incident occurred between 5 p.m. Monday, when a volunteer “pup sitter” went home for the evening, and 5:45 a.m. Tuesday, when another volunteer arrived at the remote beach between Kilauea and Moloaa.
“As far as which dog, we don’t know,” he said. “No eyewitnesses.”
NOAA said the pup that was still nursing, and its mother, had been enclosed in a Seal Protection Zone, a type of fencing that serves as a warning for beachgoers and keeps out dogs.
“Unfortunately, sometime between the late evening to early morning hours, a dog (or dogs) was able to get around the fence on the oceanside of the enclosure and apparently attack and kill the pup,” NOAA wrote in a release Tuesday. “A necropsy, conducted by NOAA Fisheries Service on Tuesday evening confirmed the cause of death as trauma caused most likely by dog bite.”
The dead pup, PK5, was the third pup born to RK28, or “KC,” who has given birth, in the past, on Oahu and Niihau, according to NOAA. It was the fifth pup born on Kauai this season.
The number of other seals injured in the attack increased Tuesday evening, when officials discovered a fifth had been bitten.
RK28 suffered puncture wounds to her muzzle, likely during an attempt to protect her newborn pup, the federal agency said. Three others, including a second mother-pup pair and a weaned seal, also showed puncture wounds consistent with a dog attack. Officials do not believe the wounds are life-threatening.
NOAA said it will continue to monitor the four remaining seals and provide further treatment if necessary. State and federal law enforcement officials have been notified of the incident.
Rachel Sprague, the Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator for NOAA, said one of the primary concerns with dog attacks is the possibility of monk seals being infected with canine distemper. The deadly viral disease affects the respiratory, gastrointestinal and central nervous systems, and has led to significant loss of other marine mammals, including harbor seals.
“It’s something that hasn’t happened, but it’s a threat or risk that we’re worried about,” Sprague said.
Don Heacock, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said distemper, if contracted, has the potential to spell disaster for Hawaiian monk seals.
“It could pass like a wave through our population and cause the complete extinction,” he said.
While the dog or dogs may have been feral, NOAA says it is important the public always keep dogs on a leash when on the beach or anywhere where seals may be present, and to follow applicable leash laws. On Kauai, dog owners violating the county leash law can be fined up to $200.
Thomton and Sprague said there is at least one previous instance on Kauai where a dog owner was fined after their animal attacked an endangered monk seal.
Heacock, who started the Monk Seal Watch Program on Kauai in 1990, said if the dog involved in Tuesday’s attack had a collar, the incident is a perfect example of an irresponsible pet owner who needs to be held responsible. If the animal was feral, it is the community’s fault for not immediately reporting it to the Kauai Humane Society, he said.
NOAA says it is working with law enforcement and DLNR’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement, as well as area landowners, to explore options to monitor the area and capture the dog if it returns.
DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward said that because the incident is under investigation, she could not comment. Inga Gibson, the Hawaii director of the Humane Society of the United States, said it is highly unlikely the dog or dogs were feral, as Kauai does not have feral populations.
“These were either pets that got loose or allowed to roam freely,” she said. “Either way, it’s totally unacceptable.”
In January, the DLNR sought the public’s help in identifying the owner of two dogs seen attacking ground-nesting Laysan albatrosses in nearby Moloaa. A total of 17 of the birds were found mauled to death in Moloaa, DLNR said in a release at that time.
Penny Cistaro, executive director of the Kauai Humane Society, said a nearby property manager has expressed concern that the same dogs may have been responsible for Tuesday’s monk seal killing.
Thomton emphasized, not only the important work the volunteer network on Kauai is doing to try and protect monk seal pups, but also the importance of public awareness on the issue.
“Even though we do the best we can, it really takes everyone that lives here to be responsible because we can’t be there 24 hours a day,” he said.
The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the rarest marine mammals in the world. The majority, about 900, reside in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. A smaller but growing population of about 200 seals inhabit the main Hawaiian Islands.
“Each individual seal is critical to the survival of the population,” NOAA wrote in its release.
Anyone with information regarding this incident is asked to contact the NOAA Marine Mammal Hotline at (888) 256-9840.
Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.