So, there I was standing in Kentucky Fried Chicken, staring at the bright menu board as if it were written in Japanese kanji characters. Sadly, I am not bi-lingual. Not carnivorous, either.
It was late afternoon, before the dinner crowd. All I could think about was how I would reek of the scent of fried chicken when I left. How the aroma was invading every strand of hair on my head, every thread in my cotton volunteer t-shirt, the one with the words “Monk Seal Response Team” in bold, blue letters. That I’d smell like fried chicken for the rest of the night and how that might suggest I was a traitor to my vegan dietary preferences. I just hoped the scent would be enough to lure a dog.
“I’m going to need some help,” I told the cashier. I don’t think I’d ever stepped foot inside a KFC before that moment. “I want some chicken.”
Her eyes said, “Oh, really?” She offered me a bucket or a meal of some sort.
“What comes with that?” I asked. I studied the menu some more. Saw that the chicken came as original recipe, extra crispy or grilled. I wondered which smelled the strongest.
“Mashed potatoes and cole slaw,” she said. But I heard, “What more can we do?”
“I just want chicken. Can I get a whole chicken?” I asked.
I settled on a box of eight thighs, seven grilled and one original recipe, and I tossed it in the bed of the truck with the dog traps. Already, the paper bag that housed the box was grease-stained. At least, I wouldn’t have to smell it while I drove.
An hour later, I arrived at the beach just as a team of biologists and veterinarians finished a health assessment and disease screening of a very large Hawaiian monk seal, RK28, also known as KC. She and her two-week-old pup had been involved in an overnight dog attack that left her with wounds to her muzzle and her pup dead. Another volunteer had found KC, nudging and calling to her lifeless offspring earlier that morning.
I’m glad it wasn’t me who had come upon what was supposed to have been an idyllic scene at sunrise. A scene that was supposed to include a healthy, female monk seal nursing and nuzzling her growing pup, Kauai’s fifth of the year, and another reason to be hopeful that this critically-endangered species of marine mammals just might survive.
But something always seems to overshadow the hope. In July, it was the death of an eight-month-old seal after he swallowed a fishhook that punctured his esophagus and lung. In the seven years that I’ve volunteered for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui, numerous seals have died from ingesting fishhooks, drowned in fishing nets, succumbed to the cat-borne disease toxoplasmosis, and, even, been killed by gun-toting and rock-wielding humans. Now, we can add a dog (or dogs) to the list.
What more can we do?
These were the words that slipped from the mouth of the biologist who told me about the attacks. I knew as soon as he uttered them that he wished he hadn’t, a crack in his usual scientific demeanor. They were, at once, words I wouldn’t be able to let go, words that drew me closer to him, words that flailed inside my stomach the way gravel pings the undercarriage of your car after driving through fresh tar.
Whenever an endangered Hawaiian monk seal pup is born, educational signs and, in some cases, plastic fencing are put up to help instruct the public and protect the pup. Volunteers are scheduled to monitor the seal and its mother during daylight hours for the five to six weeks during which the pup nurses on the beach before, nearing starvation, its mother weans her offspring.
Last month, at the Hawaii Conservation Conference, a biologist with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Science Program reported that 30 percent of Hawaiian monk seals alive today are here because of direct interventions undertaken by the program’s biologists. They’ve caught seals to remove fishhooks from their bodies, disentangled seals from fishing nets, and reunited mothers with pups.
Earlier this year, the seal pup that inspired my volunteer work those many years ago, RB24, showed evident signs of pregnancy. It felt good, knowing I’d witnessed the circularity of life. That a seal I’d midwifed into this world was now generating life herself. But Ha`upu, as we had come to call her for the towering mountain behind her natal beach, gave birth to a stillborn pup.
It’s one thing to lose an animal to nature. It was her first pregnancy, I told myself. Things sometimes go wrong with the first pregnancy. It’s another to lose one to something that feels senseless. I wonder how long the dog attack lasted? A few minutes? Maybe only a few seconds.
My dreams of the past few nights play out the attack in which I see the sleek, black seal pup in the jaws of a large dog, its head shaking and shaking and shaking.
Now, we have canine distemper to worry about. Hawaiian monk seals have no natural immunity against the most deadly contagious disease in canines. If distemper gets transmitted to Hawaiian monk seals, the disease could devastate the species once and for all.
What more can we do?
After the killing, we set dog traps–hence, the chicken. Installed game cameras. Re-invigorated our volunteer network.
But it’s not just Hawaiian monk seals.
At the start of our latest Laysan albatross season last November, a couple dozen adults lost their life in the jaws of two dogs.
And it’s not just dogs. We regularly lose endangered Hawaiian petrels and Newell’s shearwaters and other seabirds and forest birds to feral cats and rats and introduced barn owls.
Of course, not all dogs kill. Earlier this year, thousands of viewers of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology bird cam witnessed a stray dog approach a Laysan albatross chick as it sat curled in a ball sleeping. Thin and, no doubt, hungry, the dog sniffed the bird and walked away. Later, it was trapped, and the diligent folks at the Kauai Humane Society found the dog a home.
We talk about putting up fences. Trapping for predators. Installing motion-control cameras. And while they are important, I find myself asking with more and more urgency, What more can we do?
Because fences and traps and game cameras are nothing more than treating the symptoms of the problem.
I am reminded of a conversation with ocean conservationist and author Carl Safina earlier this year. He talked about circles of considerations. How we as a society have widened our circles over the centuries—toward women, gay people, persecuted religious sects, ethnic minorities, and other groups of “others.”
In his book The View from Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World, Carl writes, “Whenever we take the focus off ourselves and move it outward, we benefit. Life’s most fortunate ironies are that what’s best for the long run is best now, and selflessness serves our interests far better than selfishness. The wider our circle of considerations, the more stable we make the world—and the better the prospects for human experience and for all we might wish.”
I could hug him for those words. I have hugged him for those words.
While in line to top off my car’s gas tank earlier today—we are awaiting the arrival of a couple hurricanes here in Hawaii—my eyes settled on a bumper sticker on the Toyota Prius in front of me. Using various religious symbols that resemble letters, the sticker spelled out the word, “coexist.”
When I think about what more we can do, I think about how we have to learn to coexist. The “other” is now the environment, and we must widen our circle of considerations to include wildlife, our fisheries, fresh-water streams—all of Mother Nature.
I’m not sure how this all happens. It probably means we have to re-think the way we live with dogs and cats in our lives. We most assuredly need the strict enforcement of existing laws. We must re-think the outcome of our every action–and what it means to be human in the world–from shopping, to hunting, to going to the beach and even stocking up on cases of water bottled in plastic in the face of a hurricane or two. We can no longer rely on the excuse, “But that’s how we’ve always done it.” Because we’re no longer living in a world as we have known it.
Now, I’m an admitted idealist. So, I’ll go one step further. Beyond co-existence, I believe we need reverence. Reverence for all walks of life, all forms of life.
The Senegalese poet Baba Dioum provides the formula, perhaps, to make this happen, when he says, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.”
So, yes, educational outreach. Many people simply do not know when there is an endangered Hawaiian monk seal pup on a beach near them. They do not know that pups spend the majority of their first couple months of life on land, quite vulnerable, with no defenses.
Most people do not know that unlike Hawaiian geese, adult Laysan albatrosses and wedge-tailed shearwaters and most every other seabird in Hawaii will not fly away when a dog charges through a nesting colony. These ground-nesting seabirds did not evolve with land predators. They do not know to flee. What they do know is a titanium-strong fidelity to their nest site that can—and does—cost them their lives. Plus, most people do not know the chicks of these seabirds are just as vulnerable, because they cannot fly until they are two to six months of age. They are, to use a metaphor from another family of birds, sitting ducks.
So, yes, education. But when? And how? Because a few signs, a few press releases, a few outreach events aimed at school children? Yes, that’s all important. For the long term. But what if we don’t have the long term? And can it be retroactive? Can it bring back to life the dead pup? Because that’s what I want. That feels like the only way to stop the words—What. More. Can. We. Do?—that bang around in my belly the way tennis shoes do in a dryer.
On the beach, after cleaning the wounds of the dead pup’s mother, taking biopsies to test for disease, outfitting her with a GPS tag the size of my camera’s battery charger—so we can find her in a few days and weeks to re-assess her health—the team let her go. She had stopped calling for her pup, stopped the relentless swing of her head from left to right in search of her dead pup. Not because that motherly instinct had already disappeared. But, most likely, because she’d been given a light sedation during the procedure.
A teeter-totter requires an opposite force to go up and down. A scale needs objects of equal weight to balance. The words that brought balance to my emotions and tears to my eyes on a rough day came from the mouth of a veterinarian. I think his words say much about the concept of expanding circles of consideration.
The sun was sinking into the sky, stretching our shadows down the beach, and as we walked away, he kept looking back, checking on his patient, noting she was settling into the sand, perhaps her napping spot for the night, when he paused and said, “I think a little sedative is a good thing for a grieving mother.”
It took a few steps for the words to sink in, for me to understand how much they revealed about the man himself, and I, too, paused. “Yes,” I said. “Yes.”
But I still don’t know what more to do. Not really.