Last week, this adult monk seal died. A female. She was 14, in the prime of her life, and a really really good mother. She’d pupped the past seven years in a row, producing healthy seals, six of which are still alive today.
I’ve witnessed many deaths of Hawaiian monk seals over the dozen years I’ve volunteered for the Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui. It doesn’t get easier.
One of the ways I volunteer is helping write weekly updates for the website kauaiseals.com.
Writing can be a visceral experience. Last night, while writing the weekly update about the loss of this seal, I felt anger growing within me. I feel it now as I write this. Maybe it’s sadness disguised as anger. Likely.
Let me pause here and tell you about Hawaiian monk seals, in particular mothers. They roll in from the ocean in the days before giving birth carrying some significant baby weight. Like one-third again their normal non-baby weight. Like maybe tipping the scales at 700 pounds. When they wean their pups some four to six weeks after birthing, they will weigh half that. Their ribs, their hips, their shoulders, all these bones will be visible beneath their tightly furred skin. They lose this massive amount of weight, because during the time they nurse their pups, they do not eat. It’s as if for upwards of six weeks, they are willingly giving their life for that of their growing little one. And they are. The only reason they finally wean their pups is because hunger forces them back to the sea where nourishment awaits.
Hawaiian monk seals can live anywhere from 25 to 30 years. The seal that died last week, known to science as RO28 and to her followers as Pōhaku, could have produced another seven pups, contributing greatly to the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population.
I’ve spent many hours observing RO28 and her pups on the beach over the years.
By now, you’re probably wondering how this big beautiful marine mammal died.
It wasn’t an easy death. A whole team of veterinarians and support staff spent a ground-breaking 10 weeks trying to save RO28, and there were hopeful moments. Moments when RO28 seemed to be getting better. In the end, it was a microscopic, single-cell parasite known as toxoplasma gondii that brought RO28 down. Just one of their eggs—known as oocysts— is enough to trigger an infection in a monk seal causing inflammation of the brain and lungs; and in the case of females, the uterus; and for fetuses, the placenta that will subsequently kill the seal.
Here’s the weird part: The parasite only reproduces in the family of felids. In Hawaii, the only felids we have are cats. A toxo-infected cat sheds T. gondii oocysts into the environment via their feces. The feces of just one toxo-infected cat contains millions of T. gondii oocysts that can survive in the environment for months, maybe years.
It’s bizarre. How could these microscopic parasites in the feces of cats possibly kill a monk seal? Turns out, the same way sea otters along the central coast of California were dying off in the 1990s. The parasite makes its way to the sea by way of inland waterways and runoff. Then, the monk seal directly ingests the parasite in the water or by eating other toxo-infected prey.
Hawaiian monk seals aren’t the only animals in Hawaii being killed by toxoplasmosis. Spinner dolphins, the Hawaiian goose known as nēnē, and the endangered Hawaiian crow, known as ‘ālala, have died of toxo. And humans. If anyone besides scientists is really aware of toxoplasmosis, it’s pregnant women. The Centers for Disease Control cautions pregnant women with cats to stop changing kitty litter, letting pet cats outdoors, and handling stray cats. Because toxo in humans can cause miscarriages and birth defects.
NOAA suggests the solution is keeping all cats indoors or, if outdoors, in enclosed “catios.” Think dog runs for cats. Basically, treat your cat like your dog—don’t let it roam, take it for walks on a leash. That’s well and good, but Hawaii certainly has too many feral cats running around the landscape, stretching from the coastline to our mountain peaks and everywhere in between. It’s sticky subject with no easy answers. No easy solution. Certainly, I fear, no solution that’s going to stop more Hawaiian monk seals from dying of toxo in the near future.
It’s hard for me to imagine how we’ll fix this, just as it’s hard for me to imagine how we’ll come out of COVID-19 or heal the political quagmire dividing our nation right now. I guess I just have to trust good will prevail.
It’s helped to write about RO28. She was a good mom. A really really good mom. I’ll miss her.
I’m not as angry now.
Hawaii’s statewide number of COVID-19 cases grew to 410. The Hawaii National Guard is assisting Kauai Police at checkpoints around the island, reinforcing the message to stay home. Kauai is up to 19 cases.
Be well. Be sane.