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The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal, a Marine Biologist, and the Fight to Save a Speciesby Terrie M Williams
My earliest aspiration, at five years old, was to grow up to be a dog. This seemed the noblest of professions, and I determined that it was only a matter of time and desire before I grew the requisite four legs and tail. My religious parents, however, had equally unlikely expectations and prayed that I’d become a Roman Catholic nun.
Sister Everista and Sister Agnes never knew their true influence on the girl known best for scraped-up knees and a love of the outdoors. Instead of civilizing the animal out of me, the stern-faced, black-habited sisters inadvertently taught me how to communicate with the “lowly creatures” of the Bible.
I found that I could perceive the nearly invisible body and eye movements comprising animal language, and predict an animal’s next move as if I were inside its mind. It wasn’t communication in a Dr. Dolittle sense; rather, I was able to “read” the local dogs, cats, foxes, squirrels, and rabbits as others might read a newspaper.
At every opportunity I’d escape the disinfected halls of the parochial schools and plunge into the wild chaos of the surrounding oak forests of the East Coast. The freedom to poke around creeks like an otter in search of frogs or to slip through thorny blackberry bushes with the liquid movement of a fox was exhilarating. My animal senses grew with time, much to the consternation of the nuns and the rest of the girls in my class. I was known somewhat disparagingly as “that girl who likes animals.” Trips to the confessional enforced by Sister Agnes with a twisting two-fingered clamp on my ear were, more often than not, to confess to the sin of having released some rescued frog, baby bird, or field mouse that had wriggled free of my pocket and crawled between the church pews. I considered the litany of Hail Marys recited on scabbed knees due penance for the creature’s salvation.
Over the years this fascination with the furred and finned evolved into a lifetime of globe-trotting in the man’s world of wildlife research. I knew that my success had less to do with raw intelligence and more with an innate ability to relate to animals. If I couldn’t be an animal, then at least I could learn to appreciate the intimate details of their daily lives by studying them. The wilderness became my cathedral. Skittish cheetahs, playful dolphins, mitten-pawed sea otters, and stoic Antarctic seals were my congregation. Dominican discipline taught me focus; Mother Superior’s demands for self-sacrifice honed an inborn skill for animal empathy.
Yet in all my wildlife encounters encompassing a lifetime of adventures, there was one major disappointment. No wild animal had ever read me in return. A Pembroke Welsh corgi named Austin, the canine member of my tiny Hawaiian ‘ohana (family), had come the closest. But when it came to the inhabitants of the woods and the oceans, animal communication had been a lonely, one-way affair. Nuns and scientific textbooks espoused that such was the nature of animals, since nonhuman creatures possessed neither souls nor intellect. Here I must say that both were mistaken. For, unexpectedly, after half a century of being the mind reader, one of them suddenly read me.
He was not the fastest, biggest, or purportedly smartest of animals; rather he was an immature, nearly blind sea mammal that had been cast out by his own species. By all rights he should have died on an isolated beach on Kauai. Like me, he began life attempting to cross physical and societal boundaries that separated humans from animals, oblivious to the impossibility. He was a boisterous surprise in a scientific career that was in danger of maturing into comfortable cynicism.
KP2 came into the world on May 1, 2008, in the usual way of seals—slippery, wet, and sliding unceremoniously from between his mother’s back flippers onto a nursing beach. With a shake of a head covered in thick black lanugo, the dark fetal fur jammies of his species, he opened his eyes to tropical tranquillity while resting a chin on scattered fragments of bleached coral. In stark contrast to the harsh, icy landings endured by his cousin Antarctic seal species, KP2’s birthplace on North Larsen’s Beach, Kauai, was one of turquoise blue water warmed by an equatorial sun. In the distance, wisps of steam rose from lush vegetation blanketing the towering pali, the mountainous peaks protecting the beach from the afternoon trade winds.
The newborn seal stretched, uncoiling flippers that had been wrapped snugly around his body in utero for the past ten months. Carried within the belly of his mother, RK22 (her National Marine Fisheries Service ID), the developing pup had submerged hundreds of feet in depth in pursuit of fish that would sustain his fetal growth. For nearly a year he had been rocked to sleep on the tides of the Hawaiian current, cradled in his mother’s womb as she swam back and forth between the islands, coral atolls, and nursing beaches.
The quiet of KP2’s entrance into the world was broken within hours of his first breaths by an explosion of violent splashing immediately offshore. Raucous calls of brawling seals had awoken him and made him cry out. A throaty growl soon overwhelmed his high-pitched calls for his mother as the seal pup was attacked. In a single blow, an adult male Hawaiian monk seal nipped and rolled the newborn seal into the sand. The aggressive male left deep gouges along the tide line as he maneuvered for a second, more lethal hold on KP2’s neck—a hold that could easily have broken the pup in two.
KP2’s attacker was just as likely as not his father. Lumbering heavily on powerful front flippers and a massive chest, the four-hundredpound male dwarfed KP2. He would have crushed the newborn had KP2 not scrambled out of the way. The male had only one goal on his testosterone-driven mind: to mate with RK22. Her pup was merely a rock-sized obstacle in his path.
Inexplicably, KP2’s mother did nothing. As her pup tried to escape among the jagged lava rocks, she watched passively. It was uncharacteristic behavior for a monk seal mother, or any seal mother, for that matter. Among the many species of pinnipeds, the collective name for the mammalian group that includes sluglike phocid seals and clownish-eared sea lions, male aggression toward newborns is not unusual. But seal mothers, even in cases in which they are outweighed three to one by full-grown males, will—even within minutes of giving birth— reproach such aggressors with teeth bared, ready to sink them into and draw blood from old, scarred chests. On nursing beaches from the tropics to the polar sea ice, pinniped mothers risk death to defend their helpless pups.
RK22 showed no such courage against her pup’s aggressor. Rather, she ignored the ruckus as KP2 was mauled, seemingly irritated by the disturbance to her afternoon nap. Confirming her indifference, RK22 followed the brutish male and another male companion into the water, leaving her ruffled offspring abandoned and suckling on beach rocks for comfort.
“Rrraughh,” KP2 called desperately for his mother. His second day of life was not going much better than the first, and would end just as tumultuously. With hunger overtaking KP2’s fear of further attack, he began to call loudly for his mother and her milk. Unlike the charming chirp of sea otter pups or the high-pitched squealing whistles of dolphin calves, KP2’s cry was a distinctive rumbling “rrrraaughhhh.”
Each rough-edged bawl of the pup contained a vocal signature that could be distinguished by his mother from any other seal’s call, had there been others around. An unbreakable mother-pup bond existed between KP2 and RK22 that transcended her lack of interest. A permanent connection, stronger than the pull of the moon on the tides, had formed deep within the instinctual parts of their brains the instant he had wriggled free from her placenta. Nose to nose and whisker to whisker, they had sniffed and vocalized in pinniped recognition of each other’s earthly existence in those first moments. Their mutual greeting in the shared instant of birth had sealed their genetic knot. She could not deny that he was biologically tied to her or that his calls were beckoning her.
When KP2’s mother finally responded to his cries, she was accompanied by the large, pugnacious male who trailed persistently behind her. Again KP2 was attacked. But this time, it was his own mother who turned on him. With an aggression typically reserved for territorial fights, she took his head into her mouth and bit down. If she had wanted, she could have killed her offspring instantly by puncturing his skull with her sharp canine teeth. Instead, she grabbed the struggling pup in her mouth, shook him from side to side like a dog with a wet dish towel, and spat him out on the ground. KP2 rolled in a limp bundle of matted fur and sand, his uncoordinated flippers flailing in the ocean debris of the high-tide line.
More flustered than hurt, the pup struggled to regain his footing. Disoriented and battered, KP2 was not sure which way to crawl. So he hunkered down in the sand where he had landed.
KP2’s struggles had been witnessed by a group of islanders who were well aware of RK22’s maternal incompetence. Shadowed beneath hats and hidden behind the tropical vegetation, they tried to blend into the background as they watched with binoculars so as not to disturb the mother and her new pup. The previous June, less than a hundred feet from the bloodstained sand that marked KP2’s birthplace, this same group had witnessed the entry of his sister into the world.
To these members of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Kauai Monk Seal Team, this adult female seal was notorious for bad behavior and bad mothering. She had been just as unresponsive to the cries of KP2’s sister. The year before, the team had waited three days before they could no longer stand to watch idly as the tiny female pup slowly, helplessly starved to death on the beach. Taking pity on the abandoned pup, they finally picked her up.
For days the dedicated team tried valiantly to reunite KP2’s sister with her mother by moving the crying pup directly in front of RK22’s sunbathing spot. But RK22 would have none of it. Instead she snoozed in the sun, ignoring the persistent calls of her pup. When the newborn seal became too loud, her mother entered the water for a swim and in a single dive drowned out the sound of her starving offspring.
Finally admitting defeat in the face of RK22’s indifference, one of the team members called in a veterinarian, who humanely euthanized the weak and emaciated pup. KP2’s sister lived for only five days.
Determined not to let KP2 suffer the same fate, the Kauai team called the marine mammal stranding headquarters on the neighboring island of Oahu. David Schofield of the National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Islands Regional Office (NMFS-PIRO) answered. With an office in downtown Honolulu, David maintained an uneasy relationship with the local Hawaiians and at times his upper management. He was the federal official in charge of marine mammal strandings for the islands, and unlike his bosses 4,519 miles away in Washington, D.C., David’s everyday decisions were entangled with cultural sensitivities as well as ocean politics. While Washington bureaucrats could ponder their next moves, David’s job demanded instantaneous life-ordeath evaluations for the dolphins, whales, and seals that found their way onto Hawaii’s shores. It was simply impossible to please everyone.
Having grown up in the shadow of the Trump casinos in Atlantic City, a brusque decision-making attitude came naturally to David. However, his East Coast edge for dealing quickly and independently with stranded animals in Hawaii sometimes chafed island sensitivities. Aloha shirts, a bicep tattoo, and a shared passion for surfing and canoeing the waters of Waikiki notwithstanding, David remained a haole (outsider).
Issuing a series of rapid-fire phone calls, David dealt with KP2, aware that some of his decisions would not be popular; in these situations it was easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission. As a result, less than forty-eight hours after his birth, KP2 was whisked away from his abusive mother, scooped up fireman style by David and another government official, Shawn Farry, from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, or PIFSC, a unit of the National Marine Fisheries Service. David grasped the little seal’s front flippers and Shawn had hold of his back flippers while his thick pink umbilical cord dangled between them. Either man could have easily carried the seal pup, at only thirty-four pounds, under one arm. Instead they gently cradled the stunned seal between them and placed him in a dog kennel.
A quick inspection of KP2 showed that he was no worse for wear despite his postpartum ordeal on the beach. He had been roughed up but there was no evidence of open bite wounds. From what David and Shawn could see, KP2 was a robust, healthy monk seal pup. “So why,” they asked each other, “did RK22 abandon him?”
Nature’s law dictating survival of the fittest initially seemed the most likely explanation. Because the metabolic cost of pregnancy is low compared to lactation, many mammals (including those that live in the sea) are known for carrying fetuses to term only to abandon them at the moment of birth. Reasons for this seemingly wasteful behavior vary. Sometimes mothers recognize that their newborns are ill or otherwise deformed. Other times mothers know that local food resources are insufficient for sustaining both their own caloric needs and those of their young. Nature dictates that, above all else, you save yourself. This is the harsh biological reality for wild mothers caught in rapidly degrading habitats: cut your losses and focus efforts on the hope of guaranteeing the survival of next year’s healthy offspring.
But the pup in question was not ill, nor had RK22 disappeared to forage elsewhere. KP2’s mother simply appeared to prefer male companionship to motherhood. Consequently, her offspring had been left to find their own path to survival.
David and Shawn now faced the most difficult decision encountered by a biologist. They could let nature run its course, or they could intervene. With so few Hawaiian monk seals left in the world, the decision was obvious. They chose to intervene, and in a remarkable turn of events KP2 was given a second chance at life.
At the nearby Lihue Airport, a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 transporter waited next to a line of palm trees. David Schofield had arranged a deal for the pup to hitch a free ride on the aircraft as it returned to Oahu. The C-130’s engines roared in anticipation of takeoff as the vehicle containing KP2 and his rescuers sped across the tarmac. The seal stuck his nose through the grating and peered through the small holes of the kennel. He had no perception of what the normal sights, sounds, and smells of a monk seal’s life should be. However, despite the noise and urgency surrounding him, there was some comfort in not being mauled or abused by one of his own.
With a vibrating roar of propellers, the seal pup left behind his mother to her brutish male companion in the turquoise waters of Kauai. It was an unprecedented act instigated by a bad mother, organized by a brash ex–New Jerseyan, and executed by the generosity of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Eventually, the little black pup who’d been abandoned on a lonely Kauai beach would become an icon, a rogue, and a threat. Unbeknownst to RK22, the survival of her entire species would one day come to rest on her offspring’s small and once discarded shoulders.
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