Trinidad Beach. Low tide. A pair of marine biology students measure tide pool lengths and depths. A couple wanders behind a haystack rock for a romantic moment. Children check out sea urchins and starfish, firmly attached to damp rocks.
Sudden chaos. Two dogs race at each other from opposite ends of the beach. Barking wildly. Fixated on an encounter, brief, with each other. Then galloping together to the foamy shoreline.
Within seconds, I see a marine mammal in one dog's mouth. Possibly a fur seal pup, dark and slender. Small or at least much smaller than either dog.
The dog's teeth sink into its neck. Whipping the animal back and forth. Thrashing it for the kill.
Owners scream at their dogs. Rushing to the waterline. The dog drops the seal. It swims away or it washes out on a wave.
The owner of one dog, a young woman, disappears quickly toward the parking lot, towing her dog, now on a leash. The other owner, a 20-something male, remains on the beach, pointing to the seal's head bumping up as a low wave crests.
"He's OK," the man says of the seal. "He's swimming away."
The dog owner dismisses a suggestion to call a rescue group.
"No, I don't think he's hurt," the man says. "Look, see, there he is."
A dark bump drifts away toward Trinidad Head.
The man doesn't put his dog back on a leash. "I don't know what happened. He's never like this. He always listens."
Fido's a killer?
The scene I witnessed at Trinidad State Beach late last year is what Dennis Wood, founder of the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center, calls a "worst-case scenario," a tragic encounter between a marine mammal and unleashed dogs that aren't, for one reason or another, responsive to an owner's commands.
Many owners may think they have voice control over an unleashed dog -- but they don't.
"If you have an animal with any kind of prey drive," he says, "and they see something, you might not be able to stop your dog from chasing down another animal."
Unleashed dogs on the beach can be a real problem, says Lynda Stockton, a marine mammal stranding coordinator for Humboldt and Del Norte counties. Stockton, also a dog owner, answers calls to the center's hotline.
She can list five or six such incidents from last year, including two seal pups who died from dog attacks. She recalls one month in which three separate dog bite incidents occurred on the slender stretch of beach below Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse.
"That's one of the smallest beaches here, and yet it was bad," she says. "We don't know if it's the same dog or what."
Initially, when rescuers reach a mauled seal, bite punctures might be hard to see, hidden under the seal's fur. "Once we get them in the hospital, we see the damage."
Bleeding wounds. Broken flippers.
A Pacific harbor seal pup was rescued from Indian Beach in Trinidad after a dog attack on May 8. The 18-pound pup, later named Bongela, had severe lacerations on his face and puncture wounds on his flippers. He was rehabilitated at the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center and was released on July 24 at a healthy weight of 51 pounds.
Another harbor seal pup, Ollie, was rescued on June 5 at the same beach. Ollie had puncture wounds on both of her rear flippers, as well as her right front flipper. X-rays revealed that Ollie's back flippers were also broken. The center's former director, Robyn Walker, says the wounds were most likely caused by a dog attack. Ollie survived and was released in September.
Yet another harbor seal pup, Mary, was rescued from Samoa in April. Mary had puncture wounds on her sides and her back flippers. The Marine Mammal Center volunteers weren't able to save her.
This handful of anecdotes clearly understates the problem. By far, most encounters between dogs and seals are unreported, including the attack I witnessed.
Of course, dogs aren't the only danger facing seals on the beach. Well-meaning human intervention is a problem. Boats collide with seals. Seals get entangled in bits of rope or fishing line. Sharks are a natural predator, dining on seals for lunch.
But it's particularly heartbreaking, Stockton says, to see damage done by a household pet when the injury could have been avoided so easily.
"If my dog ever did that, I don't know what I'd do," Stockton says.
Living outside the food chain
"Many people believe that cats and dogs should be allowed to roam free. People introduced domesticated cats and dogs to this country, and however much we may appreciate them as part of our lives, those animals are not native wildlife or part of a naturally functioning ecosystem."
-- from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife report, "Cats and Dogs and Birds on the Beach - A Deadly Combination"
Dogs have the instincts of hunters. But their meals are pink slime in gravy doled out from tin cans or salmon-flavored kibble purchased in 40-pound bags at the local pet store. Domestic dogs were once working animals, herding sheep or guarding farms. Nowadays most dogs, for all the mental health benefits they bring to the human species, are pets that live outside a natural food chain.
Wood, who is a veterinarian as well as founder of the marine mammal center, enjoys walking his dogs on the beach. He keeps them on leashes.
"You can get those long retractable leashes, 30 to 40 feet, and they can run and play," Wood says. "The fact that my dog wants to get off its leash and play is a poor excuse."
Most Humboldt dog owners are responsible human beings with friendly, well-trained canines. They buy local, organic produce, bring it home in reusable shopping bags, drive hybrid cars and recycle. Good human beings, all, who don't need another environmental cause about which to feel guilty.
That said, dogs, especially unleashed ones, endanger wild creatures, including harbor seal pups and snowy plovers.
Leash laws at beaches in Humboldt County vary widely, depending on who's in control of the beach, says Andre Hale, Humboldt County animal control officer. Some beaches are under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency, or are state parks. Clam Beach is a county park -- and the leash laws there vary not only on where you're walking but also on the time of year.
Leash laws at Clam Beach, for example, are tighter and more strictly enforced during snowy plover nesting season, March through September.
"Clam Beach is a location where snowy plovers nest," Hale says. "So there are restrictions based on the birds' nesting habits."
Dogs are one of several dangers to the Pacific Coast western snowy plover, a ground-nesting shorebird listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. In the past several months, plans have been hatching to minimize damage to plover populations from crows and ravens, birds in the corvid family, who consider shorebird eggs a tasty treat.
Human activity -- especially the proliferation of litter that attracts the corvids -- puts snowy plovers at risk. Also, plovers are difficult to see on beaches. Humans might get too near a nest without even knowing it.
Dogs, however, have no problem finding birds' nests.
"Many dogs are naturally inclined to hunt birds after generations of breeding for that purpose," states a U.S. Fish and Wildlife report. "Unleashed dogs chase birds, destroy nests and kill chicks."
Damage can occur fast, sometimes without the owners' knowledge.
"Please be considerate," warns Daria "Sprout" Topousis on the Humboldt Dogs website. Topousis' site lists the dog-friendly beaches in the area and advises owners to enjoy their freedoms responsibly. "We don't want to lose plovers or our dogs' access to the beach."
Special agent Tim Broadman, of the NOAA Fisheries Office for Law Enforcement, investigates and writes up federal cases against pet owners who never suspected their dogs could kill or injure another living creature.
"'My Fido is so calm and nice that he would never hurt anyone or anything,'" Broadman says, quoting pet owners. "But people take eyes off their dog, and it goes and kills a young harbor seal hidden in the bushes. The dog just takes a bite out of it. It's an instinctive thing to do."
Broadman owns dogs but rarely takes them to the beach. They like to chase gulls, he says.
"I'm a dog lover," Broadman says. "And I'm all for leash-law beaches, but people around here wouldn't abide by that."
A Clam Beach morning
A family spills out of an SUV -- young parents, young kids and two enthusiastic Dobermans straining at leashes. The dogs are barking. A toddler is screaming.
Another car pulls in and parks. A jogger and her pet, a medium-sized mixed breed that exudes Happy Dogness, hop out of a van. The dog owner hits the Hammond Trail and her unleashed canine noses about the parking lot, shitting in some bushes and greeting humans and other dogs with an enthusiastic wag.
Welcome to Clam Beach on a sunny Saturday. The parking lot, nearly full at 11 a.m., is lined with several signs warning dog owners to keep dogs on leashes in the parking lot, campground and everywhere else from March 1 to Sept. 30, a.k.a. snowy plover nesting season. It's not yet March.
The waveslope, or area covered by the last high tide, is a leash-free zone for dogs under their owner's voice control. No matter where or when dog owners are on the beach: "Dogs must be under complete control of owner."
The Dobermans yank themselves free to chase Happy Dog. The Dobermans' owners holler their names. They yell at each other to go after the dogs. They try to calm the hysterical toddler.
None of this disturbs the beach-walking satisfaction of HSU alumna Allison Lui and her friend. In fact, Lui wishes that she could bring her own dogs from Sacramento to run on the beach and make new friends in Humboldt County. "They would love it up here."
Since she moved to Arcata for college a few years ago, Lui's encounters with other people's dogs on the beach -- leashed and unleashed -- have been good ones.
"I feel like a lot of the dogs are very well-behaved," she says. "And cute."
At this, the Dobermans bound up to Lui and stop to sniff. The dogs are no longer trailing leashes. Owners still shout their names intermittently.
"Sorry about that." An owner carrying a leash apologizes to Lui as the Dobermans, now best of friends with Happy Dog, gallop off into the sand dunes. Lui smiles and waves. No problem.
On the waveslope, Willow Creek architect Joan Briggs walks 16-week-old Chesapeake Bay retriever Bochy. The puppy's on a longish red leash for his first trip to the beach. Briggs and Bochy are killing time, waiting to meet a flight at the airport.
"I thought we'd take an outing to the beach," Briggs says. "He's not sure about the waves. He's been barking at the foam."
Briggs is heartened by Humboldt's dog-friendly beaches. In fact, she's noticed a more accepting attitude toward pets all over California -- even in urban areas. She was shopping in San Rafael recently and an employee at a kitchenware store welcomed Bochy.
"I didn't think a store would let a puppy inside," Briggs says. "But they said, ‘Bring him in!'"
As Briggs talks, Bochy bumbles about blissfully, not seeming to mind the leash. He digs up a sun-bleached shell fragment and munches away.
"Don't eat that," Briggs says, offhandedly. Overall, Briggs says she has experienced only a few problems with other dogs on Humboldt's beaches.
As she talks, the Dobermans and Happy Dog arrive, owners now a football field or so away. Briggs pulls Bochy in close as the three dogs circle her and the puppy. There's a bit of tension.
"They look pretty young," Briggs says of the Dobermans.
Finally, the three unleashed hounds race off along the waveslope, then back into the tall grassy dunes.
Leashes benefit dogs as much as they do the environment, Wood says.
A leashed dog won't be as susceptible to sneaker waves.
A leashed dog won't be attacked or bitten by a defensive California sea lion basking on the beach. Even if the sea lion isn't in attack mode, the mammals are often carriers of leptospirosis, bacteria that can kill dogs and that's contagious to humans. Untreated leptospirosis infections can lead to meningitis, liver damage and kidney failure.
"We've seen increasing numbers of leptospirosis in dogs," Wood says. "It's transmitted in urine and they can pick it up from the sand."
The numbers of leptospirosis cases in marine mammals have doubled each decade since workers began monitoring the problem on stretches of California beaches in the 1970s, says Shelbi Stoudt, stranding and data manager at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito. Workers aren't sure whether the actual number is increasing or reporting efforts are improving. Stoudt agrees, however, the problem's a real one.
"I am not personally aware of any specific cases of dogs contracting leptospirosis directly from sea lions, but it is possible and even likely that it occurs," she says. She recommends that if people see a marine mammal on the beach, they should stay at least 50 feet away. If the animal appears to be in trouble, call the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center's hotline, (707) 465-6265.
Leashed dogs are also much less likely to incur steep fines for their owners.
Marine mammals are federally protected. In the seal-mauling incidents described in Trinidad, the dogs' owners would be liable for the damage done by their pets.
Pet owners are prosecuted every year, in varying numbers. In an instance involving a harbor seal with crushed skull, Broadman quickly located the responsible parties.
"There were only two people on the beach that morning," he says. One of those people had a dog.
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, acts that harass, harm or endanger seals, sea lions or whales can result in fines up to $100,000 and even a year in jail. That would be an extreme case, Broadman says, involving malicious intent to harm the marine mammals.
Most fines, Broadman says, run in the $2,000 to $10,000 range. Dog owners had not meant to harm marine mammals. They just hadn't been thinking.
Of course, even humans without dogs can endanger seal pups. Harbor seals leave newborns in the sand while mom goes fishing. When concerned individuals come upon these seals, people often think the babies are abandoned. Wanting to help, they mistakenly attempt to rescue the seal. This can cause the mother to abandon the baby seal.
Unleashed dogs, though, can be more dangerous.
"Marine mammals are smart enough to try and hide their young," Broadman says."But dogs can seek them out easily."
Approaching or chasing a marine mammal, or flushing animals off the beach, is illegal.
Even if the dogs don't catch the animals and no direct physical harm results, the chase can cause pregnant marine mammals to miscarry. Owners can be fined.
"A lot of people think it's fine to turn my animal lose -- but they're responsible," Broadman says.
Some of the worst damage can occur when dogs meet other dogs on the beach and revert to a pack mentality.
"Some surfers went out and let their dogs roam free on the beach while they surfed," Broadman says. While their owners were riding the waves, the dogs formed a temporary "wild pack," he says, and went after a juvenile elephant seal.
"They did damage to that animal," Broadman says. "And those surfers were liable."
When dogs roam free and form packs of two or more, they "turn off their minding," Broadman says.
He once saw unleashed dogs go after small children, north of Clam Beach in McKinleyville. Two little children were playing in the sand and the smaller one, a toddler, was attacked. "That was the most alarming thing for me," Broadman says. "I saw what a dog could do -- and so quickly."
He's seen packs of dogs go after farm animals. "They see a goat or a sheep and the play turns into harassment or a ‘take.'"
That's why owners need to be aware of what their dogs are doing -- all the time.
"Pretty soon, when dogs get to be dogs, when there are two or more, they don't act how they act one-on-one with their owners," he says. "They can hit kids. They can hit wild animals. They turn into, much more, killers."
Broadman agrees that most Humboldt County dog owners would never want to harm a wild creature. Their dogs like to run on the beaches, and owners aren't aware of the dangers.
"People should be more cognizant with their dogs," Broadman says. And if they are, he won't have to hear the familiar excuse: "‘I didn't know my little Fido would do that.'"
On the beach
Another afternoon at Trinidad Beach. High tide. A young couple hops out of their car and releases the hound, or rather, a 2-year-old American pit bull. The dog's on a leash, yanking its owners toward the waves. Halfway there, the dog pauses, assumes that familiar hunching posture. "This always happens!" the woman says.
She looks around sheepishly, sees only me, then kicks sand over the steaming golden poop.
"He's still just a puppy," she says. "Look at all that energy."
By this time, the dog's unleashed and racing into the water.
On to Moonstone Beach, where a sign in the parking lot states: "West of this sign all dogs must be securely leashed or under voice control of owner. Voice control means your dog will come to you at first calling. Violators will be cited."
Above the sign, a box dispenses bags for pet feces. This tactic works for most pet owners, though a couple large turd piles ripen in the sun west of the sign during a recent visit.
Moonstone is doggie heaven on any weekend afternoon, with more than a dozen pooches on and off leashes, wagging and fetching, making new friends, racing into the water and splashing gleefully back onto the beach.
Dash, an 8-year-old mix of border collie and Australian shepherd, is not on a leash. But the dog stays close, within a few feet of his owners, Kit and C.J. McKinley of Eureka. When C.J. throws a stick, Dash runs for it and totes it back immediately. Other dogs and waves and humans do not distract Dash at all. He's responsive to every word that comes out of his owner's mouths.
"He's super-smart and well-trained," Kit McKinley says. "The epitome of voice control."
The McKinleys say they have few problems with other dogs on the beach. Most people with aggressive, unfriendly dogs know enough to keep those animals on leashes.
But Moonstone Beach can get crowded. And some owners think their dogs are under voice control -- when they obviously are not. If an owner needs to repeat the dog's name or a command more than once, the dog is not under voice control.
The McKinleys stop throwing the stick for a minute. Dash barks at them. He wants to play. "They're so happy to be here," McKinley says.
Humans love dogs. Dogs love the beach.
A call came in to the marine mammal stranding hotline in late January. An injured sea lion on the beach, not far from the Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City.
Observers said the animal had a big tear into the flesh of its right flank.
"It looked like it had been torn open," Stockton says. "We couldn't tell if it had been from a boat or a bite."
Stockton got a team together to rescue the sea lion. It took a couple hours to coordinate this, with phone calls and text messages flying back and forth. Finally, enough volunteers were rounded up and a meeting point was arranged. The team arrived on the beach, looking like "they meant business," Stockton says.
Gloved volunteers carried nets and toted a heavy-duty plastic animal crate to transport the marine mammal. They made their way along the beach carefully, slowly. Their strategy? Don't scare the animal back into the water.
It was slow going.
Then an unknowing dog owner showed up with an unleashed canine. The dog was frolicking along, far ahead of its owner. It saw the seal -- what fun! -- and jogged over to investigate.
The seal slipped back into the water and disappeared.
Frustrated, the team packed up and left.
"After all that effort to get organized, someone comes out there with a dog and chases the seal back into the water," Stockton says, exasperated. "That's two to three hours of our effort wasted, and we have to wait and watch to see where it comes up next."
The injured sea lion, several weeks later, had not been reported again on any beaches in Humboldt or Del Norte counties.
Willow Creek architect Joan Briggs walks 16-week-old Chesapeake Bay retriever Bochy on a long leash at Clam Beach. Photo by Deidre Pike