There is Hope for Hawaiian Monk Seals

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There is Hope for Hawaiian Monk Seals

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
May 04, 2012

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
Mahatma Gandhi

Four years ago this week, a young Hawaiian monk seal gave birth to a healthy, little pup on a remote beach on Kauai’s North Shore. Sadly, the new mother showed absolutely no interest in her pup. She didn’t nuzzle it. She didn’t present her teats for nursing. It wasn’t the first time she had turned away from her offspring. This same female had birthed in very nearly the same spot the year before with the same result—she abandoned her pup.

The second time it happened, a team of researchers and scientists made the hard decision to intervene—to not let nature take its course. Instead, to raise the pup in captivity and release it back to the wild about the same time its mother would have weaned it, about five to seven weeks of age. It was, after all, one of only 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals left in a population that is declining at 4% per year. Heroic measures were required.

They called him KP2. The “KP” stood for “Kauai pup.” The “2” represented the second pup born on Kauai in 2008. KP2 was flown to a NOAA facility on Oahu, where he developed an eye condition that extended his stay in captivity by several months. He was fed and treated by hand, of course. It was the only way. Finally, in December, some seven months after his birth, KP2 was outfitted with a tracking device and released in the waters off Molokai. Things went well, at first. He foraged. He explored. But, then, he explored a little too much and popped up at a busy—for Molokai—harbor. He made friends with swimmers and boogey-boarding children. He crawled onto the swim platforms on the backs of boats. He galumphed up boat ramps and napped.

There would be good and bad repercussions.

The good: KP2 befriended children, adults and, even, dogs right about the time the death of two Hawaiian monk seals on Kauai were being investigated. One of the two cases would be resolved and a man would go to prison for a 90-day sentence for shooting a full-term pregnant female. Monk seals needed all the friends they could get in 2009.

The bad: As KP2 grew, it was feared his friendly behavior with swimmers would turn into more than mere humans could handle. In fact, there were reports already that he was clasping and holding swimmers under water. (There are many YouTube videos.) The situation was turning into a wildlife management nightmare. At the same time, KP2’s eye condition worsened, and he was removed from the wild—to the anger of many, new Hawaiian monk seal advocates.

KP2 made another journey, this time to the University of California Santa Cruz. He stayed there, undergoing tests and participating in research programs, until late last year, when KP—by now renamed Ho’ailona and given his own Facebook pagemoved to the Waikiki Aquarium on Oahu in December 2011.

On Monday of this week, Ho’ailona celebrated his fourth birthday with fish-stuffed ice cakes and some new toys.

Last Friday, three days before Ho’ailona’s fourth birthday, his mother pupped again--a mere stone’s throw away from Ho’ailona’s own birth spot. 

Much has happened in the four years since Ho’ailona’s birth. New science has been gleaned thanks to this once-abandoned pup. Research has been conducted into the role Hawaiian monk seals played in the Hawaiian language and culture. PSAs are airing in support of this endangered species. Websites, non-profit organizations, foundations and coalitions are rallying their cry. And laws have been tightened to prosecute those who harm, harass or kill these wild creatures that—with their Buddha smile—warm many people’s hearts.

But not everyone’s hearts are warmed. On April 22, another Hawaiian monk seal was found dead in Hawaii, and his death is under investigation. 

As a volunteer with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui, I get asked about these deaths—there have been others—and they sadden me greatly.

It’s no secret that many fishermen see monk seals as competition in the dwindling supply of fisheries, and some consider the Hawaiian monk seal an invasive species introduced by the government. I could write a lot about this. But I won’t. Not now.

One week ago today, KP2’s mom gave birth again. This time, she rolled over and presented her teats to her pup. She lifted her head to check on it mid-nap. She galumphed to the water and took it for a swim—albeit a little early in its life. Maybe instinct finally kicked in. She reached a certain age. Or enough oxytocin raced through her system. Whatever happened, the important thing is: She stayed. 

Here’s what I want to share: I believe in the power of redemption. Just as the “evil” mom who abandoned her pups finally came around, I believe we humans can, too. We humans are amazing creatures. We slingshot people into outer space and bring them back to earth safely. We use robotic surgical arms controlled by computers to perform coronary artery bypasses. There is a tsunami of support building for Hawaii’s state mammal in 2012, and I believe it will wash in a new wave of thinking. One that will allow for wildlife and humans to co-exist. We can figure this out.

Happy birthday, Ho'ailona.


Wendy McIlroy | May 07, 2012 02:13 AM

Wonderful essay, Kim. I'm hoping KP2 (I still think of him by his "old" name) will be an ambassador for his species for many years to come.

Mary | May 07, 2012 09:02 AM

Thank you! "KP good boy"

Dianne White | May 07, 2012 04:13 PM

Great post Kim. Powerfully written and inspirational! Hope it makes waves.

susan | May 10, 2012 09:22 AM

Chicken skin. is the new pup Micki and i saw down by your old house KP2's sibling? Such a heartwarming story, I'm sending it on to Jessica, as she and Charlie drove up to see this pup, too.

Kim | May 22, 2012 05:35 PM

Thanks, everyone. Susan, KP2's sibling is the one that Jessica saw.

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