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Pandas, tigers and African elephants have captured worldwide attention from conservationists. But an even more endangered species struggles on American shores – the Hawaiian monk seal. Fewer than 1,100 survive today. Scientists predict that without intervention the species could become extinct within 50 years. When the chance to house and study an abandoned pup arose, a California marine biologist took the seal in. In a new book, she tells the story of KP2 – how the boisterous young seal became a celebrity, charmed everyone around him and gave scientists clues to saving his species.
- Terrie Williams director of the Marine Mammal Physiology Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and co-creator of the Center of Ocean Health
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal, a Marine Biologist, and the Fight to Save a Species” by Terrie Williams. Copyright 2012 by Terrie Williams. Reprinted here by permission of The Penguin Press. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. University of California biology professor, Terrie Williams adopted an endangered Hawaiian seal into her lab. Along the way, she unearthed new science in her field, and found a kindred spirit on the personable pup. She has a new book titled "The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal, a Marine Biologist, and the Fight to Save a Species." She talks about modern obstacles to conservation, and the fundamental bond between humans and animals.
MS. DIANE REHMTerrie Williams joins me in the studio. You are always a part of this program. I invite you to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, Terrie.
DR. TERRIE WILLIAMSGood morning, Diane. It's terrific being here.
REHMTerrie, it's good to have you here, and especially because you are the first person I've ever met who wanted to grow up to be a dog.
WILLIAMSThat's the best line of the book, and it's the first one. You know, and I'm gonna tell everybody listening the secret. It was not any dog, it was -- I'm ashamed to say Superman's dog. I wanted to be Superdog.
REHMYou wanted to be Superdog. At age five, you decided that was what you wanted to be.
WILLIAMSDogs are so noble, I had to do it. And this dog could fly.
REHMI totally understand your feeling. Tell us about KP2. First the name, why is he called KP2?
WILLIAMSKP2 stands for Kauai Pup 2. He was the second pup born on Kauai that year, and as a result, that was his sort of Hawaiian name. And even though he's had many, many names afterwards, that one stuck.
REHMTell me how KP2 came into life first, and then into your life.
WILLIAMSKP2 was born like other monk seals, you know, out on a beach in Hawaii, and as I said, Kauai, and for whatever reason, and we all have opinions about it, but for whatever reason, his mother abandoned him. And worse than that, he was attacked by adult male seals that were coming in to try and mate with KP2's mother, and at one point she even attacked her own offspring which is, you know, just unheard of for any pinniped, any seal or sea lion.
WILLIAMSSo yeah, there are a number of reasons that could have happened. Environmental, just a quirk of his mother. But as a result, he never had a drop of her milk, and there were people watching this whole scene. They were keeping tabs on all the monk seals and they watched her. She had abandoned her pup the previous year. So after two days they said, no. No. We're gonna try and save this little pup, and he was brought in.
REHMSo if she had abandoned a pup the year before, would those watching have said, she's not a good mother, or what were the other theories?
WILLIAMSThey pretty well were on the watch, you know, thinking that she was just a bad mom. I wonder, though. I wonder with all the things that are happening with monk seals these days, with poor resources in terms of fish and such, whether she had made a conscious decision which was to let the pup go, go off with these rambunctious males that were after her, and in actual fact, save the pup from being further attacked. It's a theory, who knows, but it's one of those things where you have to wonder if the ecosystem has just gotten so out of balance that it's forced a mom to do something she wouldn't normally do.
REHMHow soon after the pup was abandoned did he get rescued?
WILLIAMSThey waited two days, you know, and for a pup, I mean, think of a newborn baby, you know, two days without any food, any, you know sustenance, any fluid.
REHMAnd was it in the sand, or on the water?
WILLIAMSHe was just in the sand. So these pups are born on the sand, and he was found sort of sucking on lava rocks, and they said we're gonna try and save this animal.
REHMHow big would he have been then?
WILLIAMSAbout 30 pounds.
REHMThirty pounds when born.
WILLIAMSYeah. Yeah. That's, I know, a little large.
REHMWow. Big baby. Big baby.
WILLIAMSWell, you know, when you got 300-pound mom...
REHMYeah. So then how did you come into the picture?
WILLIAMSWell, I had been talking to the marine mammal permitting office about working with monk seals for well, 15 years. It was something I had wanted to do. I had lived in Hawaii, had seen the seals, and I just was fascinated with a tropical seal. I mean, this is unheard of, you know. Seals are supposed to live in the cold, you know. I worked in the Antarctic, and things on a beach in Hawaii? So it was an amazing animal to see very, very little science on them because they've been endangered as long as I've know them.
WILLIAMSAnd so I had begged. I begged for 15 years, please let me have a permit so I can work on any seal anywhere. I don't care if it's in Hawaii, I don't care if it's an animal that's in, you know, a zoo or something, let me work on monk seals, and I could never get the permit. Then here comes this seal, KP2, this little pup, and there's no home for him. You know, they bring him in, he's in a temporary pool...
REHMAnd you are there.
WILLIAMSNo. I was in the Antarctic.
REHMOkay. You're in Antarctica, okay.
WILLIAMSSo I'm in Antarctica studying ice seals, and I get this email in McMurdo Station at, you know, 500 miles away from the South Pole, and it just said, would you be interested in a monk seal pup?
REHMYou must have thought you had died and gone to heaven.
WILLIAMSWell, you know, you get suspicious. You're like what's the...
WILLIAMS...the catch in this.
WILLIAMSAnd the catch was I had to bring the seal to, of all places, Santa Cruz, California, where I work. And, you know, it makes you stop a moment, and I said, well, I've asked for 15 years to do this and I said, all right. And so I just typed Y-E-S on the Internet in my email and sent it back thinking I'd never hear another word. And I'll be darned, you know, it took a lot of wrangling and such, but they said, okay. You owe us $17,000. Figure out how to get this seal over to California, and I was like...
REHMYou owe us $17,000?
WILLIAMSWell, we were going FedEx the seal, and that's how much it was going to cost to go from Hawaii to California.
WILLIAMSYes. Believe it or not, that's how we move a lot of marine mammals. We moved sea otters from the Exxon Valdez spill using -- well, it was Flying Tigers at the time, and then turned into Fed Ex. So yeah, it's not unheard of.
REHMBut if you've got a sea mammal...
REHM...how in the world do you Fed Ex this creature?
WILLIAMSWell, the good thing about seals, they're not like dolphins. They can stay out of water for a period of time.
WILLIAMSSo we can put them in a kennel-type cage and send them over. As it was, the U.S. Navy stepped up, and they said, you know, we have a flight coming over from Oahu. It's going to San Diego. If you can get a truck into San Diego, we will bring him over for free.
REHMHow quickly did you get from where you were in the arctic to this seal?
WILLIAMSThey told me I think it was about October 15, 16th. I flew from the Antarctic to New Zealand to Australia to Hawaii, met the seal, and looked at him. Made the decision, he was at the Waikiki Aquarium at the time, made the decision sort of on the fly, and then within a couple weeks he was in my lab, with a little sort of truck ride through Los Angeles traffic on the Thanksgiving. That's basically when we were trying to do it.
REHMBut, you know, you have to wonder about the abandonment of a monk seal by its mother, and what kind of effect it has on its ability to adapt surely to anything in the environment, but most especially to a human being.
WILLIAMSWell, you know, it was interesting. He was brought in and originally he had been cared for by a number of people, so he had grown up for a year before I actually met him, and in that time, all he knew as his ohana, as his family, were people. So they were the ones that, you know, fed him milk and, you know, salmon milkshakes as he got older, and then would care for him, and ultimately they had to teach him to swim. He did not know -- he got so chubby on the food they were giving him, he got this blubber layer, and unlike them moms that are, you know, training these little skinny pups and they dive just fine, here he is...
REHMHe didn't know how.
WILLIAMSHe couldn't get under water. He was too fat. His little butt was hanging up in the top of the water surface, and...
REHMThat's a great image.
WILLIAMSWell, the, you know, well, here's the other half. Because he couldn't swim that well, they handed him a pink boogie board, and it was just so that it would give him something to float on, and that seal is the best little surfing seal I have ever seen.
REHMOh, my gosh.
WILLIAMSYeah. It was incredible. And that has stayed with him all these years. There are a number of events in the book, and every time somebody would bring out a pink boogie board, it's instant, he just starts surfing. It's an amazing seal.
REHMAnd what is he like personally, what was he link then?
WILLIAMSI think initially, you know, he was like any pup. He doesn't know who mom or dad is, he just knows where food is coming from and who's taking care of him. So he just started keying in on people, and still loves people.
REHMThe book we're talking about is titled "The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal, a Marine Biologist, and the Fight to Save a Species."
REHMAnd welcome back. Here in the studio Terrie Williams. She's a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz and cofounder of the Center for Ocean Health at Long Marine Lab. We have a brand new book from Terrie Williams. It's titled "The Odyssey of KP2." It's all about an orphan seal and how this marine biologist bonded, if I may use that word, with this abandoned monk seal. The mother had given birth and then a male seal came along, attacked the baby, attacked the infant and the mother went with the male leaving the baby on the beach.
WILLIAMSIt was abandoned for at least two days before rescuers came in. And Terrie Williams first met KP2 when he was about a year old. What is it, Terrie, that makes KP2 so special? You said he charmed people.
WILLIAMSThe thing about KP2 is that he is a lover of people. I mean, that's the only way I can express it. You know, most wild animals run away from you as soon as they can. I think that's just what instinct is going to do. KP2 does the opposite. This animal, because of the human interaction early, early on in his life, just loves being with kids. He loves little kids in particular. You know, if you go to the Waikiki Aquarium these days he's got a great big picture window. And little kids are coming up and he's got his face smashed right against the window. And...
REHMAnd there is a photograph here of exactly that.
WILLIAMSYeah, it's amazing. And with all of us, you know, on any day that we would be working with him at the lab, you know, he was not an animal to just sit and, you know, go underwater and ignore you. He was just surfing right on over to you and you've got water spraying all over the place. And in fact, the trainers working with him had to get him to tone it down a little bit, you know. He was getting salt water all over my instruments.
REHMAll right. So he was born weighing 30 pounds.
REHMAt one year what was his weight when you found him?
WILLIAMSHe moved up to almost 100 pounds. So he was a little bit less than 100 when we encountered him. And then very quickly his weight rose as we worked with him, you know, 120. And then by the time he headed back, you know, he was 200 pounds. It's like having a couple of Great Danes around.
WILLIAMSYeah, he's a big boy.
REHMAnd the head.
WILLIAMSYeah, well you know, you think of pups as having big heads, but you can watch the transition in these seals go from, you know, sort of this cute little roundy football-type shape to these big headed, big-chested kinds of animals. And KP2 is just getting to that point. You can see just the size of his skull. I mean, monk seals ram their heads into coral and everything else and I think he's just got this battering ram kind of head going.
REHMWhat are you trying to learn from KP2?
WILLIAMSYou know, for the monk seal there is a recovery report and it says, here is the biology of our seal and what we're trying to save and -- or, you know, what we're trying to conserve. And in that book you've got 21 pages of counting. You know, here's what the population is doing and there were about two pages on the physiology biology of the seals. And I said, we're going to fill this. We're going to fill this book with information about what these seals need to survive. And the first thing they need is food. So we needed to know do young monk seals have really high diets. Do they need so many calories in a day that they're just chowing down everything in their environment?
REHMAnd of course you were finding he was eating probably more than he needed to begin with?
WILLIAMSWell, he eats like a youngster. So he's like any growing kid. He's eating a lot per pound. You know, he'll eat nine pounds of fish a day and that's lobster and everything else so it's a fairly good diet. But, yeah, so we were looking as he grew up how does his metabolism change? How many fish does he need? Because if we had that answer, we could figure out the critical habitats that these animals need. Where should they live in the Hawaiian Islands?
WILLIAMSAnother thing we looked at was what water temperatures can these seals live in? Like I said, we've got seals that live in cold water all over the world. Why -- you know, what's making these seals so different? And the thing we found out, and KP2 let us know really quickly because he would start vocalizing every time we tested it, he can only take temperatures down to about 60 degrees. And so...
WILLIAMSYeah, so that means that for the monk seal these Hawaiian monk seals, they have to live in Hawaii.
REHMDoes that mean that his blubber would be less dense than that of a seal living in the Arctic?
WILLIAMSYou are a wise woman. Yeah, in the Antarctic, a Waddell Seal will have a blubber layer that's about 2" thick.
WILLIAMSAnd we measured it for KP2. It was about 1" so he has less blubber but you're also right on when it comes to the density. There are different kinds of lipids, different kinds of fats in these seals' blubbers. And so that will dictate how much heat they'll lose through the blubber layer. So he still has one. These guys look pretty, you know, beefy when you see them but it's a different kind of blubber for sure.
REHMYou've also said he was one of the smartest animals you've ever worked with. How could you tell he was smart?
WILLIAMSI'm going to get so in trouble with all of my scientist friends for saying that, but, darn it, he was a smart seal and is a smart seal. Here's something that we discovered and also the people caring for him discovered. And I could not believe it when I saw it. He uses tools and that is just something you don't see among seals. I've never seen a seal make a tool and use a tool.
WILLIAMSAnd what KP2 did in his enclosure in Hawaii was he was in an open ocean enclosure at one point. And little fish would come in and he would, you know, hunt them down. Well, one day he starts butting all the little pieces of coral and he piles them all up and stacks them up. And in stacking them up, you know, little fish would come and hide in them, crabs would hide in it. And then he'd bust it all down and eat them. And you're going...
WILLIAMS...you made a tool. That is an amazing thing.
REHMAnd what did he use to make the tool?
WILLIAMSWell, the tool was actually the enclosure made out of coral and he used his head to just butt all those coral.
REHMHe used his head.
WILLIAMSYeah, they have very short flippers, no thumbs so...
REHMVery short flippers and no thumbs.
WILLIAMS...and no thumbs.
REHMSo that makes a huge difference.
WILLIAMSIf you're trying to make a tool.
REHMYeah. And if you'd like to join us, I'm sure people are just fascinated with hearing you talk, Terrie Williams. But we are going to open the phones shortly, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. As a scientist I'm sure you attempted to remain somewhat detached. But hearing you talk about him that must've been as hard for you as it is for me with my own puppy.
WILLIAMSExactly. I liken doing this book to sort of coming out of the closet a little bit. It was a difficult book for me to write because I'm used to writing hardcore scientific journals. There are no names of animals in any of the papers I've ever written. And it's done specifically. You have to be objective. Your science has to be objective. And that's the way you're trained. That's how all of us are trained.
WILLIAMSWriting this book and working with this seal I realized that I had to move beyond the science. I think I'll get some criticism -- I already have -- for doing it this way. But the truth is for conservation people have to be a part of the equation. They just are, you know. And I didn't recognize that working on Antarctic seals because there are no people in Antarctica. So I could study the seals, do the science and you can be absolutely people-free. You can do your science in isolation.
WILLIAMSNot so for Hawaiian monk seals. If we're going to save these species -- or this species people have to care. You have to care about this animal and people have to live with this seal.
REHMWhy are they dying out?
WILLIAMSYou know, with these seals it's a variety of factors. It's pollution. There is a lot of debris that comes up on the beaches there, believe it or not, even though it's Hawaii and then the animals getting tangled. They're very curious about this stuff. They'll go on a beach and they will roll in anything that's there. I don't know why KP2 did it. He didn't even have a mom to show him to do it. And yet if we had anything in his enclosure he would hop on top of it and get entangled in it and the rest of it. And it was astounding to me that it is just this inherent curiosity.
WILLIAMSYeah, yeah. I don't have a reason for it. I think it could be thermal but don't know. So that's one. The other is just resource limitations, just not enough food in certain areas for the seals. And then there's competition. You know, the big problem, and I think especially for young seals, is that they're out there hunting. They'll butt, you know, the coral around. The fish will come out. And before that seal can nab the fish you've got great big sharks. You've got great big fish coming in -- predatory fish and they're taking the food right out of these animals' mouths practically.
REHMAre they also attacking the monk seals?
WILLIAMSSharks will come in and attack the monk seals. It is a problem in the outer islands. So that is probably the biggest problem getting these youngsters to grow up to be adults because they can't get the food. Other animals are stealing it from them. They're being attacked by sharks and such. Even, you know, as you heard about KP2, you know, adults are attacking these young seals. So it's a ecosystem that's very, very skewed. And it's all contributing to their demise.
REHMWe heard recently about an infant whale that washed up on shore. And in the -- the people in the area rescued the whale and scientists from all over the world came to help try to transport that whale, that baby, that infant to a safe place. And to -- as you did clearly, to feed the whale to keep it alive despite the fact that it did not have its mother's food. I understand, you told me that that baby whale died yesterday.
WILLIAMSYeah, this is a young beluga whale. And, you know, having worked at zoos before -- I worked for the San Diego Zoo for a while -- one of the biggest problems with these abandoned animals is feeding them. You know, there is a crying need to understand the nutrition of, you know, seals and nutrition of, you know, these whales. And the problem is that we don't have it perfect, you know. And I think probably what happened with this youngster -- you know, two things are going on -- one, the immune system is not developed. And we had the same problem with KP2. And the other is that you can't get perfect mom's milk. We just haven't developed it. And as a result you just can't keep calories on.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." What was the relationship between the team you were working with and KP2?
WILLIAMSMy team included two animal trainers -- two of the best animal trainers in the world. It's Tracy Kendall and Bo Richter. And they're basically the translators for me. I come up with science. I say this is what we need to do. The seal is the subject so he's waiting to hear. And then here are these two trainers and they have to take that science and turn it into this amazing game that will have the seal so excited that he's like, yeah measure my metabolic rate. This is gonna be great today. You know, put me in cold water. Put me in hot water. I don't care. This is great.
WILLIAMSAnd that team, you know, between myself and these two people and the seal just made for amazing science.
REHMAnd did the seal react the same toward all of you or were there differences?
WILLIAMSHe noticed a difference. I'm like -- I'm the scientist, you know. I might come in with a needle or something and say, well I think we gotta, you know, check out your blood today. And, you know, he'd be looking at me. And then Tracy is -- she's an amazing kind of trainer and she's more -- I hate to say this if she's listening -- she's closer to the drill sergeant. She's like, okay, you know, we're not gonna give an inch here. There are things you need to do.
WILLIAMSAnd then Bo is more the sort of thinker, passionate kind of person. And so he developed a really close bond with the seal. And in fact, the scientific breakthroughs we had were because the hours and hours he spent just sitting there watching the seal. And that's when you learn things.
REHMI am fascinated by the eyes of this seal. And I imagine if you put ten of these monk seals in a row you would see a similar gaze coming from each seal. But I found myself wondering whether his gaze was distinctive as far as you were concerned.
WILLIAMSWow, that's a good question. I think maybe not the size of his eyes so much as the fact that he was watching you every minute. And I talk about this in the book that the reason I got to be the scientist I am is not because I was brilliant but because I would watch animals. And you're just sort of checking out each move. And I'm really good doing that with carnivores, you know, big cats and lions and things like that. And you watch them and you -- you know, you learn what they're going to do before they do it. And I think the seal was doing the same thing. I think he would watch your moves and he...
REHMHe was checking you out.
WILLIAMSExactly. You know, he was reading me as well as I was reading him. And in doing so it made just an amazing animal to work with because he knew what you were going to do before you even did it.
REHMTerrie Williams. She's professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her new book is titled "The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal, a Marine Biologist and the Fight to Save a Species." When we come back, your calls.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about a new book "The Odyssey of KP2," that's an orphan seal and the marine biologist, Terrie Williams, who has worked with him for the last three years studying him, helping him, learning from him. Let's go to the phones, 800-433-8850. First to Grand Rapids, Mich. Good morning, Brian, you're on the air.
BRIANGood morning, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
BRIANI'm excited about the topic today and look forward to reading Terrie's book.
BRIANI was telling your telephone screener that in the fall, this past fall, my partner and I had visited Kauai and one of our first experiences with the island was going to KA beach which is right on the Nepali -- the tip of the Nepali coastline. And we got there real early, excited to have a great beach day. And we just set up our beach chairs and so forth. And then I heard a little barking or some noise along the edge of the water. And I looked over and there was a Hawaiian monk seal. So luckily I thought enough to grab my video camera. And I did video the seal playing in the water a bit.
BRIANAnd then it actually spotted a woman who was out doing some water aerobics in waist high water, and was very intrigued. And you could tell it was very playful and wanted to interact. So it swam out and kept popping its head up and constantly keeping his eyes on her and circled her as if he just wanted to play somehow. And it was just fascinating. And then later on -- it swam away. And later on I was out snorkeling in the water and I did actually look underneath and saw his face, the little puffed face and those eyes that you talk about looking at me. And I didn't wanna disturb it. I didn't know much about Hawaiian monk seals, and frankly I still don't.
BRIANBut I did give it its space. And then shortly after I felt -- I actually thought my partner was snorkeling next to me. And I looked up and the Hawaiian monk seal was swimming right next to me. So I, again, didn't want to get too close, so I just followed its lead and it really wanted to hang out by me. At one point...
REHMIsn't that interesting.
BRIAN...it actually swam on its back underneath me while I was snorkeling. But I did notice that it was tagged and I made a note of it. And I don't know exactly what the number was, but it was a KP30 something. And I was so fascinated and I wanted to know what the story was, so I even tried to YouTube the story of the seal so I could maybe learn its history or its life somehow, because I didn't know what the tags meant or what all the challenges the seals were dealing with, so...
WILLIAMSGood scientist that you are.
REHMI should say.
WILLIAMSYou got his tag number.
REHMYeah. Well, are there a number of seals, monk seals, out there tagged now?
WILLIAMSRight. So when there's a new seal born, National Marine Fishery Service tries to get a tag onto them so that they can keep track of these little guys. And you're right, the thing about monk seals that is so different from, you know, harbor seals in California to Antarctic seals is that Antarctic seals will just look you and they're like, yeah, okay. And then a harbor seal, if you are near them, generally they take off. You know, they're very skittish. So to have this seal just sort of, you know, looking at you...
WILLIAMS...what the heck, yeah, you got anything to eat? It's like -- legally you're not allowed to be in there, you know, close to them. That's why we needed the permits, but the truth is, these animals do approach people and you did exactly what you should do, let them have his space, let him do what he's gonna do. But you're very lucky, cool encounter.
REHMThanks for calling, Brian. Here's another cool encounter. Mike writes us to say, "In the summer of 2010, I was on the north shored of Oahu. And being on Eastern Daylight time, I was up early for walk by Turtle Bay. I was walking along the old lava breakwater and heard a seal barking excitedly. I looked over and about 30 yards away in the dawn's first light I saw a female monk seal birth...
WILLIAMSOh, my goodness.
REHM...giving birth to a pup in a small sandy inlet called Queens Cove by the Hawaiian. Shortly some NOAA volunteers came by and told me I had witnessed an extremely rare event, as did my neighbor in Dickerson who once studied seals at UC Santa Cruz." He mentions the name Roger Gentry.
WILLIAMSOh, my goodness. Rog is a good old friend.
WILLIAMSHe is. Oh, yeah, what a lucky thing to see a Hawaiian monk seal birth. I mean, let's think about this. There are only 1100 of these seals left. Most of them are out in the Northern Hawaiian Islands that you would not get to. So to be able to witness something like that, how fascinating is that.
REHMTo what extent was the number much, much greater, say, two decades ago?
WILLIAMSYou know, that's a good question. I don't think that they've got, you know, numbers that are exact. I think that they're paying attention now. But, you know, you've got thousands and you've gone from thousands to 1,000. We figure that we've got 50 years to solve this conservation problem. The good news, and this is what I want everyone to realize, the good news is that if you care, if you work to understand what these animals need, it's starting to turn around.
WILLIAMSYou know, there are 20 percent more seals out there today because of the efforts by the scientists, so that's why I'm so excited about this seal and this project. It's like you can make the difference, but you people just have to care to do something.
REHMBut what is it that you want us to do beyond caring?
WILLIAMSYou know, one thing that you could do is check out a website that we have set up because it's to address just that. It's ww -- or, sorry, I shouldn't say, it's www.monkseals...
WILLIAMS...savemonkseals. Sorry, it's so new.
WILLIAMSSo let me say that again. It's savemonkseals.ucsc.edu. And on that, what we ask people to do are things like, believe it or not, write your representatives. And there's all the information there on who to write to. But part of the problem is that there have been such budget cuts that the scientists can't even get out there to do their work. All this work that you will read about in the book, I did it gratis. I mean, I was having accountants coming behind me the entire time. And I just kept saying, yes, and we're gonna do this. And we've gotta turn that around.
WILLIAMSAnd what they need to hear in Washington is simply that people care, they like monk seals, they want monk seals, they want other wildlife around. And that's what it's gonna take. And so all the info is there.
REHMLet's go to South Bend, Ind. Good morning, Bryan.
BRYANHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
BRYANThis is awesome. I'm a science teacher and part of what I talk about with my biology students, you know, is the objective observation of evolutionary shift. And so I guess I'm wondering if you've done any research or any work with is this something that man or society is skewing one way, or is this something that's just a natural shift where the seals can't adapt fast enough to out compete in their habitat?
WILLIAMSIt's the human interaction that's causing a lot of the problem. The issue at one level, I mean, let's face it, pollution. We've got plastic out there.
REHMI know, I know.
WILLIAMSThat is totally due to our fault. Now, yes, these are curious seals, but when you have nets and plastic bottles and plastic, you know, little ring ties, that kinda thing coming in, that's a ridiculous way for a species to go under, because we just had too much trash on their beach. You know, the other part of it is how do we fish the oceans and how do we do it in a way that both seals and humans can live? We've become such great fishermen and we've taken out so many of the larger fish there that it has skewed the environment. So it's sort of a crazy ecosystem out there right now. And I think that's why we see these abandonments and we see seals attacking each other.
WILLIAMSBut here's something, I gotta tell you this, 'cause this isn't in the book and it's so cool. So one of the things that I wonder is, are seals sort of fish farmers? Can seals just because they're diving deep in the tropics and then when they come up, they've chewed up all this fish and then they have, I'm gonna say it, feces that come out, but that feces actually feeds onto the phytoplankton and that feeds the zooplankton and that makes small fish and that makes bigger fish. So in actual fact, when you have a situation where the seals are protected, and this has happened with the Mediterranean monk seal out in Turkey, if you protect these seals, you actually end up with more fish in the area.
REHMI see, I see.
WILLIAMSSo, you know, it's how we protect the ecosystem.
REHMBut KP2's story has involved a lot of conflict with the Hawaiian fishermen.
WILLIAMSIt's been very, very hard. KP2 was befriended by numbers of people from many, many islands. But at the same time, there are people out there that don't understand the relationship of the seals to the islands. I mean, at one point, they were even calling them invasive species, that, you know, they came to the islands and they shouldn't be there. Well, they came to the islands about 11 million years before man showed up on the islands, so, you know, you have to ask yourself who's the invasive species. But that's why I say I think that we've gotta learn to live with each other and that there is a way to live with these seals like KP2.
REHMBut wasn't there another aspect that is the native Hawaiians regarded seals as religious figures and revered them to a certain extent.
WILLIAMSExactly. It's known as Aumakua. And there are numbers of people, a lot of the elders and such, that talk about these seals as, you know, a part of the entire Hawaiian culture and a part of Hawaii's nature.
REHMAnd therefore should be left untouched, unstudied, unhelped, what?
WILLIAMSNot so much unhelped, but as recognition as part of just Hawaii. And, like I said, as you bring more seals into the main Hawaiian Islands, how do you get the elders to meet in the same room as the fishermen that are trying to bring, you know, fish to their tables, to the conservationists that want to see these seals exist forever? I think it's that kind of meeting that needs to happen.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have a treat in store for you. When you go to the website savemonkseals.ucsc.edu, there is a wonderful sound to hear. And here it is.
REHMTerrie, what is it?
WILLIAMSOh, my gosh, isn't that great.
REHMIsn't that wonderful. Tell us what that is.
WILLIAMSThat is KP2. That's what he sounds like. And even though in the book all I could do is write "rah" in the text. You can have this sound as your ring tone if you go to website. And you can do it for any phone you'd like, so there you go.
REHMTobey, can we hear that sound once more? It's so remarkable.
WILLIAMSCome on, you gotta play that in a theater or on the bus. This is too good.
REHMAll right. Let's take a call from Kona, Hawaii. Dave, you're on the air.
DAVEHi, Diane. Thank you so much for letting me be on your show.
DAVEI'm a huge fan. I am a surfer and a fisherman over there. And, you know, luckily sometimes we get to interact with the monk seals while we're surfing. And, you know, sometimes they come and harass us and they're just having fun as we are. But, you know, I noticed that part of the demise of the monk seal, you know, is actually the fishermen. You know, whether they're getting caught in the nets, but sometimes the fishermen get pissed off. And I remember last year or it might've been possibly this year, you know, there was an Oahu fisherman, I think he shot two of them because they were taking his fish.
WILLIAMSIt's actually -- it's a very, very tough situation right now.
WILLIAMSThe conflict has risen to the point that in actual fact there were four monk seals that were killed. And it's not just by shooting. You know, they're animals that actually had been hit on the head and died as a result of the injuries. So it's -- as I said, yes, there are people that are angry that those seals are there and they're angry with the situation, but I also think that they don't really have an understanding of what these seals are about. And it's part of the reason for the science. The science was to say, no, monk seals do not eat that much.
REHMTerrie, how have you been changed by your work with KP2?
WILLIAMSI am so dedicated to making sure the species stays on this planet that I think it's gonna color my science for the rest of my career. I've been changed that much.
WILLIAMSOh, you're pressing me here. Yes, I will admit that I love monk seals.
REHMAnd love is something that a marine biologist normally keep at a distance.
WILLIAMSI should not admit this, but, yes, you will -- you can read about the love in the book. My papers will still say instead of KP2, it's gonna say juvenile seal number one, but it will be KP2.
REHMI'm so glad that that has happened. It makes the story that much richer. And I'm so glad you were here.
WILLIAMSThank you so much. This is wonderful.
REHMTerrie Williams, she's professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, co-founder of the Center for Ocean Health at Long Marine Lab, her book "The Odyssey of KP2: An Orphan Seal, a Marine Biologist, and the Fight to Save a Species." Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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