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Special agent probes seal pup abduction

John Webster used a telephoto lens to capture this image of ‘Concho’ before she was taken from her natural habitat, setting off a criminal investigation. -
John Webster used a telephoto lens to capture this image of ‘Concho’ before she was taken from her natural habitat, setting off a criminal investigation.
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‘Concho’ taken from her home

A special agent is investigating four people who may have violated federal law by hauling around a seal pup found near the Coupeville Wharf.

The 5-day-old seal made headlines and was even featured on TV news when Coupeville Deputy Marshal Robert Mirabal discovered the dehydrated animal in the back of a woman’s vehicle July 25. He pulled the car over after the woman went through a stop sign.

For now, the baby harbor seal is doing well at Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Friday Harbor. Penny Harner, a staff rehabilitator, said the seal has been named “Concho” and will be tube fed until she’s three weeks old.

In the meantime, Kevin Porter, a special agent with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is looking into two separate incidents involving the seal, though he said the investigation is ongoing. He said he can’t release information about the suspects unless they are charged.

The cuteness of seal pups lures people to them, but Porter stressed that the animals should be left alone.

“People think they are helping the seal when they are taking it away from its natural habitat and from its mother,” he said, adding that seals can carry diseases that are contagious to people.

In the first incident, Porter said a couple in a boat docked at the Coupeville Wharf took the seal out of the water and kept it in a dinghy overnight. The next day, a representative from the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network helped release the pup.

Afterward, the seal started hanging around another boat at the wharf. The owner of the boat took the seal and gave it to a friend. The woman put the baby seal in her car and was driving to get the pup treatment, Porter said, when the deputy pulled her over.

Both incidents may have been violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits the “taking” of marine mammals. Porter said violators can face either civil or criminal penalties.

The civil penalty is up to $10,000 per violation. For a criminal violation, the penalty is up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $20,000.

Porter said his investigation has been aided by several people who saw the pup, including some who had photos. John Webster took pictures of the seal with a telephoto lens while his family was visiting from Arizona.

“The photos definitely helped me figure out where the seal was on the beach,” Porter said, adding that some witnesses reported seeing the mother seal with her baby at one point. Curious humans may have scared her away.

Webster told Porter that the little seal moved toward him, as if she was hungry.

After the deputy took possession of the seal, Island County Animal Control Officer Carol Barnes took the animal to Best Friend’s Veterinary Center in Oak Harbor. The pup was about five days old and still had her umbilical cord attached. Veterinarians gave her electrolytes, fluids, soy milk and fish oil.

After Concho recuperated, Wolf Hollow took possession of the seal at their facility in the San Juans. Over the next two or three months, rehabilitators will care for Concho while making sure she’s not habituated to people.

The seal will eventually be released near Friday Harbor with a group of other seals. Harner said it would be too stressful on the blubbery, easily-overheated animal to bring her back to Coupeville.

Harner said the center rehabilitates between 30 and 40 harbor seals a year.

Susan Berta of the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network reported that the group has been busy responding to calls about seal pups in the region. Most of them were healthy and just needed to rest on the beach while “Mom” is out catching lunch.

If you see a seal pup on the beach in Island or Skagit counties, or north Snohomish County, please contact the Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 1-866-ORCANET or 678-3765, and the group will assess whether there is a need to send a volunteer out to post signs or observe the pup.

In addition, anyone with information about the seal pup in the Coupeville area, between the approximate dates of Thursday, July 24 through Saturday July 26, should contact Special Agent Kevin Porter, NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement at 206-526-6725.

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