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Opinion To wild sea mammals, we aren’t friends – we’re lunch

Stanley Coren is a dog expert, author and professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia

On Saturday a Richmond, B.C., resident captured a dramatic video of a sea lion grabbing the dress of a young girl and pulling her off the dock and into the water. Fortunately someone leaped into the water to rescue her and she ultimately escaped unharmed. As a psychologist, this appears to me to be just the latest example of how Hollywood and the "cuteness factor" of some animals are luring people into dangerous situations.

With their large dark eyes, their intelligent dog-like faces, and those long drooping whiskers, sea lions undoubtedly have an appealing appearance. The idea that they are large gentle beasts is confirmed in the public mind by how they are portrayed in the media. For example, in the animated film Finding Dory, among those trying to rescue the fishy heroine are two lovable sea lions named Fluke and Rudder. What is lost in this portrayal is the fact that these are huge animals. A male California sea lion weighs on average about 300 kg, is around 2.5 metres in length and has very large teeth. Biologists call them opportunistic predators, which is just another way of saying that they will eat whatever they can get their jaws on. Normally this is fish, squid and other aquatic creatures, but they are also known to grab land animals (such as little girls) if they are near the water's edge.

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The sea lion's somewhat smaller cousins, the seals, have a similar "cute" appearance and also similar behaviour patterns. For example the harbour seal, which weighs around 130 kg and reaches a length of about 1.8 metres, is also a dedicated predator. In 2009, in West Vancouver a harbour seal jumped from the water and snatched a five-year-old girl off of the dock. Again the child was rescued, but this time there were injuries. Like the sea lions, anything that a seal can hunt is potential prey. In 2003, British marine biologist Kirsty Brown was snorkelling off the Antarctic Peninsula when a leopard seal grabbed her in its jaws and dragged her to her death.

Dolphins also benefit from their appearance, particularly that happy looking smile on their faces. Films and TV series about Flipper, a cheerful, peaceful, friendly dolphin, strengthens the public's positive view. Unfortunately scientists have been finding that these big animals are killing their fellow mammals in droves, using their beaks as clubs and slashing away with rows of sharp teeth. They have been responsible for massacres of porpoises, and in the U.S., federal officials have expressed concern about dolphins injuring or even killing humans, especially given the rise in dolphin watching, feeding and swimming programs.

In many cases, problems with these marine mammals arise when people treat them as pets. A particular problem is when people attempt to feed them. Think of it this way: you wouldn't go up to a grizzly bear in the wild and hand him a salami sandwich. The food in your hand is apt to alert the bear that you are a potential snack as well. The same goes for marine mammals. In this most recent case the people were throwing bread to the "cute" sea lion. The bread was white, the same colour as the girls dress, and to a hungry predator … Well, you do the math.

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