Pet Tips: Dogs may threaten endangered wildlife

There is nothing so obnoxious as people who believe they’re entitled to something – especially when it comes to their pets. Some folks apparently think putting a leash on their dog is the equivalent of slavery, and they don’t want to do anything to shackle the dog’s free spirit.

Now, that’s all well and good if you happen to own a 500-acre ranch – the dog can do whatever he wants on your property. But if you’re on public land – funded by all of us taxpayers – there have to be rules in order to protect public safety and the environment.

I’m bringing this up because of an incident that occurred on April 22 (which just happens to be Earth Day) at Point Reyes National Seashore in northern California.

There is no area in the park where dogs are allowed to run off-leash. And yet, a woman was letting her dog do just that, and he proceeded to attack and kill a baby seal – specifically, a Guadalupe fur seal, which is protected by law as a “threatened” species.

Visitors who witnessed the attack tried to intervene and pull the dog off the seal pup, but the baby was already mortally wounded.

The incident was still under investigation as of last week, but officials said the dog’s owner could be facing misdemeanor charges for violating leash laws, as well as civil (up to $11,000 fine) or criminal (up to $100,000) penalties for violating endangered-species laws.

A Point Reyes spokeswoman said the park’s rules are intended to protect visitors, their pets, and wildlife. She added that it was especially heartbreaking to see the baby seal killed because there are so few of them left.

“Every single one counts,” she said. “It’s a real bummer to lose one.”

I don’t know what happens next, but it’s conceivable that if there are any further dog-on-wildlife attacks, park officials may consider banning dogs altogether – even those on a leash.

In the meantime, with the summer vacation season fast approaching, dog owners should take this opportunity to review the pet policies at any public lands where they might be visiting, because the rules can vary.

Generally, the national parks are the most restrictive, allowing leashed dogs in developed areas such as campgrounds but limiting their access to many hiking trails. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to protect its abundant wildlife, bans dogs (even on a leash) from most of its trails.

But if you have your heart set on hiking with your dog, don’t despair. Most national parks are surrounded by national forests, which do allow dogs on their trails, and in the backcountry they don’t even require dogs to be leashed. (However, you still have to use a leash in highly developed, heavily visited areas such as the Chattahoochee National Forest’s Anna Ruby Falls.)

When trying to decide where to go, you need to consider your dog’s personality and his level of training. How well does he respond to verbal commands? How strong is his “prey drive” (his tendency to chase animals)?

I’m willing to bet that when the California dog killed that seal pup, his owner was not entirely surprised by his behavior. So she deliberately took off his leash, knowing what he was capable of doing. As far as I’m concerned, this amounts to criminal negligence, and I hope prosecutors throw the book at her.   

Debbie Gilbert has been handling dogs for 50 years and won numerous AKC obedience competitions with her late Sheltie, Sunny. She lives with her current Sheltie, Daisy. E-mail your Pet Tips questions to press@whitecountynews.net.

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