Originally published May 29, 2009 at 9 a.m., updated May 29, 2009 at 4:25 p.m.
The City of San Diego proposed a $689,000 plan to get rid of the seals at the Children's Pool in La Jolla. Part of the plan is to use the recorded sounds of barking dogs to scare off the seals.
SAN DIEGO GLORIA PENNER: I'm Gloria Penner, I'm joined by the editors at the Roundtable, These Days in San Diego. Today we will have opinions on the City of San Diego's ongoing struggle with seals settles on a La Jolla beach and the current plan to drive them away with barking dog sounds, or maybe real dogs. And with California facing the worst fiscal crisis in history and property tax revenues sliding, is it time to revisit the untouchable Proposition 13? Plus, with the summer tourist season almost here, will San Diego's visitor industry get roughed up by the economy? The editors with me today are Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief for The Los Angeles Times. Tony, I'm all choked up that you came back.
TONY PERRY: Oh, that's so sweet.
GLORIA PENNER: Scott Lewis CEO of VoiceofSanDiego.org. Hi Scott, good to see you.
SCOTT LEWIS: Hi Gloria, always a pleasure.
GLORIA PENNER: Thank you. Tom York, Editor of the San Diego Business Journal, and we are pleased that you decided to return as well, Tom.
TOM YORK: Thanks, and thanks for having me back again.
GLORIA PENNER: And for our listeners our number is 1-888-895-5727, that's 895-KPBS. Well, the saga of the seal's colony which calls La Jolla's Children's Pool home is taking on more drama. The City of San Diego has been ordered by a superior court judge to remove the seals, well that sounds clear, but how to get them off the beach? And what about the federal judge who doesn't agree that the seals should be forced out? And what about the neighbors who don't want barking dog sounds? And what about animal lovers and tourist haters? Oh Tony, so many elements in this story, it's really, you know, the American journalists dream, I think. Let's start with the barking dogs recordings, is that really the plan?
TONY PERRY: It's a proposal that the City of San Diego, which has been told by the judge, as you pointed out to get those pinnipeds off of the beach and clear out that poop. It's a proposal they forwarded to him at a cost of what, almost, they put it at $700,000, $500,000 of that is apparently for police protection for the beach. And that's where it stands. I mean, this is the sort of issue, in fact, this is the issue that makes you wish for a monarch because our political and legal system has been wrestling with this for 15 years unable to make a decision. The State Court, the Superior Court says the beach belongs to the children under the deed, that deeded that property to the city. Federal Court says not so quick, Mammal Protection Act, and around and around we go. And our poor, cash strapped city government just wishes the whole thing would go away, has begged the state legislature to amend that bill to just allow the city to walk away from this rather than pay hundreds of thousands of dollars of legal fees. That thing hasn't gotten through Sacramento, and you say this is a journalist's delight, I think I wrote my first story on this in 1997 and I doubt that the end is in sight.
GLORIA PENNER: Well, you know, Scott Lewis, San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said he doesn't agree that the seals need to be removed at this point, but the judge said so, so why is Goldsmith disagreeing with the judge?
SCOTT LEWIS: You know, the actions of the City Attorney are always a little bit difficult to discern, but he's, you know, I think there's a constant struggle about you know, where the actual law falls down on this area. And you know, there is precedent for both sides, this is the morass that Tony was referring to, that there is just no way to get out of this through the traditional means. I mean, the traditional, legal, and political system is going to keep sending this back and forth, and who knows, what did the seals decide out there? Do they think that this land belongs to the people, that they need to throw the people out? There is some interesting dynamics going on here. This is a funny situation to a lot of us, but it's just a very passionate one. We had an essay contest on the site where 300 local high school kids sent in their essays about local issues and about a third of them were about the seals and about half of them came down on both sides of the issue, throw them out and keep them there, there's always a powerful argument that Ellen Browning Scripps set this aside for the children, and the children have been muscled out of there by these horrible seals, and then on the other side there's this empathy in the community, they don't want to see barking dogs go after these pinnipeds, and so it's going to be a perpetual issue, and I think it's just like Tony said, there's no easy way out.
GLORIA PENNER: A perpetual issue, that's kind of dismaying, isn't it? Tom, when we think about an issue that really won't go away, and will keep people divided, we will still have the seals on the beach and the kids won't be able to get back on the beach because the beach is contaminated, maybe we do need a monarch.
TOM YORK: Maybe we do, but what I was thinking this is a great business opportunity for the city. They could charge admission to look at the seals, have, uh, charge vendors to come down and sell ice cream, and you could basically make a big circus out of it which reminds me of a movie from the 1950's with Kirk Douglas where he had an incident that basically turned it into a media circus. So maybe there's opportunities there that we've not really realized.
GLORIA PENNER: OK, so to our listeners, you've heard some of the plan, recording of barking dogs and spraying the seals with water, Sherry Lightner who is the District 1 representative on the Council that is La Jolla district is suggesting real dogs, forget the barking dogs, of course the neighbors are really upset at the idea of recording some barking dogs, especially the neighbors in a nearby retirement community, all right, so what's your plan, what do you think should be happening down there at Seal Beach? Not Seal Beach, at Children's Pool, kind of Seal Beach. And what is going to make this issue get resolved and go away? Let's hear now, our number is 1-888-895-5727. 895-KPBS. Let's hear from Shirley, and she lives in Pacific Beach, Hi Shirley, you're on with the editors.
CALLER: Oh, thank you very much, my opinion is that we are looking at, I know all the legal ramifications, but I'm just talking as a person who is thrilled with the idea that so many people are going down to that area and enjoying the harbor seals on the beach. Just looking at a span of about 70 yards, you know, I've been a long time native of this area and I remember seeing very few humans use that beach prior to the harbor seals taking over that beach, and the surge in that area is really dangerous, especially for small children to swim there, I'm a swimmer myself, I swim in the cove all the time so I know the area and this is a great opportunity for people to see animals in their natural situation. And we're living in a time and in an era where human encroachment on natural habitat is at an all-time high, we're looking at 6 billion people on this planet and we're surrounded by species that are disappearing right in front of our eyes. Where in California alone, has the California sea otter that is threatened, now on the endangered species list. Yes, the seals and the pinnipeds are not listed as threatened or endangered, but it's an opportunity for people to increase their awareness. So you're getting all sorts of people going down to that beach and appreciating the fact that harbor seals, yes, are in our area, what can we learn to protect them? What can we learn to about them?
GLORIA PENNER: OK, Shirley--
CALLER: Humans have 70 miles of beaches in this area to use.
GLORIA PENNER: I think that you certainly do represent a definite point of view and I think you are joined by many other of your neighbors. Tony Perry, that's a popular point of view isn't it?
TONY PERRY: Very popular point of view. I think there are some factual issues there. One, I think it is one of the few beaches that's really kind of safe for children along that stretch, and the reason it is is it's not a natural beach, it was created through the philanthropy of Ms. Scripps and with the breakwater there, that tames the waves and makes for nice little beach, and was a nice little beach for many, many, many years until the seals, for reasons of their own, that they've never, dammit, explained to me, arrived in the mid-90s and just took up residence there. The city had set aside a big rock as a seal sanctuary and the seals liked that for a while, but then they decided to move ashore, and as they say, the seals don't have a spokes, uh, animal. so they don't really tell us why they've done it.
GLORIA PENNER: But I bet they have a monarch.
TONY PERRY: They have something, and away we go, the counter argument, which I'm agnostic on this, every two years I get a good feature story out of this. The counter argument is what if wild beasts took over another city park? Dogs, took over a park, or maybe deer with their deer ticks took over a park or an area of a park, would they have the constituency that these heavily pooping seals seem to have?
GLORIA PENNER: I got your point, I, just one question of you, there are slew sways in that wall that was constructed to create the pool, the safe pool for the children. If you open those slew sways, the tide will come in and it will clean up the beach, it will wash out the contaminants,
TONY PERRY: And it could wash out a child or two.
SCOTT LEWIS: Exactly.
TONY PERRY: That's kind of the problem. A lot of the $700,000 expense that the city is suggesting is for testing. We really don't know level of poop at this moment. A couple of years ago it was dangerously high. One other problem is the rope barriers that the advocates like, that kind of ropes off the beach, keeps the children, true, it attracts the tourists, but it's tourists vs children here.
GLORIA PENNER: OK, Let's hear now from Ron in Bonita, I want to thank Shirley for her call. Hi Ron, you're on, you're on with the editors.
CALLER: Good morning, everybody has a lot of good comments as to why we're even bothering to try and change the course of nature and it's a pretty tough job, but one thing I haven't heard any mention of, and it could be that there's a good, compelling set of reasons as to why not to do this, but putting up a net system that goes from the end of the sea wall over to the north side of what we call the pool area, similar to what they use in terms of shark nets in Australia. They can keep sharks off the beaches that is a mile long, we can find a way to put up a net that won't drown seals, but that will keep them off of the beach. The downside, it occurs to me, is that these seals may want to go somewhere else and they've got a great place just north of there called La Jolla Cove and I don't think we want them there, but that is just one thought.
GLORIA PENNER: Yeah, and there's also La Jolla Shores and I know that the people at the shores don't want them there either. So the seals will go somewhere, won't they, Tony?
TONY PERRY: They will, they will. The question that comes to my mind is whether a net, even if we can keep it from drowning seals, and/or human beings, can pass the mammal, Marine Mammal Protection Act, don't forget these are protected animals, unlike sharks, they are protected and I can see litigation immediately to strike down the net idea.
GLORIA PENNER: All right, Lauren in San Diego is with us. Now Lauren, you're on with the editors.
CALLER: Hi, how are you?
GLORIA PENNER: Good, go ahead, please.
CALLER: I just kind of had question more about the La Jolla natives and residents that live in this area, and how they feel at the whole, at town meetings about the situation, if they are completely against it, especially the people that live right on that road, and in regards to the barking dog sounds that you mentioned too, is that something that people there are for getting rid of the seals there? I just kind of had a question about that aspect of it.
GLORIA PENNER: It's a very genuine question and a valid question, I have not taken a poll, I do know that when I go to various events and to moderate forums and election time things, there is a lot of passion expressed about the seals, the seals and the cross up in Mt. Soledad are the two issues that really grab La Jollan's. But the truth is, Tom, that La Jolla doesn't own the beach. The beach is actually owned by the state of California and the City of San Diego merely holds the trust to the beach. So why isn't the state weighing in on what should be done?
TOM YORK: Well I think this state right now is distracted with budgetary issues, especially given the recent elections, I think basically everyone from the governor on down is hoping that this might go away or at least the seals would go away, but I don't think that's happening. One thing I wanted to say, it seems to me, it's obvious that what's happened here in the last few years is that the seals were somewhat a threatened population, I think, going back in the '70's and 80's and '60's and now they've come back all back up and down the coast. So we're seeing, you know, we're seeing the benefits of protecting certain animal species. So hopefully we'll be able to get this worked out.
GLORIA PENNER: OK, well, while we're pondering on what the possible solution will be, we're going to take a short break and when we come back we will be talking more about what the possibilities are for the seals that is creating a lot of local attention, it's creating state attention now, it's up in the state legislature as a matter of fact, and for all we know it's going to get some national attention so we're ahead of the game here. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. This is The Editors Roundtable, I'm Gloria Penner.
GLORIA PENNER: I'm Gloria Penner, and this is The Editors Roundtable, I'm at the Roundtable today with Tom York of San Diego Business Journal and Scott Lewis of VoiceofSanDiego.org, and from the Los Angeles Times, Tony Perry. We're talking about the saga of the seals at Children's Pool in La Jolla, it's come to some kind of a head, this whole issue, simply because the court, Superior Court has ruled that the seals must go and the City of San Diego has until June 15th to make a decision on how it is going to get rid of the seals, so that's only two weeks from now and meanwhile there's an argument as to whether the federal court has determined if there is a restraining order that would prevent the seals from being moved, meanwhile the whole thing is working it's way to the state legislature where Senator Chris Kehoe brought it before the legislature because, after all, the beach belongs to the state of California, just held in trust by the City of San Diego. The Senate so far has approved a bill that would say that the city will make the decision, and now it is going to the assembly. So that's where we are, you're up to date, and meanwhile the beat goes on. Tom, let me turn to you and your wisdom, is there a way for a wisdom of Solomon decision there that, you know, remember King Solomon, he proposed that a baby be cut in half and it turned out that the real mother said no, no, don't do it, give it to the other woman, just to save the baby, do think there is a Solomon like decision that might come down?
TOM YORK: Well, you know, this is an issue that will continue on for years, but I was thinking of the Superior Court decision, it reminds me of the Supreme Court decision that was made back in 1820s when Andrew Jackson was the president, he said well, they've made their decision, let them enforce it. I think with all of this back-and-forth with the court and the city, I think it is just an utter mess, I think it's going to have to take some time to resolve itself. In the meantime we have the seals sitting down there enjoying the beach.
GLORIA PENNER: Let's hear now from Kelly in Encinitas. Hi Kelly, you're on with the editors.
CALLER: Hi, how are you?
GLORIA PENNER: Fine, please go ahead.
CALLER: I learned how to swim, I'm 40, in my mid-40s, and I learned how to swim at that children's pool, so I have huge memories of summer days and having a great time at that pool. My son now is almost 19 and he, when he was about 4 or 5 loved to go to that pool and watch, he never swam there, he liked to watch the seals. I know it is for the delight of the children, and he got such delight at going down there, I don't know the solution, but I do know the seals are going to go somewhere, but he did get such delight out of it, so–
GLORIA PENNER: Well, maybe they'll come to Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, Kelly, and then you can see them.
CALLER: That's true, but I don't want them at Moonlight Beach.
GLORIA PENNER: OK, leave them in La Jolla. There is that old nimbyism I was talking about, Tony. You know, nimbyism is really part of that, people in certain areas say seals bring tourists, we don't want the tourists.
TONY PERRY: Indeed, and in terms of a compromise, half seal, half child or something compromising the beach, the problem is influencing the seals' behavior since they're not part of the negotiations, we tried this before, setting aside that great big seal rock, telling the skin divers stay away from it, don't harass our seals, seals liked it for a few years and said no, I'd rather be on the beach. So influencing the seals behavior to be in kind of a compromised mode is very difficult.
SCOTT LEWIS: I joked earlier that this was, you know, some kind of, the seals have their own legal process going on, the fact is they have exploited, unknowingly, a major loophole in our society, they've come in and they have put themselves in there and it is as if they knew that we had environmental protections that would protect them. It's as if they knew we had some people that would like them and other people that would want them out of there, and if they were just intransigent we would fumble over it for years and years and not be able to deal with their behavior which doesn't move.
TONY PERRY: They may have also have known the San Diego political process is fairly easily manipulated.
SCOTT LEWIS: And the city is broke and we don't have the money to chase them out. There is no middle ground here, you can push them out and keep their fecal bacteria out of that area and make it good for the children again, only through very intrusive and expensive means.
GLORIA PENNER: Well, like bringing in dogs and the dogs fecal material.
SCOTT LEWIS: And some kind of net or dredging or some kind of whatever you want to call it it's going to be a massive effort and the city simply isn't good at doing massive efforts these days, and it's just not going to accomplish that. The tide of this issue goes towards leaving the seals there, it's just that they don't know how to legally make that OK yet.
GLORIA PENNER: So, Scott, Voice of San Diego really focuses on the City of San Diego, that's what you do, that's what your job is about. If the state says, okay, this is entirely up to the City of San Diego to make the decision, so, and if it does fall entirely to the city, and it may very well, we might even hear early next week, can the city, is the city up to making that decision? I mean, we're talking about the City Council, I don't know what role the mayor plays, would it be the Council that would make the decision?
SCOTT LEWIS: I guarantee you the vast majority of the City Council members want this to be left alone. They want to leave the seals there, they don't want to spend the money or effort to get that done. The problem is, just as the caller before said there's a group of people, very passionate and many of them very wealthy who remember that children's pool as a moment in their history, as a place of nostalgia where they could swim and make that happen. And they have to deal with those people and those people are adamant and passionate and they're La Jollans, many of them. And so, you know, La Jollans have a way of dominating the City Council's agenda and it is going to be until they can find a way to make those people feel OK about what is happening. And maybe it's a generational thing, maybe when people can't remember what it was like when that was before the seals, maybe that's the point when it's OK for the City Council to say we're just going to leave them and maybe we wait three decades until all of this legal stuff ends up to a point where that's just the decision they're able to make.
GLORIA PENNER: Very expensive, extremely expensive, legal always is. Somebody has to show up in court, somebody has to get paid, somebody has to pay the court costs. We're not talking cheap, especially now.
SCOTT LEWIS: Well, maybe when the city declares bankruptcy they'll realize when they have to pull out of it.
GLORIA PENNER: And you didn't say if, you said when. All right, let's take one last call on this. It's Frank in El Cajon. Hi Frank, you're all the way in East County, but obviously, you have an opinion.
CALLER: Thank you, Gloria. In a few minutes you're going to be talking about the tourist industry and a thought came to mind. I wondered if the captains of the tourist industry are going to be thrilled to see San Diego Police Department officer's imitating Bull Connor on CNN Domestic and CNN International when they are the seals, tourist attraction off the beach.
GLORIA PENNER: Well, Frank, you leave us with a very interesting image as we wrap up the subject. Scott?
SCOTT LEWIS: Well, one of my writers came up with an interesting image, what if they could try to meld that, you know, nobody wants to see barking dogs attack these seals, and that would be a just a horrible image for San Diego to send out. They were thinking, well, what if you could combine it with Shamu? You could get a Shamu costume and have the guy run out there and do some kind of spectacle.
TONY PERRY: How about taking those fiber glass cows, Cow Parade La Jolla, taking those and putting a few on the beach, the seals will think they're very tall sharks and won't come ashore. I mean, it works with birds that would otherwise dump on my lawn furniture, I put a ceramic owl and they go to my neighbors.
GLORIA PENNER: Well, good for you, on that note we're going to wrap up this subject but if you want to hear more about it, tonight on KPBS Television San Diego Week we're going to talk a little bit more about the seals in La Jolla. That's 7:00 tonight on San Diego Week, KPBS TV.