John Vonderlin Loves Tom Butwell's Capers (1897)

Story from John Vonderllin
Email John (benloudman@sbcglobal.net)
Hi June,
   Here’s Tom Butwell, again involved in another amazing story. His account of the murderous behavior of the bull seals is virtually lacking from today’s record. I found one  gruesome account of infanticide and cannibalism by a New Zealand seal in a paper on Google  Scholar, but no other. And unfortunately, it was an article you had to buy to read the full details. I did though, see many articles on G.S. by Bernie LeBouef, the scientist you contacted about Elephant Seals using Lady Clairol at Ano Nuevo in the 70’s when you and John visited. I bet he’d love to read this article. Enjoy. John
 

 Hi June,
   This is from the June 27th, 1897 issue of “The Call.”  While I’ve never previously heard of the pup-killing behavior  being displayed by some of the bulls, as described by the author of this article, it reminds me of a documentary about elephants I once saw. Because of ivory poachers all the large bull elephants had been killed in the area the documentary was about. Young male elephants were engaging in gang “wilding” assaults, attacking and injuring or killing other elephants and endangered rhinos. The problem was solved by importing adult bull elephants, who quickly settled things down. I wonder if the hidehunters he mentions concentrated on the largest bulls too? I wonder what Bernie LeBoeuf, the Ano Nuevo Marine Mammal expert, would say about this article? Amphibians? Enjoy. John
 
THE SEAL ROOKERIES OFF THE COAST OF SAN MATEO COUNTY
   The   seals   of   Ano   Nuevo   Island   are   prac – 
tically   unknown   to   both   scientists   and   the
public,   notwithstanding   the   fact   that   the
herds   there   are   the   largest   on   the   Pacific
Coast   and   the   habits   of   the   species   are
the   most   distinctive.
In   many   ways   their   habits   are   somewhat
similar   to   those   of   sea   birds.   Once   a   year
the   rocks,   or   rookeries,   are   covered   with
seals.   Young   are   born   and   raised   there,
and   then   a   general   migration   takes   place
of   all   but   the   old   females.   For   months
the   rookeries   are   comparatively   deserted.
The   seals   come   and   go   at   regular   intervals.
If   you   will   look   at   a   map   of   California,
and   closely   examine   the   southwestern
portion   of   the   coast   of   San   Mateo   County,
you   will   find   Ano   Nuevo   Island.   Although
only   about   thirty-five   miles   from   San
Francisco,   in   a   direct   line,   it   is   a   most
difficult   place   to   get   at.   If   everything
goes   well   it   can   be   reached   in   about   twelve
hours,   but   should   there   be   a   detention   of
any   kind   the   journey   may   consume   two
days.   The   nearest   town   is   Pescadeio,
fourteen   miles   to   the   north.
Ano   Nuevo   Island   is   cut   off   from   the
mainland   by   a   channel   about   a   mile   wide,
and   the   only   way   to   cross   is   in   the   boat   of
the   keepers   of   the   Government   fog   signal.
The   seal   rocks   are   scattered   to   the   north – 
ward   of   the   island,   the   closest   being   only
about   500   feet   away.
It   was   for   the   purpose   of   ascertaining
something   about   the   habits   of   these   seals
and   obtaining   pictures   of   them   that   a
Call   representative   visited   Ano   Nuevo
Island   last   week,   just   in   the   height   of   the
breeding   season.   Keeper   Butwell   of   the
fog   signal,   whose   opportunities   for   study – 
ing   seals   have   undoubtedly   been   most
favorable,   gladly   furnished   all   informa – 
tion   and   acted   as   guide   to   the   seal   rocks.
Some   of   the   facts   that   be   has   gathered   in
regard   to   the   habits   of   seals   and   the
causes   of   their   extermination   are   surpris – 
ing   and   valuable.   He   has   watched   the
herds   constantly   at   all   seasons   for   a
period   of   eight   years,   and   the   location   of
the   rocks,   lying   as   they   do   so   close   to   the
island,   makes   the   seals’   actions   as   easily
observable   as   if   they   were   on   the   stage   of
a   theater.
“Years   ago,”   said   Mr.   Butwell,   “there
used   to   be   tens   of   thousands   of   seals   on
these   rocks,   and   the   killing   of   them   was   a
profitable   industry.   The   hides   were   used
lor   belting   and   sold   for   a   good   price.
”In   those   days   the   rocks   were   leased   to
hunters,   and   the   killing   went   on   at   a
rapid   rate.   Of   course   the   seals   rapidly
diminished   in   numbers,   as   males,   females
and   pups   were   killed   indiscriminately.
When   I   came   bere   eight   years   ago   all   this
had   stopped.   No   hunters   were   allowed   on
the   rocks,   and   it   would   seem   as   if   the
herds   should   have   again   multiplied;   but
they   didn’t.   For   four   years   they   kept   get – 
ting   fewer,   until   there   were   hardly   500
left.
“About   this   time   I   began   to   study   the
cause   of   the   decrease.   From   this   point
here   on   the   island   I   can   look   across   to   the
rocks,   and   by   taking   a   glass   can   bring
the   seals   up   very   close.   I   had   previously
noticed   that   some   of   the   bulls   had   a   habit
of   killing   the   young,   but   had   no   idea   the
evil   was   so   general   as   I   found   it   to   be   on
investigation.   One   morning   I   saw   a   cer – 
tain   bull   climb   on   the   rocks   and   kill
about   half   a   dozen   pups.   Others   did   the
same,   so   it   was   soon   apparent   to   me   that
the   bulls   were   largely   responsible   for   the
decrease   of   the   herds.
“After   becoming   convinced   that   a   num – 
ber   of   vicious   bulls   did   all   the   mischief,   I
began   a   systematic   killing   of   them.   I
used   to   go   over   on   the   rocks   and   lie   in
wait.   Whenever   I   caught   an   old   fellow
in   the   act   of   killing   a   pup   I   put   a   bullet
through   his   head.   The   first   season   I
killed   about   fifty   and   saved   many   hun – 
dred   pups,   so   that   the   second   year   the
herds   began   to   increase   and   this   year   are
larger   than   they   have   been   since   I   com – 
menced   my   extermination   of   the   vicious
bulls.
  The   habits   of   these   seals   are   most
peculiar   and   mysterious.   After   the   pups
are   born   on   the   rocks   the   cows   spend   two
or   three   months   teaching   them   to   swim,
and   then   when   the   time   comes   take   them
to   sea   somewhere   and   leave   them.   The
young   seals   do   not   return   to   the   place   of
their   birth   until   they   are   two   years   old,
but   where   they   spend   the   interval   is   a
mystery.   So   you   see   it   took   two   years   to
tell   whether   the   killing   of   the   vicious bulls  
did   any   good   or   not.   But   l am   sat – 
isfied   that   it   did.   At   any   rate   the   seals
are   increasing   at   a   fair   rate,   and   in   a   lew
years,   with   proper   nursing,   I   think   they
will   be   as   numerous   as   ever.
“But   really   when   we   look   at   it   in   the
right   way   there   is   no   reason   why   the   seals
should   be   preserved.   It   is   purely   a   mat – 
ter   of   sentiment.   One   full-grown   seal   will
destroy   enough   fish   in   a   week   to   feed   a
good-sized   town   for   a   month,   and   the
damage   done   by   the   herd   is   beyond   con – 
ception.   Seals   are   really   the   coyotes   of
the   sea,   and   if   we   look   after   our   own   in – 
terests   we   wou!d   be   making   efforts   to   de – 
stroy   them   instead   of   preserving   them.
However,   it   is   not   likely   they   will   be   de – 
stroyed,   as   they   have   ceased   to   be   worth
anything   comercially.
“The   largest   bull   on   the   rocks   would   not
yield   enough   hide,   whiskers,   etc.,   to   sell
for   $1.50.   When   seal   hides   were   used   tor
belting   they   were   worth   about  $5   each,
but   since   rubber   has   been   used   for   this
purpose   they   are   no   longer   wanted.   Seal
hide   is   only   used   now   for   making   buffing
wheels,   and   of   course   the   demand   is   very
light.   Really   the   seals   are   not   worth   kill – 
ing   should   one   be   so   inclined,   and   any   at – 
tempt   to   do   so   as   a   matter   of   business
would   surely   result   in   loss.”
Every   statement   made   by   Mr.   Butwell
was   borne   out   by   observation.   Standing
on   the   northern   edge   of   Ano   Nuevo
Island   the   seals’   methods   of   destroying
fish   could   be   readily   seen.   The   tide
sweeps   rather   swiftly   through   the   chan – 
nel   between   the   two   points,   and   naturally
a   school   of   fish   would   be   carried   along
with   it.   The   rookeries   will   be   thickly
covered   with   seals,   but   the   instant   a   cer – 
tain   foamy   streak   appeared   on   the   surface
of   the   water   there   will   be   an   almost   in – 
stantaneous   plunge   into   the   sea.   Then
the   slaughter   commences.
The   surface   of   the   water   is   churned   into
foam   and   the   frightened   fish   dart   in   all
directions   only   to   run   into   more   seals.
The   amphibians   bump   into   one   another,
roar   and   plunge   after   their   prey.   All   is
tumult,   commotion   and   death   to   the   fish.
For   a   few   minutes   the   seals   undoubtedly
satisfy   their   appetites   by   eating   all   the
fish   they   catch,   but   after   that   they   simply
kill   for   fun.   When   a   seal   is   hungry   he
will   swallow   a   fish   whole   and   be   chasing
another   while   his   victim   is   still   in   his
throat.   But   when   his   hunger   grows   less
ravenous   he   simply   bites   out   the   back   and
throws   the   rest   away.   When   he   has   had
all   he   wants   the   sea!   playfully   rolls   over
the   surface   of   the   waves,   catches   a   fish
and   gives   it   a   crunch.   Of   course   death   is
instantaneous   and   the   body   of   the   fish   is
allowed   to   drop   into   the   sea.   Providing
the   air   bladders   of   the   fish   have   not   been
broken   the   body   will   float,   and   often   the
surface   of   the   water   will   be   literally   cov – 
ered   with   large   saimon,   sea   bass   and
trout—enough   to   feed   a   town.   Ot   course
many   more   fish   sink   from   sight,   so   that
the   destruction   is  simply   appalling.
The   fact   that   the   bulls   kill   the   young
seals   would   appear   to   be   simply   another
demonstration   of   a   certain   admitted   fact
of   natural   history.   How   such   things
come   about   is   of   course   a   mystery,   but
there   are   numerous   instances   ot   the   same
kind.   It   would   seem   as   if   nature   had   con – 
cluded   that   it   was   time   for   a   certain
species   to   become   extinct   and   took   this
means   of   accomplishing   her   end.   That
she   would   always   succeed   goes   without
saving—except   where   civilization   ateps   in
and   puts   a   slop   to   it.
The   most   common   demonstration   of
this   is   the   case   of   the   ordinary   barnyard
fowl.   It   is   a   well-known   fact   that   where
there   are   as   many   cocks   as   hens   chicks
cannot   be   raised.   The   cocks   kill   them,
and   if   they   were   unmolested   the   species
would   soon   become   extinct.   But   civiliza – 
tion   steps   in   and   destroys   certain   of   the
cocks.   Ad   a   consequence   we   have   all   the
chickens   we   want.
Regardless   of   the   destructive   propensi – 
ties   of   the   seals   and   a   number   of   bis   objec – 
tionable   traits,   he   is   the   most   picturesque
creature   that   lives   in   the   sea,   and,   it
might   be   added,   the   most   picturesque   that
lives   on   land.   Like   every   other   living
creature,   the   seal   has   good   traits   as   well
as   bad   traits,   and   is   most   interesting   to
watch.   While   it   is   a   most   difficult   matter
to   reach   the   seal   rookeries,   the   experience
is   well   worth   the   trip.   It   is   replete   with
incident,   although   not   what   would   be
called   dangerous.
At   low   tide   it   is   possible   to   walk   from
Ano   Nuevo   Island   to   the   seal   rocks.   But
not   “with   a   dry   foot,”   as   the   sailors   are
wont   to   say.
Just   at   present   the   rookeries   are   in   their
glory.   The   pups   have   all   been   born   and
some   of   them   are   over   a   month   old.   At
the   time   of   The   Call   representative’s
visit   to   the   rocks   Mr.   Butwell   had   just
mads   up   his   mind   to   dispose   of   a   few
vicious   bulls   he   bad   seen   killing   ‘the
young,   and   he   led   the   way   from   the   island
to   the   rookeries.
Climbing   down   the   northern   cliff   of   the
island   the   way   lay   over   moss-covered
rocks   laid   bare   by   the   low   tide.   Walking
is   difficult   work,   as   the   rocks,   beautiful   as
it   looks,   affords   a   poor   foothold.   In   fact
it   affords   no   foothold   at   all,   and   it   is   only
by   the   greatest   care   that   slipping   is   pre – 
vented.   Between   the   rocks   are   pools   of
clear   water,   several   inches   deep,   that
must   be   waded   through   and   care   exercised
to   prevent   being   tangled   in   the   long,  slimy
tendrils   of   seaweed.   .  Just   before  
the   seal   rock   is   reached   sea  there   is   a   channel
about   two   feet   deep   and  
twenty   feet   wide   that   must   be   waded. 
The   seals   show   little   signs   of   fear,  a few   have  
plunged   from   the   cliff,   but   others   look   at   the  
intruders with   curiosity   a   few   moments   and   then  
seem   to   forget.  
Seen   from   across   the   narrow   channel,   the   herd   of  
seals   lining   the   edge   of   the   cliffs   was   as   grand   
a   sight   as   the   world   affords.   There   were   thousands  
and   thousands  of   the   enormous   creatures,   packed  
in   together   like   a   flock   of   birds.
In   fact,   the   general   effect   of   the   herd   was  
that   of   penguins.   All   the   seals   roar   vio – 
lently,   so   that   it   is   impossible   to   hear   the
human   voice.   What   monsters   they   are,
and   what   power   they   possess   of   which
they   are   unconscious.
Just   before   wading   the   channel   Mr.
Butwell,   discharged   his   rifle.   It   was   the
first   time   the   seals   had   heard   the   sound
this   year,   and   in   an   instant   there   was
consternation.   Hundreds   of   tons   of   flesh
dropped   into   the   sea   in   a   moment,   and
the   waves   rose   to   the   top   of   the   cliff,   while
the   spray   dashed   high   into   the   air.   It
was   several   moments   before   the   water
became   quiet   again,   and   then   the   herd
was   seen   swimming   in   a   bunch,   undecided
what   to   do,   and   roaring   with   all   their
might.   Although   the   sea   was   fairly   black
with   seals,   hundreds   remained   on   the   top
of   the   cliffs.   These   were   the   old   cows,
who   in   some   way   seemed   to   realize   that
they   were   in   no   danger.
On   the   opposite   side   of   the   channel,
which   was   waded   with   difficulty   and   at
the   expense   of   getting   wet   to   the   waist,
there   was   a   large   number   of   pups   floun – 
dering   helplessly   over   the   moss-covered
rocks.   Nurnbers of   them   were   half-hidden
in   tiny   caves   at   the   base   of   the   cliff,   but
came   out   intending   to   make   friends.
They   did   not   show   the   slightest   fear,   but
on   the   contrary   seemed   to   want   to   be
petted.   Ttiey   allowed   themselves   to   be
patted   on   their   backs,   and   in   other   ways
showed   pleasure   at   receiving   attention.
A   young   seal   is   one   of   the   most   pathet – 
ic-looking   creatures   that   live.   Its   ex – 
pression   is   much   like   that   of   a   lamb,   and
it   will   look   at   you   out   of   its   large   gray
eyes   as   if   it   really   has   feeling.   The   little
fellows   will   follow   one   around   the   rock
uttering   bleats   like   a   goat.   In   color   these
pups   are   a   light   gray,   with   black   on   the
ends   of   the   flippers.
The   seals   of   Ano   Nuevo   Island,   while
belonging   to   the   same   genus   as   those   on
the   Farallones   and   at   the   Cliff,   are   a   dis – 
tinct   species.   They   are   very   light   in
color.   Some   of   the   cows   are   the   color   of
manilla   wrapping-paper   and   the   darkest
of   the   bulls   are   a   sort   of   ocher.   They   are
almost   the   size   of   a   walrus,   a   few   of   them
being   caprble   of   raising   tbeir   heads   about
six   feet   above   the   rock,   while   still   keep – 
ing   their   flippers   on   it.   Many   of   them
will   measure   eleven   feet   in   length,   when
stretched   out,   and   weigh   at   least   a   ton
and   a   half.   It   is   all   that   four   men   can   do
to   roll   a   dead   bull   over   a   level   and   smooth
place.   To   roll   it   up   hill   for   even   a   few
feet   is   out   of   the   question.
The   cliffs   around   the   seal   rookeries   are
about   twenty   feet   high   at   low   tide   and
somewhat   difficult   of   ascent.   The   rocks
are   greasy,   from   the   seals   climbing   over
them,   and   afford   a   poor   foothold,   as   well
as   being   almost   perpendicular.   The   top,
however,   is   in   the   form   of   a   series   of   ter – 
races   or   steps.   Each   of   these   is   about
two   feet   high,   and   the   space   between
them   is   absolutely   flat   at   the   eastern   wall,
although   the   whole   rock   tips   to   the   west.
   As   soon   as   the   top   of   the   rock   became
visible   the   work   of   the   bull   seals   was   only
too   apparent.   Dead   pups   were   scattered
on   all   sides   and   lame   ones   were   strug – 
gling   around,   crying   piteously.   The   old
cows   paid   little   attention   and   showed   no
signs   of   fear.   Their   pups   crawled   close   to
them,   but   the   old   ones   seemed   to   know
that   they   were   absolutely   safe   and   made
not   the   least   move   to   protect   them.
After   waiting   quietly   behind   a   project – 
ing   ledge   of   rock   and   allowing   most   of
the   seals   to   crawl   back   on   to   the   top   of
the   cliff   an   old   bull   was   seen   at   the   south
side   of   the   island,   bellowing   fiercely.
“That’s   one   of   the   fellows   I   am   after,”
said   Mr.   Butwsll.   “Now   watch   him.
I   have   seen   him   kill   a   dozen   young   ones
and   disable   several   of   the   young   females.”
Watching   his   chance,   the   monster
floated   on   the   top   of   a   wave,   and   then
made   a   leap   that   landed   him   on   the
rock,   which   be   struck   so   hard   as   to   shake
it.   Rushing   at   a   group   of   cows,   he pushed  
them   over   the   cliff   into   the   water.
Then   he   made   a   charge   into   a   number   of
pups   that   were   sleeping   peacefully   in   the
sunshine.   He   simply   dropped   on   two
or   three   of   the   helpless   creatures   and
crushed   the   lives   out   of   them.’   Then   he
seized   those   within   his   reach   and   began
tossing   them   in   all   directions.   Some
were   thrown   at   least   twenty   feet   into   the
air, and falling on the rocks were crushed to death.
Others were thrown into the sea and drowned, while
a few were thrown with only enough force to break
their ribs, so they would wallow around helplessly
to eventually die in agony.
   At this stage of the game Mr. Butwell raised his rifle
 and put a bullet behind the brute’s ear. With a thud it
fell to the rock, but although a 45 caliber bullet with
ninety grains of powder behind it had been fired into
its head, the bull was not dead. It quivered and flopped,
and then a number of cows rushed up and attacked it
fiercely. They were chased off with stones.
   It   is   remarkable   the   amount   of   vitality
there   is   in   a   seal.   Five   bullets   had   to   be
fired   into   the   head   of   the   one   mentioned
before   it   finally   lay   still.   Of   course   if   a
single   bullet   had   really   reached   to   the
brain,   it   would   have   died   instantly,   but
this   is   an   almost   impossible   thing   to   do,
as   the   bullets,   in   some   instances,   simply
fracture   the   skull   instead   of   going
through   it.
When   the   bull   was   dead   at   last,   the   cows
on   the   rock,   although   only   eight   or   ten
feet   away,   allowed   it   to   be   examined   with – 
out   showing   any   signs   of   disturbance.   If
anything,   the   death   of   the   bull   caused
them   pleasure.
The   mother   seals,   however,   are   not
always   mild.   If   they   in   any   way   come   to
think   that   their   young   are   in   danger   they
will   fight   fiercely,   and   if   it   becomes   ne – 
cessary   to   wound   one   of   them   she   will   not
leave   the   cliff   unless   her   pup   is   where   she
can   reach   it.   The   cows   are   the   best   of
mothers,   and   when   their   pups   are   very
young   will   not   leave   them   for   a   moment.
Generally   it   is   possible   to   drive   off   a
cow   seal   by   throwing   stones   at   her.
Should   one   be   struck   in   the   face   she   will
show   signs   of   fear   and   in   most   instances
retreat.   Should   she   refuse   to   do   this   it   is
necessary   to   get   out   of   her   way;   but   even
this   course   Is   dangerous,   as   the   rocks   are
slippery,   and   should   a   man   fall   and   the
seal   spring   on  him   his   life   would   be
crushed   out   instantly.
It   is   a   remarkable   fact   that   no   scientific
men   have   ever   made   a   study   of   the   seals
of   Ano   Nuevo   Island.   The   fog   signal   log – 
book   shows   that   none   have   ever   been
there,   and   the   only   reason   that   can   be
given   is   that   it   is   not   generally   known
that   any   seals   ever   come   to   the   island.
 

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About June Morrall

1947 - 2010
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