The search for a sea lion pup and the group of people who stole it from a state beach in Los Angeles continued Monday, with officials saying the LAPD’s animal cruelty division was taking over the investigation.
As of Monday afternoon, the sea lion hadn’t been found, and police said they were nowhere closer to finding the pup.
The pup was stolen before dawn Sunday when a resident reported seeing two men and two women harassing a pair of pups about 3 a.m. at Dockweiler State Beach in Playa del Rey, LAPD officials said.
The group had been seen throwing trash and at one point a concrete block at the pups.
The witness, who was collecting containers for recycling at the time, saw one woman wrap one of the pups in a comforter and pack the animal in the trunk of a dark-colored Honda Civic, said Lt. Lydia Leos of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Federal law prohibits the harassment, hunting, capture or killing of sea lions. The criminal penalty for hurting a pup is up to $100,000 in fines and/or a year in jail, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Honda Civic was last seen heading south on Vista Del Mar, police said. The license plate number, according to the witness, ends with the numbers 56.
After the car left, the witness called police, who around 4 a.m. contacted Peter Wallerstein, president of Marine Animal Rescue, a nonprofit group that helps stranded sea animals get back to the ocean.
Wallerstein headed to the scene and was able to find the second sea lion hiding in the bushes of a nearby bike path. The pup was unharmed, he said.
Wallerstein said sea lions often wander onto land, looking for food, and people have tried to take them before. He said most people have good intentions but make bad decisions.
"They'll put them in their bathtubs, then call us to rescue them," Wallerstein said.
But there have been some aspiring pet owners among the good Samaritans, said Wallerstein, who has been rescuing marine mammals for 30 years. One caller kept a sea lion in his backyard for three days before calling Wallerstein and giving it up.
"It wasn't eating, so they thought they'd better call someone," Wallerstein said.
Sea lions do not make good pets, Wallerstein said. They bite with 10 times the strength of dogs, and their mouths are dirtier and more bacteria-ridden than any other mammal, Wallerstein said. Keeping a sea lion carries a penalty of up to a year in prison and fine of up to $10,000, Wallerstein said.
More and more sea lions have been turning up on land looking for food, Wallerstein said. Last year, he rescued 294 marine mammals, most of them sea lions. This year, he's already up to 321 — most of them sea lions as well.
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, there were 350 pup strandings on California beaches in January, 850 in February and 1,050 in March.
The unusually high number of sea lion strandings could be connected to fluctuations in the population of sea lions on the California coast over the last few years. NOAA experts believe that there's less prey available for sea lions, and pups are driven to the shore because they can't find food. Warmer seas could also be a factor.
The pup rescued Sunday morning was emaciated, Leos said.
"Hopefully he survives, and we find the other one," she said.
Anyone with details about the sea lion is urged to call NOAA at (800) 853-1964.
Times staff writer Frank Shyong contributed to this report.