They're two-time victims: first of the climate change that's damaging their food supplies, and now of cruel humans.
Thousands of sea lions have been struggling ashore in Southern California, sick and starving. Yet what they have found onshore has been unspeakable and illegal.
Seventeen sea lions among hundreds of the starving creatures that have been taken in for treatment were being rehabilitated at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach after federal officials say someone deliberately poured chlorine into their rehabilitation pool. Fifteen had serious chemical burns to the surface of their eyes.
Farther up the coastline, some emaciated animals that made it to shore found their suffering didn't stop there.
At Dockweiler State Beach a couple of weeks ago, two men and two women tormented a sea lion pup – even threw a concrete block at it -- and then wrapped it up and stuffed it in the trunk of a car – a dark, two-door Honda Civic with California plates, the last two numbers of which are 5 and 6.
"I've seen people throw rocks at the sea lions, throw soda on them, poke them with their surfboards," Wendy Hawkins told the Orange County Register. She started her own safety team "to keep the mammals safe until rescuers arrive."
"Sometimes, people have no compassion," she said.
"No compassion" would be an indifferent shrug. This behavior is flat-out cruelty.
Not long ago, Hawkins followed a running crowd to a spot on the beach where she says she "saw a kid about 10 years old kicking a sea lion pup in the head. No one said anything."
So Hawkins did. She told the child to stop. There was a time when the child's mother would have told her child, "Listen to that lady. Shame on you. Stop it right now."
But -- you probably saw this coming -- Hawkins said the mother did no such thing. Instead, she chewed out Hawkins for talking to her child that way.
All of this behavior is illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits harassing, hunting, capturing or killing of marine mammals, and if you get caught and convicted, you could spend a year in the clink and be fined up to $100,000. Do we really need a law to know that it's vicious and immoral to hurt animals?
I guess we do. The Greek philosopher Bion had to make it plain 2,000 years ago: "Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest." And we are still killing frogs.
Almost any disturbance can qualify as harassment; even selfies can bother sea lions, which can be snappish when they're healthy and exploited when they're ill.
In Orange County, the Register reported, a man propped his kid on a suffering sea lion's back and took a photo. Another man hunkered down next to a different sea lion and actually pushed the creature into a better pose for his selfie. And tourists in La Jolla clamber down the rocks for better me-and-the-sea-lions pix.
In Switzerland, the Swiss Animal Protection Agency has complained that Saint Bernards are being mistreated and used as photo-op props, and the ski resort of Zermatt has banned tourist selfies with Saint Bernards.
Those selfies look innocuous compared to what people choose to brag about online.
A Texas veterinarian gave herself a "vet-of-the-year" award, posting on Facebook a triumphant picture of herself and the "feral" cat she had killed with an arrow to the head. The cat turned out to be a missing pet named Tiger, and the vet got fired and is under criminal investigation.
On social media, comedian Ricky Gervais lit into a woman who appears on a hunting show, objecting to her smiling selfie lying next to the giraffe she had killed. The shooting was a few years ago, but Gervais brought it front and center this week by Tweeting the photo with a question. "What must've happened to you in your life to make you want to kill a beautiful animal & then lie next to it smiling?"
Even giving her account the benefit of the doubt -- that the giraffe was dying and locals needed the meat – it still doesn't excuse the grotesque selfie.
As psychologists begin to examine the meaning of the selfie, they should look particularly at the subgenre of people posing with animals, dead or living, in ways that show some distasteful mastery of them.
In the meantime, I'd settle for a selfie of one of these miscreants convicted and cooling his heels in a place where we've gotten accustomed to seeing animals: behind bars.