The choice isn’t seals or people

Karen Dawn runs Her book, "Thanking the Monkey: Rethinking the Way We Treat Animals," will be published in 2008.

Last week, the state Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling requiring the city of San Diego to dredge a beach in La Jolla. Dredging the beach will disperse a resident colony of harbor seals. The ruling was in accordance with the terms of a trust transferring ownership of the cove from the state to the city of San Diego. The trust required the city to maintain the cove as a swimming beach for children; the seals, it was argued, make the conditions unsanitary. But that contract was made in 1931, decades before the seals settled in the cove and at a time when there was a lot less competition for beach space in Southern California.

The way this battle has been played in the media, it’s a people versus animals conflict. A United Press International headline announced, “Ruling Favors Humans in SoCal Beach Flap.” Yet the article told us that “the situation pitted animal rights activists who wanted the seals left alone against city residents.” Which group did the headline deem human? Apparently if you’re a Californian who has enjoyed watching the seals socializing on the beach in La Jolla -- if you are sorry to see the seals go -- your humanity is in question because you’re an animal rights activist.

You’d think the seal watchers in La Jolla were vegans wearing pleather Birkenstocks and munching bean sprouts as they watched from their vantage points above the cove. But when I was at the beach, I saw mostly families who looked as if they’d come from far and wide. Kids of every ethnicity, in predominantly white La Jolla, squealing with delight as they watched the seals. The kids weren’t eating tofu.

The numbers were remarkable, and maybe that’s the real point in a case brought by Paul Kennerson, the former president of the community association of ritzy La Jolla. This is not a matter of animals shutting out people. The animals attract people. But what people?

I won’t speculate on the many hardships for the people of La Jolla when their neighborhood fills up with seal spectators, but the most obvious one is that the La Jolla oceanfront is jam-packed with cars other than the resident BMWs.

That is not the argument you’ll hear against the seals because that is not a winning argument. The winning argument is “animals versus people.” Or, even better, “animals versus kids.” We shouldn’t be surprised when the decision goes to the kids. And I would agree that in any sort of real choice between seals and kids, kids should win.

But what about the kids who want to see the seals? Sure, the San Diego Zoo or Sea World will welcome them, but some families want to see seals as nature intended, lazing around a beach, not bouncing balls on their noses in concrete pools. And not every family can afford the minimum $15.50 per kid for a day at the zoo. After all, the California coastline and its animals belong to everybody, not just those who can afford the median housing cost in La Jolla: $2.195 million.

The majority of Americans who care about animals often lose in the political realm. Now the law has backed an argument that says kids who want to swim at the beach are more important than all the others who want to see the seals. But, of course, the argument wasn’t phrased like that. Politically savvy folks know what arguments will work: “Whose more important, children or animals?”

But that’s a false choice. Most children love animals. And those of us who love those kids would like the La Jolla folks to cope with the car congestion and swim at any other beach when they tire of their swimming pools. Why not leave this one Southern California beach to the seals -- and to the kids who love seeing them?