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Crime and Public Safety: Child bit by sea lion at La Jolla Cove

At least two sea lion bites have been reported in the past three months at La Jolla Cove.
At least two sea lion bites have been reported in the past three months at La Jolla Cove.
( Susan DeMaggio)

A 5-year-old boy was taken to the hospital Sunday, March 22 after he was bit in the cheek by a sea lion at La Jolla Cove. The incident happened at the bottom of the western steps leading to the beach. The boy’s father allowed him to approach a group of sea lions to pet one, when an adult sea lion (estimated to weigh about 500 pounds) spun its head around and bit the boy in the face, causing a small puncture wound, lifeguard Lt. John Sandmeyer said.

“It probably could have done any (amount of) damage it wanted to, but it looked like it just wanted to snap at him as a warning to keep the kid away,” Sandmeyer said.

The boy’s father declined medical attention from lifeguards and instead took his son to a hospital. The boy is expected to recover.

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At least two sea lion attacks have been reported in the past three months, Sandmeyer said, including a woman who was bit in the upper leg Feb. 21 at La Jolla Cove. She was reportedly trying to photograph a sea lion when it reached out and snapped at her, causing her to fall down in the sand. The incident resulted in a light puncture wound from a single tooth that went through her pants, Sandmeyer said.

Sandmeyer cited San Diego Municipal Code section 63.0102 (b)(10), which states that it is unlawful to “disturb or maltreat” any wild animal unless it has been “declared noxious by the city manager.”

In addition, federal guidelines, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), prohibit harassment of marine mammals. Although Sandmeyer said during the 1990s lifeguards and park rangers were told the law required people to maintain a distance of 25 meters from marine mammals — particularly seals at Children’s Pool beach south of La Jolla Cove — the MMPA does not specify a safe distance for humans to keep away from marine mammals, only that anything that causes them to move or react constitutes harassment under the law.

“We’ll try to hold the peace and stop people from bothering the seal lions,” Sandmeyer said, though adding, “We’ve had different orders, basically, on how to respond.

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“At this point we can’t maintain that (25 meter) expectation and we’re not getting pressed to enforce that from federal officers,” he said, though adding, “anytime someone is egregiously approaching or causing a change in the sea lion’s behavior is when we intercede.”

Sandmeyer said installation of a gate in the fence above La Jolla Cove in December 2013 created a “conveyor belt of people” walking down onto the bluff above La Jolla Cove to have their photograph taken with sea lions resting there. He said on busy days lifeguards typically issue 50 or more verbal warnings to individuals or groups of people getting too close to sea lions and causing them to move or react.

Sandmeyer said lifeguards try not to make warning people harassing sea lions their “primary matter of attention” as it can distract them from monitoring the beach and shoreline.

In the rare instance when someone is malicious or noncompliant, lifeguards will phone police and/or officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, which oversees the protection of marine mammals in the United States by enforcing the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The public can report incidences of sea lion or seal harassment by phoning the NOAA Fisheries enforcement hotline at (619) 557-5494.

Monica DeAngelis, a marine mammal biologist with NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region, said NOAA officials are “absolutely” concerned with the deluge of people approaching the sea lions at La Jolla Cove. “The public should be aware these are wild animals and there could be safety issues if they are approached,” she said, noting that the animals also carry bacteria and viruses.

“One bacteria people should know about is Leptospirosis, because sea lions can pass on the disease to dogs and other animals through their waste,” she said. “The transmission is through direct contact with the animal’s urine, or with sand that’s been soiled by the animal.”

DeAngelis said in humans the disease can be treated with antibiotics and dogs can be vaccinated against it. —Pat Sherman

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Petersen found guilty of two counts of attempted murder

A former biotech executive who prosecutors said was angry and seeking revenge when he opened fire at two La Jolla homes in 2013, was convicted March 18 of two counts of premeditated attempted murder. Hans A. Petersen, 50, of University City was charged with trying to kill three people during the shootings on Sept. 18, 2013 on Cottontail Lane and Waverly Avenue, including his brother-in-law, his former business partner and that man’s wife.

After deliberating less than a day, a San Diego Superior Court jury found Petersen guilty of trying to kill his then-estranged wife’s brother, Ronald Fletcher, and Steven Dowdy, a UC San Diego cancer researcher with whom Petersen had been involved in a business venture. Both were wounded.

The jury acquitted Petersen of one attempted murder charge, stemming from an accusation that he had also tried to kill Dowdy’s wife that day. She was not struck.

Judge Leo Valentine Jr. scheduled a sentencing hearing for May 15.

— Dana Littlefield, special to La Jolla Light

Construction worker injured on Avenida de la Playa site

A construction worker was injured while working in a trench on Avenida de la Playa in La Jolla Shores around 11:15 a.m. March 20. San Diego Fire & Rescue was called and stabilized the worker before taking him to Scripps Memorial Hospital.

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Other workers were able to extricate the man, who has not been identified, from the trench. The worker was in a trench dug to replace the sewer and water lines as part of an ongoing project. Unknown circumstances led dirt to spill on him. The Light will publish further details as they become available. — Ashley Mackin