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Report Filed by AAF Correspondent: Ann DiLoreto
from The San Jose Mercury

    Sexually predatory sea otter captured
Kept in isolation after exhibiting sociopathic behavior

Posted at 9:32 p.m. PDT Tuesday, April 17, 2001

BY DAVID L. BECK Mercury News

Morgan, the sexually predatory killer sea otter, is back in custody. And there, at least for now, he will remain.

In solitary.

Accused of horrific deeds against nature, Morgan was wanted by authorities for months. But this tale of an orphaned otter gone bad -- an otter once thought to have so much promise -- begins in childhood.

Morgan was rescued as a baby in September 1995 and placed in the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sea Otter Research and Conservation program, which prepares orphans for a life on their own once they return to the sea.

Morgan, now about 6 years old, was one of the program's success stories. A Discovery Channel piece noted his progress: ``Two-week-old Morgan bonded with a caretaker and swam during his entire stay at the aquarium,'' reads a Discovery Web site. Released into the wild at the age of 7 months, ``he's been out, without a problem, for two years.''

But then something went terribly wrong.

``We saw him with dead seals,'' said aquarium spokesman Ken Peterson, noting he knew it was Morgan because he still wore his flipper tag. ``Later we saw him with live seals who wound up dying in his care.''

Morgan is, to put it in human terms, a sociopathic oversexed adolescent, still too young to compete for mature females but not too young to feel the need.

``It's been seen before, in sea otters and other animals, this inclination to kind of take your opportunities where you can,'' said Andrew Johnson, who manages the sea otter program. ``And sometimes it might be with a different species, or it might be with a dead animal of your own species. . . . Trying to get experience.''

After his release nearly five years ago, Morgan would pay a call at the aquarium now and then, ``spend the night in the Great Tide Pool. We'd see him up on Cannery Row,'' said Johnson. ``But not recently.''

Last spring, during seal pupping season, he began to be seen chasing young seals and then attempting to mate with them.

``We were hoping he'd outgrow it,'' Johnson said.

Instead, Morgan continued to prey on yearling seals.

``We're still sort of mystified that he has the capacity to subdue these animals,'' Johnson said. ``They're at least as big as he is; they can hold their breath longer; they can bite and scratch. But at a certain point he gets the total upper hand.''

Morgan weighs about 65 pounds. Young seals weigh ``15 to 20 pounds and up,'' he said.

Morgan is not the only predatory otter in the sea. ``We definitely confirmed that there was another animal with dead harbor seals on a number of occasions,'' said Johnson, although he declined to use the term ``copycat.'' But that one either stopped or moved on. There have been no further sightings since late last year.

As for Morgan? ``Morgan had ahold of a seal the day we caught him.''

Johnson said his staff wasn't sure how many victims Morgan has claimed. There are ``seven or eight we're almost completely sure of,'' but the toll could be as high as 20.

With the seal pupping season here again, ``we made a decision to step in'' with the approval of the state Fish and Wildlife Department.

The aquarium team knew where to look for Morgan. ``He was fairly predictable in the areas he tended to inhabit in Elkhorn Slough'' -- foraging in the main channel at slack tide, taking it easy in the back channels during riptides.

They finally snared him two weeks ago.

``As many sort-of-jokes as have been made about this situation, we've always tried to take it very seriously,'' Johnson said. ``Animals' lives are at stake. His future's at stake, too.''

Morgan's tale has multiple possible endings.

At one time, Fish & Wildlife officials intended to release him somewhere far away from harbor seal pupping beaches. But when his pattern of depredation continued, it became unlikely the repeat offender would be returned to the wild.

Nor can he be put in with young animals at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But he needs some kind of stimulation, said Johnson. Quarantine, where he is now, is not a long-term option.

He could be sent to another institution, if one can be found. Or he could be kept in for what Peterson called ``minimally invasive research projects,'' involving, say, a surgically implanted radio transmitter in the belly.

Worst case? Euthanasia. But ``at this point,'' said Johnson, ``that seems remote.''

© 2000 The Mercury News

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