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A Disturbing Lineup: Three Gunshot Victims Rescued in Three Weeks

The Marine Mammal Center rescues about 10 animals a year due to gunshots, but these patients rarely survive. This is the story of three gunshot victims rescued within the span of three weeks—including one who beat the odds.

October 21, 2014

Armstrong is an adult female California sea lion that was suffering from a number of ailments, including a gunshot.
© Sarah van Schagen, The Marine Mammal Center


Imagine caring for a California sea lion patient for weeks, trying to diagnose what’s wrong, only to find out that he’s suffering at the hands of your fellow human beings: a victim of gun violence.

That’s exactly what happened to the veterinary team caring for Wei, a juvenile male sea lion that was rescued in an emaciated state from Pajaro Dunes near Moss Landing, California. 

After a few days at the Center, Wei starts to eat and gain weight, a good indication that he might be feeling better and could even be a candidate for release back into the wild. However, after two weeks of care, Wei's appetite diminishes, and he starts to deteriorate.

After a re-check exam, he exhibits signs of neurological damage that might indicate a more serious diagnosis. Possible causes are noted in his chart: domoic acid poisoning, cancer, a parasitic infection, head trauma.

Wei's x-ray shows gunshot fragments in his head and neck.
© The Marine Mammal Center


On September 7, an x-ray reveals the true cause of Wei’s neurological damage: multiple gunshot fragments in his head and neck causing abscesses and inflammation. Due to his worsening condition and poor prognosis, Wei is humanely euthanized.

That same day, another gunshot victim is rescued at Avila Beach, California. The California sea lion, an adult female named Armstrong, is brought to our triage facility in San Luis Obispo. Rescue volunteers note that she isn’t active and will only lift her head.

After a full admit exam, including blood work, urine analysis and x-rays, our veterinary team determines that Armstrong is suffering from a number of ailments, including malnutrition, a urinary tract infection, and an old fracture and infection in her right hind flipper due to a shark bite.

Armstrong's x-ray reveals a bullet lodged in the muscle tissue of the chest.
© The Marine Mammal Center

X-rays also show that she has a bullet in her thorax, or chest area, but it doesn’t appear to have damaged her internal organs.

To confirm the location of the bullet, Dr. Rebecca Greene performs an ultrasound and determines that the bullet is lodged in the wall of muscular tissue surrounding the chest and does not appear to have reached her internal organs.

Armstrong is lucky to be alive—aside from the initial trauma of being shot, the positioning of the bullet has prevented additional harm.

Had the bullet pierced her lungs or other vital organs, she may never have survived the injury in the first place.

After four weeks of rehabilitation at the Center, during which Armstrong gains 24 pounds and is given antibiotics to fight off her infections, she is cleared for release back to the wild. On October 6, she returns to the ocean at Chimney Rock in Point Reyes National Seashore.

Armstrong is released back to the ocean at Chimney Rock in Point Reyes National Seashore.
© Cara Field, The Marine Mammal Center


Unfortunately many more gunshot victim stories mirror that of California sea lion Avalon, an adult male weighing 325 pounds that was found looking lethargic and disoriented on Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands.

Spotted on September 18, he was put into a carrier for transport back to our hospital, but died before being loaded onto the rescue truck. A post-mortem x-ray confirmed that he had been shot in the head multiple times.

“Unfortunately I’m not surprised when I find an animal has been the victim of a gunshot,” Dr. Greene says. “It happens way too often.”

Just this year, The Marine Mammal Center has rescued 10 gunshot victims, all California sea lions. So far, Armstrong has been the only survivor.

Very few of the gunshot animals we see each year survive—and those who do often end up permanently injured. But this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of animals that are shot each year. Many more gunshot victims likely die at sea.

No matter how many gunshot victims Dr. Greene treats, it never gets easier. “I’m still always saddened that these amazing creatures are subjected to this kind of trauma,” she says. “It also makes me think of all the gun violence against our fellow humans, which is so tragic.”

Avalon's x-ray: another disturbing image of gunshot violence.
© The Marine Mammal Center


Looking for Justice
Just as with humans, shooting a marine mammal is illegal thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, established 42 years ago today. This U.S. law makes harming a marine mammal in any way (including injuring or killing one) a federal crime. Violators can be subject to fines up to $10,000.

As such, any bullet fragments found in our patients are retained as evidence and will be turned over to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Law Enforcement when warranted. We share any information we have about the crime with the authorities, although it is difficult to make a case without any additional evidence.

You can help protect sea lions and other marine mammals from these horrific and illegal crimes. If you have any information about the harassment of marine mammals—including gun-related violence—please contact NOAA’s 24-Hour Enforcement Hotline at 1-800-853-1964.

Your support and donations will help The Marine Mammal Center treat and care for pinniped victims of gunshot violence. Together we can make a difference!


Find out more about marine mammals. Get updates about our patients and follow their fascinating stories.

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Learn about: California sea lions

Read about other Marine Mammal Gunshots Victims

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