LAGUNA BEACH (CBSLA.com) — Laguna Beach police are searching for the person responsible for poisoning more than a dozen sea lions at a rescue and rehabilitation center.
Laguna Beach police detectives say a suspect trespassed onto the property of the Pacific Marine Mammal Center and introduced a large amount of chlorine into the water filtration system between 8 p.m. April 27 and 6 a.m. April 28.
The chlorine mixed with the salt water and contaminated one of the pools, where 17 sea lions were being treated.
Prior to the incident, police say, most of the sea lions had been given a clean bill of health and were due to be released the following day. The attack re-injured all 17 of them.
Fifteen of the sea lions have been diagnosed with varying degrees of corneal ulcerations. Eight have healed, but seven other continue to receive treatment from a staff veterinarian. All of the injured sea lions are expected to survive.
Investigators say this is the first known animal assault ever to take place at the nonprofit PMMC, which services all of coastal Orange County.
“It’s pretty sad. I went out there myself and looked at the sea lions. Their eyes are swollen up, some of their eyes are shut, they can’t open them,” said Sgt. Tim Kleiser. “It’s kind of dis-heartening to think that somebody would go out there and harm the animals intentionally.”
Kleiser said there are three security cameras at the facility. Detectives are reviewing them but won’t release the video at this time.
They are also looking into all possibilities of a motive, including whether this was an inside job.
“We don’t know if it’s inside. We don’t know if it’s a former employee who worked there. So we’re looking at all different angles right now,” Kleiser said.
“It’s depressing,” MaryBeth Steen, the center’s Director of Development, told CBSLA.com. “We’re shocked. And it’s really, really hard on the animal-care folks who deal with these animals every day and have such compassion for them.”
Steen said the facility is caring for about 125 sea lions, reaching what she calls “historic” levels of rescue efforts in 2015.
Staff members earlier this year sought the public’s help during the massive influx as sea lions began to beach themselves in California coastal communities in record numbers. The mammals become stranded for a number of reasons, including ocean conditions, weather and illnesses. Other stranding factors have been prompted by the lack of prey, infectious disease outbreaks and harmful algae blooms, officials say.
Detectives have interviewed several people with access to the facility and are conducting a joint investigation with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. City surveillance footage is also being reviewed to locate the suspect or suspects and their vehicle.
Anyone with knowledge about the incident or those responsible is encouraged to call Laguna Beach Detectives David Gensemer or Abe Ocampo at (949)-497-0377 or the NOAA hotline at 1-800-853-1964.