Beheading the Lion: Part the Second
In Which I Bite Off More Than I Can Macerate
(Part One can be found here)
In Which I Bite Off More Than I Can Macerate
(Part One can be found here)
In Spanish sea lions are called lobos marinos, "wolves of the sea." This name is far more befitting. Like wolves, they mingle in gregarious packs of both males and females, even multiple families. The dominant bull, the Beachmaster, puts so much effort into defending his turf that he often forgets to eat, eventually weakening to the point where another bull easily takes his place. Thus the Beachmaster is constantly changing; there are no dictators among sea lions.
When the adults go out hunting for the day, they leave the youngsters in a nursery area with one or two nannies to watch over them. These nursery kids were the ones I played with most often, dependent on who the nanny was for the day. If the nanny was a particularly uptight lady, she would come over and break up the fun, shuffle the youngsters away, and heartily bawl me out for overstepping my bounds.
A true lioness would have just eaten me.
Besides, sea lions look rather more like dogs than cats, a thought that returned to me as I stood next to my dog looking down at the dead sea lion we had uncovered.
It seemed like a young and healthy lion, so the first thing I did was check for bullet wounds. Although all marine mammals here are protected, sea lions have become an especially reviled scapegoat for the failing salmon fishery, an anti-mascot for fishing just as spotted owls are for logging. When officials aren't looking, locals don't hesitate to pop a sea lion with a 7mm.
I'll confess, I too have been aggravated by the sight of a bobbing brown head beelining towards me through the water just when I've gotten a fat fish on the line. The sea lions will tear off chunks until there's very little left to reel in, Old Man and the Sea-style. It's easy pickings for them, and easy curses from me.
But the universal hatred of sea lions in my hometown, the perception that the world would be a much better place without them, that they are good for nothing...this I can't stand. This is misdirected anger, but such is the nature of a scapegoat. I get it. It's much simpler to shoot a sea lion than a dam, or a policy, or a pollution. In the midst of so much helpless frustration, it gives the shooter a satisfying "I've solved a problem!" sort of feeling. We act on our gut and we go by what we can see before our eyes...and we are a people who like to take things into our own hands. We've been on this land for generations.
But they've been here longer.
I digress - There were no bullet holes on this sea lion, nor did it have any other signs of particular distress. It was just plain dead. Unsettling.
The dog, always the optimist, thought this was the greatest beach find in the history of beach finds, something he could roll in for the rest of his life. I had to agree; it seemed a shame to let a perfectly good sea lion go to waste. But as for me, I was thinking of our local museum's educational collection of skulls. I imagined its head being passed around from kid to wondering kid as the instructor asked, "Now what kind of animal do you think this is? Look at its teeth. What does it eat?"
Yes, it was perfect. I would claim its head in the name of education! (And perhaps, possibly, sea lion appreciation?)
Mind you, this is my modus operandi. I'm responsible for many of the dead things in the local museum...no,no,no! Not for killing them. Heavens. For finding them and bringing them in.
Getting the proper paperwork was easy enough, but I had to get it quickly. A seven foot carcass doesn't usually go anywhere on its own, but with winter's stormwaves soon approaching, I knew that any day the sea might reclaim its offering, never to be seen again. Several days later I returned to the beach with a permit, a garbage bag, a hunting knife, and then...
The lucky thing about this sea lion was that it had been deposited extremely close to the parking lot. The tricky thing about this sea lion was that it had been deposited...extremely close to the parking lot. The day I went to finally fetch my head there were people out on the beach - a beach normally free of people - and so I was forced to wait for them to leave, loitering around in my clear plastic raincoat, humming up at the sky, carrying a huge unsheathed knife and a garbage bag...not at all creepy.
When at last I had the beach to myself, I knelt down and got to work, fearing that any moment a family with young children or a church group or a sheriff would suddenly come strolling up over the foredune, and there I would be - bent over, splattered in blood, hacking away at a sea lion. I prepared myself to say, "It was dead when I found it! I...I have a permit!" Really, there's no good way that conversation could have gone.
Fortunately no one came. A blessing, as I had my hands full enough as it was.
Disclaimer! Warning! - If you should happen upon a dead sea lion in your home or driveway or mailbox, please do not lay into it with a hunting knife. Dead sea lions can transmit leptospirosis through direct contact. Please notify a certified biologist, like me. We will come and creepily (but properly!) dispose of it.
So now at last I was safely back in my car with my treasure: a sea lion skull. Except, except...it was a perfectly wonderful educational skull trapped within about ten pounds of sea lion face. "How on earth am I going to clean this thing?" I suddenly realized.
In the past I've tried cleaning skulls manually. I wouldn't wish this on anyone. I've put them into mesh nets and slung them over a dock to let the wee fishies do their thing. This works, but it takes a ridiculous amount of time. I read about burying bones, but this discolors them, and about boiling bones, but this weakens them (and really, did I want boiled sea lion in my kitchen? No, no I did not.)
So I finally decided on a technique I had never tried: MACERATION. Or in English, "putting it in water until it rots clean."
Now, if you really want to macerate a bone correctly, you should strip all the flesh off it first and then keep it in a sealed container at a constant, preferably warm temperature. Because I'm a cowgirl, I did none of this. I plunked the entire head in a bucket, filled it with the hose, and set it in the side yard. Also added a bit of pond water for good measure, figuring that all those little mandibled beasties might do it some good.
Five weeks later, I had an impressive bucket of sea lion stew.
The trick to this process, you see, is to change the water often enough to keep the water from turning so murkily anaerobic that every last bacteria in it dies, stopping the decomposition process. And this meant, much to my consternation, that I had to handle, frequently, a concoction that immediately rose to #1 in my list of All Time Worst Smells. (This list is not a mild list.) It made my eyes water, my throat close up; with hose and bucket I could be seen crouched on my driveway crying, "Dear God in heaven, why? why?" feeling like a scene from a Hitchcock movie, seriously reconsidering my commitment to children's education, retracing the steps in my life that had brought me to this juncture. The smell would haunt me with headaches and bad tastes for hours afterwards. It was an undiscovered WMD.
But I stuck it to it, determined that somewhere under that grey, somewhat sea-lion-head-shaped horror I had created there was a skull...somewhere, somewhere.
And there was.
After several months, and with one last triumphant tip of the bucket, I picked up my beautiful, perfectly cleaned specimen, a prize that would have been lost back into the ocean, now a sea lion that would teach, maybe even inspire. A sea lion that will pass through the hands of school kids for generations - I hope.
Because I'm not doing that again.