A seal with a fondness for New Jersey beaches — and the food-sharing fishermen and beachgoers that come with them — is headed for Detroit after becoming a little too friendly with the locals.
Since March, the 100-pound female gray seal had stopped on Long Island, New York, and New Jersey beaches at Sandy Hook, Island Beach State Park, Sea Isle City and Longport.
Each time, animal rescue groups shooed it back into the water or treated it for illness or injury. But the seal kept coming back.
When people started petting it on a beach in Longport on Sept. 5, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center removed it from the ocean permanently because it had become too acclimated to humans.
"We would see it in Sea Isle City, swimming among the bathers, not bothering anybody, but clearly too used to humans being around," said Bob Schoelkopf, director of the stranding center. "In Longport, it came ashore and kids went up and started petting it. That's what sealed its fate."
The animal's odyssey began on March 9 when Long Island's Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research responded to a report of a young seal with a swollen flipper. The animal was rehabilitated at the center for just over three months and released on June 14.
On July 10, New Jersey's Marine Mammal Stranding Center received a call about a seal on the beach with a fishing hook lodged in its mouth. A technician from the center removed the hook. Because the animal had no other obvious injuries or illnesses, it was released and went back into the water.
But two days later, the seal was back ashore again, this time in Sea Isle City, where a large crowd gathered, causing the animal to become anxious and stressed. The stranding center picked it up and brought it to its Brigantine facility, where personnel noticed the animal had a cough, and put it on antibiotics.
When the cough disappeared and blood tests showed the seal had no illness, it was released at Sandy Hook on Aug. 18, having gained 21 pounds at the rescue center.
"Throughout the next few weeks, there were dozens of reports of our seal swimming in close proximity to bathers in the surf," Schoelkopf said. "We got calls from people saying they had fed it."
After deciding the seal was too used to humans to ever return to the ocean, the stranding center notified federal wildlife officials, who found a home for it at the Detroit Zoo.
The seal leaves on Sunday for the zoo, which will have a contest to name it.