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Berkeley Folklore:  Houseboats in Sausalito 1. The House Pet

By Edward Ordman  (c) 2015

      I cannot vouch for all the details here. It was pieced together from a series of very short articles in the San Francisco Chronicle, and I've had to fill in to make it a connected story.

      Sausalito, California, is located north of San Francisco, just over the Golden Gate Bridge.  It has a nice calm harbor on San Francisco Bay. With buildable land being at a premium in the San Francisco area, housing is expensive, and one result has been that hundreds of houseboats are moored off the waterfront at Sausalito.  Many are occupied by people working in San Francisco.  It is well worth looking at a satellite photograph of the area, e.g. on Google Earth (tm), since it is hard to understand otherwise the density of the houseboat moorings.

     I take it that maritime law doesn't well cover all the situations that arise when there are this many houseboats and that the city of Sausalito attempts to apply some city codes out on the water as to houseboat locations and the like. Sometimes the codes cause problems in this unusual application, and sometimes they are helpful.

     One day, while a man was at work in San Francisco, a sea lion boarded his houseboat. The sea lion apparently found this more comfortable than the rocks in the bay, and decided to take up residence. When the man returned, the sea lion would not let him board. It is hard to argue about turf with an eight-hundred-pound sea lion.  Apparently the sea lion was able to fish at night and return, as it stayed for days. 

      The boat owner asked various authorities what he could do. The answer: apparently nothing. It is illegal to disturb a wild animal in its natural habitat, and San Francisco Bay out on the water was legally part of its habitat.  For some days the newspapers reported on the story and that all sorts of efforts were being made to find a solution. The neighboring houseboats complained bitterly of the smell and the fact that they  regarded the situation as dangerous.
       A first legal step was found:  The neighbors filed a complaint with the city that the man was keeping an unlicensed house pet. The city announced it would not license any house pet that large. A warning was issued to the boat owner, but the sea lion did not depart. Shortly thereafter, formal legal charges were filed against the boat owner for keeping the unlicensed pet, and the matter was referred to the city Animal Control Officer.

        Even in California, dog-catchers are not equipped to deal with sea lions.  But now that there was a court proceeding in progress, the officer could ask for the assistance of other law enforcement agencies. The Coast Guard was contacted, and with some difficulty they loaded the sea lion onto a barge and took him into custody as evidence that could be introduced in court in the case.

        Once they were far enough away, the Coast Guard examined the alleged house pet. They discovered that he was, in fact, a wild animal. Accordingly, they released him.  But they did this with enough bureaucratic delay and at enough distance that the houseboat owner had time to erect a sturdy wall around the sides of his houseboat to keep off sea lions.

         Once the sea lion was released, the city found that it no longer had evidence to prosecute the case of the unlicensed pet. The charges against the boat owner were dropped.

          There is, of course, a moral:  Sometimes, the law taketh away.

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