Silent Knight, the 7-foot-long, 335-pound male sea lion found shot in the head at Swede's Beach in Sausalito, will not be returning to the ocean after an exam Monday found that he is completely blind.
Officials at the Marine Mammal Center in the Marin Headlands knew the animal had lost his right eye to a gunshot, but they were hopeful his left eye was functional. But after the exam, veterinarians determined damage to optical nerves rendered Silent Knight blind.
"He is blind, which means he is unreleasable," said Dr. Bill Van Bonn, who has worked with Silent Knight since he arrived at the center Dec. 8. "Now we are pulling for him to find a home."
Van Bonn said it is possible that a zoo or an aquarium would be willing to take Silent Knight. The animal likely would fare well in such a setting with other sea lions as long as food could be provided.
While there are blind sea lions in the wild, they either did not have sight at birth or lost sight over time, allowing them to adapt. Because Silent Knight's sight loss was sudden, releasing him back into the wild would be a certain death sentence, Van Bonn said.
The mammal center has put the word out that it is looking for a home for the sea lion. Under a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the center can hold the animal for up to six months and can ask for an extension. Van Bonn called euthanizing the animal a "last course of action."
While he has no eyesight, the animal is making strides toward an otherwise healthy recovery. He is eating, vocalizing and putting on weight.
Silent Knight -- so named by his rescuers for the season and the animal's regal appearance -- is believed to be about 6 years old. The sea lion had about a half-dozen metal buckshot pellets in his head from the blast, two of which were removed Monday and could be used as evidence if a culprit is found.
Gunshot wounds to sea mammals are not uncommon. The mammal center treated 19 mammals with gunshot wounds last year and nine this year.
While it is not known how or where the shooting occurred, marine mammal officials said the culprits are sometimes fishermen who find the sea lions nuisances that compete for fish. The animals are protected by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, passed in 1972, which makes it a crime to disturb sea mammals.
"There is no doubt this was caused by people. It was not an accident," Van Bonn said. "Now maybe people can help."