Butch the Lake Sammamish Seal by Nan P. Campbell

  • By Nan P. Campbell
  • Posted 9/03/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5542
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Just 50 years ago last October my husband, Bruce, and I moved to the west side of Lake Sammamish, and became a neighbor of a harbor seal named Butch. This retelling of his story is for my children, and their friends who grew up with a free spirited seal as a special friend. It is for my granddaughters who swim in the lake each summer, and imagine how it must have been when their mother and aunt were little girls. It is also for those of any age who still ask me, "What ever happened to that seal that lived in Lake Sammamish?"

I wrote this article in 1978, three years after Butch’s death. Defying the odds, he had lived for 25 years in the unnatural environment of our fresh water lake, and had become the beloved star attraction for many in the lake community. 

Butch -- The Lake Sammamish Seal

When an old harbor seal named Butch died September 12, 1975, the press described him as “sex starved, nearly toothless, burdened with loneliness and human abuse.” At the time of his death he bore little resemblance to the five-foot, 250-pound friend we had come to love and respect in the 25 years he had shared our lake.

When first sighted in 10-mile long Lake Sammamish in 1950, the lake was relatively quiet, largely summer homes, and only occasionally host to speedboats and seaplanes. Incredulous lake residents first thought he was a muskrat or otter. It was not long before his size left little doubt as to his true identity, and he settled into his lifetime role of star attraction. According to newspaper articles of the day some insisted that our friend was a Suzanne, Susie, or Lucille, but “Butch” prevailed in our neighborhood. It was not until his death that his gender was verified, and we learned that the name was appropriate.

It is not known how Butch came to this fresh water lake. Some said he was a trained seal set loose by a disgruntled circus roustabout. Others said he was an abandoned seal taken for a pet, collared, and kept in a pen on the lakeshore. According to their theory, there was storm, ensuing high water broke open the pen, and the seal pup escaped.

It might have been possible that Butch made his way from Puget Sound, through the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks to Lake Union, to Lake Washington, and, thence, up the Sammamish Slough. Clifford Fiscus of the U.S. Department of Commerce Marine Mammal Laboratory at Sand Point verified that there had been seal sightings in the ship canal, Lake Union, and even at the north end of Lake Washington near the outlet of the Sammamish Slough. The presence of his collar somewhat reduced the probability of the slough theory.

Dr. Murray Johnson, Curator of Mammals at the University of Puget Sound Museum of Natural History said he believed it unlikely that Butch came from a circus. Harbor seals are not used for circus acts. He believed it much more likely that Butch was put in the lake by someone who had tired of him as a pet. This theory tends to be substantiated by the fact that 50 or 60 abandoned seal pups were annually left at the Seattle Aquarium.

Press notices started in November 1952 when Post-Intelligencer printer, John O’Riley, a Lake Sammamish resident, reported that Butch had set up residence on his waterfront. Butch had grown so friendly he frolicked with the family’s Cocker Spaniel, his small daughter, and other neighborhood dogs and children. Others were not as pleased with the new lake resident. It was reported that Washington State Fisheries officers had responded to some fishermen’s demands to destroy Butch as a predator. Butch wisely stayed out of sight until the officials left. O’Riley said none of the neighbors would kill the seal for the well publicized eight-dollar bounty.

Until this publicity, few in the fishing community were aware of the lake’s newest asset. The situation rapidly changed. With a cry of vengeance, a concerted effort to destroy Butch ensued. Lake residents rose up in his defense, refusing to let Fisheries officers through their property. The citizenry reminded the officials that King County Commissioners had declared most of Lake Sammamish a preserve, and shooting was not allowed. Fisheries sought an opinion from the King County Prosecuting Attorney who declined to become involved in the fracas. He suggested the inquiry be directed to the State Attorney General. The legal question was never resolved. In December 1952, Don Gooding, Administrative Assistant for the State Department of Fisheries, capitulated. It was decided that Butch would not be killed, but would be placed in the Woodland Park Zoo. This was apparently decided without Butch’s consent, for later in that month, when Fisheries officers tried to find him, the fugitive had disappeared.

One must assume it was a clean getaway. The next news of Butch came from a concerned lake resident calling Post-Intelligencer reporter Jack Jarvis in March 1961. Butch was getting too big for his collar. The collar had cut into his flesh causing a disfiguring wound, and rendered him voiceless. It was feared he was in danger of choking. The dock next door to us where he usually slept at night was spotted with blood from his wound.

While his protectors pondered how to help him, he worried many by attacking a visiting dog as reported in The Seattle Sunday Times, July 9, 1961. Though Butch’s supporters maintained he was really playing, and felt the term “attack” exaggerated, there were growing numbers of lake residents who had come to believe that Butch was a menace. They feared the collar was making him cantankerous, and that efforts to kill him would only wound him, making him a threat to children as well as dogs. By this time, Butch’s life was in recurring peril. Guns were occasionally used to hunt him. There was one bizarre, but unsuccessful, attempt to shoot him with bow and arrow from an off shore canoe.

The State Fisheries Department, whose efforts to capture Butch nine years before had met with dismal failure, were reluctant to become involved again. Some lake residents investigated the possibility of raising money for a “Save Butch Fund.” They hoped to hire a seal expert to capture him, and safely transport him to the Woodland Park Zoo. This plan was abandoned when it became apparent that no expert would tackle the project without an open contract since costs were unknown. Further, some authorities cautioned that tranquilizers might result in drowning the mammal.

Butch, oblivious to the controversy that raged around and about him, ignored his wounds, avoided those who acted suspicious, chose his friends carefully, and adapted somehow to his unnatural environment. He fed abundantly on local fish, and feasted annually on the Issaquah Creek salmon run. He made many lasting human and canine friendships. These seemed to meet the needs of his gregarious nature.

For friends lounging on a dock, human or canine, he had a special greeting. He would suddenly surge from the depths of the lake, and with a sweep of a powerful flipper or tail hit the water, sending a drenching spray over his startled audience. Rolling over, he would survey the results of his performance, and vanish. Sometimes he rewarded those watching with a return visit, but he usually preferred the element of surprise. Many of us took great delight in taking unsuspecting friends out on our docks to visit. Often we were rewarded, and our friends surprised, by a stupendous and drenching performance by Butch.

Swimming with a seal was unnerving at best, but lake residents became accustomed to swimming with a sleek black head bobbing nearby. Actually, that wasn’t as disquieting as the times Butch would disappear, and the swimmer would feel a gentle underwater brush on toe or backside. Butch would pop up on the other side, seemingly amused at his daring. Even those on docks were sometimes treated to an unexpected nuzzle from a wet seal nose on a leg left dangling near the water. Understandably, many visitors and some lake residents chose to warily sunbathe, well up on the beach, rather than swim.

Deprived of the companionship of his own kind, Butch seemed to think of dogs as seals, or of himself as some kind of dog. Through the years he always had a group of congenial dog chums with whom he whiled away the hours. Truthfully, for Butch it was probably a congenial relationship, but for the dogs it seemed more like a territorial dispute. Dog games went beyond companionable swimming. Butch didn’t really seem aggressive, but the results were the same.

Dr. Thomas A. Gornall, mammal veterinarian and consultant to the Seattle Aquarium, likened Butch’s play with dogs as being “a little like being cuddled by a bull.” Many a dog, while retrieving a water-thrown stick, would suddenly disappear as Butch made an unexpected underwater grab. Following an enormous turbulence, a sadder but wiser dog would struggle ashore. Many suffered puncture and tearing wounds, and the “regulars” soon developed a healthy respect for their friend’s three-inch long claws.

Our own Golden Retriever, Mark, was forever ruined for duck hunting because of an early run-in with Butch. Though a respectable pheasant hunter and retriever, Mark stoutly refused to go deeper than his ankles in any duck pond. He seemed to imagine seals in any body of water. His understanding master became adept at retrieving his own ducks.

In Butch’s mature years Mark was one of his favorite companions. Mark was frequently “loaned” to neighbors who used him to lure Butch to their docks to entertain guests who wanted to see “the Lake Sammamish Seal.” Sarah Stout, our neighbor and favorite Butch friend, could bring “the old boy,” as she called him, from his private hideaways with the obedience of a well- trained pet. She would call him with a soft gentle voice, “Here Butchy-boy.” When he came to her call he would slither up on the beach and listen to Sarah “coo” to him while lying flippers together, eyes closed, and rolling from side to side. He would stay until a boat or stranger appeared.

Our neighbor had run his property-line fences to the water’s edge providing Butch a cozy and protected area for his nightly slumbers. A plus of this arrangement was the companionship of Cindy, the part Samoyed dog for whom the fence was originally built. The two slept together, nuzzled one another, and played tag on Cindy’s dock. Butch never intimidated Cindy as he did other dogs. Cindy was somehow a special case, and Butch treated her as such.

In his early years, Butch’s special gang of dog friends included Spot, a black and white mutt of questionable parentage, but winning ways; Tar, her fierce looking son; and our first dog, a German Shepherd, Duff. All these dogs had battle scars, the proof of seal “friendship.” Butch’s claws, recalls my husband, were of the thirty-caliber variety, and could be used selectively for poking.

The favored time for seal/dog play was early morning or moonlight nights when a slap of flipper on water, accompanied by a loud snort, served as a call to arms for the canine corps. The deafening barking as Butch lead the pack from one dock to the next in a seemingly endless game of tag made sleep impossible for residents within a half mile of the activity. Heads were buried under pillows, windows were slammed closed, but in the end a hike to the beach by one of the dog owners was usually necessary to call off the dogs, quiet the neighborhood, and pacify the less understanding non-dog owners.

Though Butch was in the lake year around we did not see as much of him in the colder months. There would be occasional seal/dog encounters with rounds of splashing and barking, and we would see him while on a brisk winter beach walk as he acknowledged our presence with a swim-by or a gigantic splash. Spring was a joyous time. The lake resounded once more with the sounds of seal play as children moved their activities to the lake. Most adults rejoiced that the seal had made it through the winter, and Butch basked anew in the appreciative squeals and laughter of his human friends, and the barking of his canine adversaries.

There was agreement that his natural caution could be credited for his longevity. Though hunters waited for him in his usual haunts they rarely saw him. Casual lake visitors seldom viewed more than a glistening black head skimming the lake. Though fearless in the water, Butch was apprehensive on shore except with a few who had earned his trust. Then, his curiosity matched theirs. When caught sunning himself on shore he lingered long enough to see and be seen before inching with great dignity back into the water.

There were exceptions to this usual caution. Once at a neighborhood beach picnic he provided the evening’s entertainment with periodic swim-bys, and an occasional splash. All was well until he spotted our 17-pound half-Manx cat, Kelly, who had been enticed to the water’s edge by an overwhelming thirst. Butch seized the opportunity for a new conquest, and with breathtaking speed chased the terrorized feline from lake edge to the nearest tree. Satisfied, Butch leisurely returned to the lake. Kelly wasn’t the only cat to receive such unwanted seal attention. Most cats avoided the lake, and probably wondered at the stupidity of the neighborhood dogs that took pleasure in romping with the seal.

The years went by with sporadic demands for the removal of Butch. This was usually the result of a rambunctious tiff with a new dog in the neighborhood. By and large, the population had learned to live with Butch, just as Butch had long before learned to live with them. As his old gang of dog friends aged and died, Butch seemed genuinely lonesome. He made new friendships along our shoreline, but he ranged farther afield. Like a cat that has two homes with neither owner knowing of the other, so it was with Butch. We on the mid-west shoreline knew only after his death of his many friends in other areas of the lake. We had thought he was our own, they had thought the same. There were some more populated parts of the lake where he was never seen. Residents there speculated with unsatisfied curiosity about their mysterious neighbor

By September of 1975, when we on the west shore did see Butch, we noticed the signs of aging -- his graying muzzle, and apparent clouded eyesight. One day he charged a neighbor’s two little girls who were wading in the lake. He stopped just short of them in unconcealed confusion, and quickly retreated. On the eastern shore he reportedly had become more aggressive. We heard reports of his chasing dogs and people out of the water, and up on the beach.

The Sammamish Valley News on September 17, 1975, summarized in its weekly newspaper Butch’s last days. He had almost drowned a Golden Labrador named Shannon, dragging her off a dock and into the water. Butch was bleeding, and residents, thinking his wounds were making him more combative, called the Washington State Department of Game who consulted Gornall. It was decided that Butch’s erratic behavior could be a threat to humans, and that he was probably in need of medical treatment. Game Department officers came with nets, and lured Butch from the water by using his most recent victim, Shannon. One must assume that his age and injuries weakened his natural caution, for he was safely netted, sedated, and taken for medical treatment. He was to be released in Puget Sound when he had healed, and we residents were cheered with this news.

Butch decided otherwise. Always the fugitive, he escaped in his own way. He died on September 12, 1975, basically of complications of old age, according to Gornall, who performed the autopsy. Officially the cause of death was probably a stroke or heart attack. The collar wound was the most severe problem, for that constricted his breathing and undoubtedly caused difficulties in stressful situations. He had adapted well to fresh water, and its accompanying imperfections. The wounds he bore at death were bruises, probably from recent tangles with dog owners. He had a superficial wound from shotgun pellets, but they had not penetrated his thick hide. Though suffering from some corneal incapacity, he did not have cataracts, as many had believed. Any eye insufficiencies were comparable with what any seal his age might suffer. In any case, according to Gornall, seals use sonar to find food, not their eyes. He was well fed, in spite of having only two teeth left.

Butch’s skeletal remains were given to the Museum of Natural History at the University of Puget Sound where they were to be used for long-range mammal comparison research. Johnson speculated that the protection the lake afforded Butch from natural enemies might well have lengthened his life. "He must have lived a pretty good life," said Johnson. He discounted the "lonely, sex starved" description used by some of the press in Butch’s final days. He said that many seals are voluntarily solitary, and his contacts with dogs and people undoubtedly satisfied his social needs. Butch, according to Johnson, was among the oldest seals of verified age. (The oldest in 1978 was Tacoma Aquarium’s Dum Dum who died at 32 years of age.)

The fact that Butch in death can benefit man’s understanding of his species gives added meaning to his unusual life; but for two generations of Lake Sammamish children and the adults who mourned him, it was enough that he had been their special friend. Only when they matured did these children realize that not all children had grown up on a first name basis with a harbor seal. They relish re-telling stories about him to those who had never had the privilege of swimming with a seal.

On quiet moonlight summer nights, when the stillness is suddenly broken by the barking of a dog, we can almost hear a loud snort, and accompanying splash. We imagine that Butch is greeting a dog friend for a round of play. The memories of “our” Butch are still vivid.


Nan P. Campbell has been a resident of West Sammamish since 1950. She was a Bellevue City Council member from 1984 to 1992, and Mayor of Bellevue in 1988-1989.

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