The man accused in the high-profile shooting of a sea lion in the Sacramento River had his first court date Monday, as wildlife experts continue nursing the stricken animal back to health.
Larry Allen Legans, 43, pleaded not guilty to a single felony charge of animal cruelty at his arraignment Monday in Sutter County Superior Court. The North Highlands man is suspected of shooting the sea lion Nov. 11 while fishing from his boat on the Sacramento River near Verona.
The saga began that same day, when dozens of people saw an injured sea lion on a dock near the Tower Bridge on the Old Sacramento waterfront. Many reported the animal was clearly suffering from ugly wounds near its eyes that were oozing blood and pus.
Ten days later, state game wardens arrested Legans at his North Highlands home on suspicion of shooting the sea lion.
At the time of the arrest, wardens said, Legans admitted the shooting and told them he was "tired of sea lions taking his fish."
Authorities focused on Legans after someone called to report he was fishing near Legans on Nov. 11 and saw the shooting. That person told authorities Legans fired on the sea lion with a shotgun, and provided the license number of Legans' boat trailer.
Legans did not respond to a phone message left at his home Monday. His attorney, Justin Scott of Yuba City, declined to comment.
The felony charge carries penalties of up to three years in state prison and $70,000 in fines. A preliminary hearing is set for Feb. 5.
The sea lion was rescued Dec. 5 by the nonprofit Marine Mammal Center from a dock in Knights Landing. An adult male, it remains in treatment at the center in Sausalito, where it is eating 40 pounds of fish a day and gaining weight, said spokesman Jim Oswald.
The center named the sea lion Sgt. Nevis, after a Yolo County animal control officer who assisted in the rescue. Its prospects for release to the wild remain uncertain.
The sea lion's injuries include severe nasal damage, with holes near each eye consistent with a gunshot wound. The damage may keep it from diving for food and, therefore, surviving on its own in the wild.
"When he goes underwater to go get his fish, he comes up and he's almost like a fountain. He sprays water out of those wounds," said Oswald. "It's one thing to dive in our shallow pool to get food. It's quite another to dive in the ocean."
Veterinarians continue searching for the best way to treat those wounds. Surgery is an option, and Sgt. Nevis already has undergone sedation to obtain X-rays of the damage.
But Sgt. Nevis may not be releasable in any case, Oswald said, because he may be habituated to Sacramento: He might return and get into trouble again.
Five sea lions including Sgt. Nevis have become regulars on the Sacramento waterfront. They often conflict with recreational anglers when they seize fish off the hook.
The Marine Mammal Center is also considering finding a home for Sgt. Nevis at a zoo or aquarium, Oswald said.