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Two commentaries about the Canadian seal hunt

Our black eye: Most propaganda about seal hunt is true
April 7, 2005

'It was carnage on a scale the frozen ice floes of Newfoundland have not seen for more than half a century," the story in The Guardian began. "The cull started early in the morning, with more than 70 boats disgorging hundreds of seal hunters on to the ice. By the end of the day more than 15,000 harp seal cubs, most less than six weeks old, lay dead, clubbed to death and skinned to provide coats, hats, handbags and other accessories for the European fashion trade."

In the past couple of weeks, variations of this story have appeared around the world. Sometimes there's a colour photo of a cute and helpless-looking animal on a patch of bloodstained ice. In one paper the caption reads: "A seal pup yesterday surveys the remains of its slaughtered playmates."

Canada's seal hunt (or harvest, as the federal government prefers to call it) is winding up for the year, amid the usual skirmishing between protesters and sealers. But the bad publicity has only just begun. The gory images of death on the ice serve as a major fundraiser for animal-rights groups. The U.S. Humane Society, which prominently features pup-clubbing on its website, has called for a worldwide boycott of Canadian fish products to protest the hunt. The story made Time magazine.

No matter how you feel about the hunt (and I'd bet that a large majority of mainland Canadians oppose it), it is a terrible black eye for Canada. No matter how many "fact sheets" the federal government sends out, or how many letters to the editor our ambassadors and high commissioners write, we can't erase the bloody images beamed around the world. People may know next to nothing about Canada. But they do know we kill defenceless baby animals so that a bunch of rich women can wear seal-fur coats.

And what does Canada get in return for this reputational slaughter? Well, last year the seal fishery brought in a grand total of $16-million. It accounts for just 2.5 per cent of total revenues from the fishery.

The seal harvest went into decline after the United States and many European nations began banning seal-pelt imports. Then, in the mid-90s, the federal government raised the quota so that hard-up fishermen in Newfoundland could earn some extra money after the cod stocks crashed. Today, the main markets for pelts are Norway, Denmark and China. Phony science abounds on both sides of the debate. The animal-rights crowd argues that the cull threatens the seal population (which is at record highs), while the government argues that the seals are bad because they eat the cod (which really disappeared because of overfishing).

But the real reason Ottawa defends the seal hunt isn't economics. It's politics. Newfoundlanders regard the right to hunt seals as a sacrosanct and inviolable part of their traditional identity (even though only three or four thousand of them actually do it). Their politicians invariably vow to defend this right to the death against meddling, ignorant foreigners (including anyone from mainland Canada). Newfoundland has seven seats in Parliament. This is why we'll probably be cursed with the seal hunt forever.

The trouble with the animal-welfare propaganda is that most of it is true. The hunters wade into vast seal nurseries on the ice, when the pups are barely weaned from their mothers. Sometimes they use rifles, and sometimes hakapiks, which are spiked clubs used to smash the pups' skulls. Then they skin the animals for their pelts and fat. They leave the carcasses on the ice to rot, because there's very little market for the meat. The ice runs with blood. This year, the quota is 320,000.

If seals looked like rats, people might feel differently about them. If people saw how calves are slaughtered, they'd probably be revolted by that, too. But people are only human. Most people don't eat seal meat or wear their fur. And if your morning paper ever chose to publish bloody-coloured pictures from the hunt, you, too, would probably be writing a big cheque to the humane society.

Do we hypocritically care more for seals than people? After all, as one sealer says, "I need to provide for my family and I have as much of a right to do that as someone working in a factory does." To which I'd reply: I know your grandpa did it, but the world has changed, and maybe you should set your sights a little higher.

If you ask me, the government should just hand those sealers the $16-million and send them all to night school to get retraining. In the end, they'll be way better off. And so will we.

River of Blood
With all the problems in the world, here's why you should be concerned about Canada's biggest baby seal hunt in 50 years newsweek&&CM=EmailThis&CE=1

by Patti Davis

Updated: 4:24 p.m. ET April 6, 2005April 6 - While we mourn the pope's passing, and celebrate the life he lived, our attention is naturally turned inward to our hearts. We ruminate on compassion, on making the world a kinder place. It seems to me that in this time more than any other, we have room in our hearts to consider a terrible cruelty occurring on the ice floes of Canada.

The last days of March meant the last gruesome moments for tens of thousands of baby harp seals. If you traveled to the ice floes of Newfoundland right now, and for the coming weeks, you would be wading through a river of blood. You would see small harp seal cubs, two weeks old, clubbed to death-or sometimes not to death. Animal-rights activists-who seem to be fighting a losing battle-report seeing babies crawling, struggling after being clubbed. One person reported finding a baby, clubbed but not killed, who had managed to crawl away only to die beneath the ice.

Seventy boats brought hundreds of seal hunters to these ice floes in the first bloody days. And this year they are allowed to kill more than 320,000 seal pups, the largest number in 50 years. By the end of the first day, the estimate of dead seal pups was 15,000. Photographs show, and activists have reported, that the ice flows are awash in blood, littered with bodies.

I am old enough to remember clearly the outrage in the '60s when photographs of baby seals being clubbed to death were released in this country. The outrage did some good; the trade in seal pelts went into decline. But since then the Canadian government has continued to increase the quota of seal pups allowed to be killed in this gruesome manner-1 million pups in three years, the biggest quota since 1957.

Harp seal pups are fed for two weeks by their mothers before being sent out to the ice alone to fend for themselves. They are unable to swim at that age and are called "beaters" because they beat the water with their flippers to stay afloat. They have no way to escape the men with clubs.

The reason for this increased slaughter is a new appetite, particularly in Europe, for belts, handbags and coats made from seal pups. Norway is reportedly a big market for these items.

How have we allowed this barbarism to increase? Are we so numb that we don't care anymore about hundreds of thousands of innocent animals who did nothing but be born? If most of us rounded a corner on a highway and saw a slaughter like this, we would call the police, we would scream until our throats gave out, we would probably charge the men with clubs. We wouldn't say, "I'd do something, but there are so many other problems in the world ." The fact that it's taking place in Canada doesn't remove our responsibility. We made a difference once. Our horror, our outrage registered with the Canadian government.

Sadly, and poignantly, the Canadian government has counted on the world doing nothing. And so far they're right.

Geoff Regan, the fisheries and oceans minister for the Canadian government, has said he is ignoring the seal hunt protests and in fact hopes the hunt will expand. In a London newspaper, he was quoted as accusing animal-rights groups of using the images of the slaughter "to pull at people's heartstrings." Since he apparently has no heart, it makes sense that he would find the images of small white baby seals being clubbed to death perfectly acceptable.

There is some sign that the Canadian government is not entirely immune to criticism. They put out a fact sheet for journalists defending the seal hunt. With everything else that's going on in the world, we can find room in our hearts for young animals-babies-who have no means of escape when men with clubs stride across the ice to kill them so that their pelts can be made into purses and belts.

Compassion always trumps greed. It is the ultimate and final power in the world.

Davis, the daughter of Nancy and Ronald Reagan, is a writer based in Los Angeles