Questions raised by seal hunt
Canada’s seal hunt is starting to wind down its prime spring season. The goal is to kill 350,000 seals each of the next three seasons, but the hunters often exceed the quotas by significant amounts.
Despite their low contribution percentage-wise to Canada’s economy, seals and fishing are hot political issues. The government subsidizes the hunt, explaining that seal populations are up to 5 million from a low of 2 million in the 1970s and the seals are eating too many cod, keeping the fisheries from recovering.
Protesters and independent scientists argue that the seal population of the ’70s was at a low after years of unsustainable hunts, that the government exaggerates the seal population to support its hunt, and that there is little if any evidence linking seal predation to low cod stocks.
We like to do that, point the finger of blame anywhere but the mirror when “our” natural world suddenly stops providing for us. The cod fisheries collapsed because of overfishing. They are now recovering with the northern stocks lagging behind because of the slower growth rates.
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Seals have catholic tastes, and cod make up about 3 percent of the fish they eat. Much of what they eat – capelin, squid, skate – also eats cod. If you remove the seals, you could end up with more cod predation, not less. When we try to play God with nature, it’s easy to forget we’re not God and should proceed with caution.
I’m a cynic where politics, money and justifications overlap. Our self-interest too easily colors all other points of view. Ninety-six percent of the seals killed will be between 12 days and 12 weeks old. The seals are sold for their pelts, meat and penises (aphrodisiacs in China).
Killing anything is never as quick and humane as we like to believe. Stories abound of hunters mistakenly skinning seals alive after a non-fatal blow. This is a horrifying thought, especially for something as photogenic as a seal. How can the Canadians place the interests of a few callous hunters so far ahead of the suffering, pain and distress caused by the hunt?
This is an easy question to ask regarding harp seals. With piles of carcasses staining the pristine ice, the brutality of the slaughter is readily apparent. Few of us choose to wear – knowingly at least – seal fur. Fewer still know anyone who makes money off the hunt.
It could be compassionate sentimentality for a cute creature, or it might be that we’re removed enough to see the issues logically. Either way, many in the world come to this gnawing, rhetorical question: “What gives us the right to inflict so much more suffering than we can possibly gain from the pleasure of prancing around in a fur trimmed hood?”
This question is a little bit harder to answer if you replace that baby seal image with a factory farm-raised steer, crated veal calf, squealing pig, and replace the fashion maven with a grocery store customer buying the cheapest meat available. To put the seal cull numbers in perspective, 100 million cattle, pigs, sheep and billions of chickens are slaughtered in the U.S. each year. The clubbed seal probably has a pleasanter life and death than most intensively farmed animals.
The only answer apparently is that might is right and the suffering of others doesn’t matter because we’re special. The problem here is that there is no clear factual dividing line, no unique property that all humans have and all animals lack.
That’s not to say we should be treated the same. Our intellect, knowledge of self and so on allow us to take pleasure and suffer in ways that animals can’t. It would be stupid to punish a dog by taking away the TV or denying it the right to vote, but does that mean we don’t consider what interests (exercise, play, food, company) they do have? If an animal can suffer, it has an interest in not suffering.
“We’re obviously different” is a statement that’s been heard throughout history to ignore questions of right and wrong when interests of different races, sexes and other groups collide. We’ve got millennia of ingrained habits behind our attitudes to animals challenged by only a few years of some apparently radical philosophy. Habitual thought basks in unquestioned truths, happy to ridicule all new perspectives.
The visual shock of Canada’s seal cull provides a chance to look at these “truths” anew and at least start asking for the organically raised free range stuff at the supermarket.
Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.
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