Archive for the ‘spring’ Category

Tradition and Harp Seals

March 10, 2010

By Rae Ann Kumelos, Ph.D.

As the early Spring sun glistens on the sea of ice, a baby harp seal softly cries, the sound of the other pups in the seal nursery of snow and ice echoing her own. Her coat is like spun sugar – fluffy and pure white, not yet marked with the distinctive harp sign that distinguishes her parents.  The seal has not yet had her first swim, in these early days of life she can only crawl. Utterly helpless from predators, she stays huddled close to the other seals in the snowy nursery.  As the man approaches, she looks up, liquid brown eyes curious; she has not seen this creature before. As the hooked club crashes into her skull again and again, her last sight on this pristine spring day is that of the other seal pups struggling to crawl away from the dozens of men with weapons, while rivers of red blood run through the crushed ice.

Some might say this is a sentimental view of a five-hundred year-old Springtime tradition, the hunting of baby seals on the Atlantic ice-floes of eastern Canada.  Sentimentality is often the charge leveled at those who speak on behalf of animals, the implication that emotions rather than facts are ruling ones’ actions. But the fact is, these twelve day old pups are babies, they are utterly defenseless. Veterinarians and scientists who have observed the hunt even estimate that 40% of the seals are actually skinned while still alive.   

This spring tradition began in the sixteenth century, when millions of barrels of harp sea oil were shipped from the coast of Newfoundland to light the lamps of Europe. In the nineteenth century, it became fashionable to use the fur of the seals for coats, scarves, and trinkets, the very same way their fur is used today. Over the centuries, hunting caused a drastic reduction in the harp seal population, and images of the helpless seals clubbed to death led to a 1987 halt of the hunt – only for it to begin again in the 1990’s, when various political and industrial fishing powers declared the harp seal responsible for the depletion of cod populations in the North Atlantic.

Although convenient to blame an animal that fossil records indicate have been eating cod for over 20 million years, the facts prove that cod makes up only 3% of the harp seal diet, while numerous studies show the serious decline in North Atlantic cod is due to one thing:  over-fishing. Not by seals, but by man.

Tradition, like sentimentality, is a word that can halt reasonable discussion for change. “Yes, but it is our tradition” is a phrase often used to justify all types of cruel behavior toward animals, be it cockfighting, bull-fighting, or the bludgeoning of harp seals. The word “Tradition” means a time-honored set of practices, the passing down of elements of a culture from generation to generation. There is no morality implied in the word, yet it is often viewed through a lens of black or white – a duality that leads to no solutions, and for the harp seals, is colored only in blood red.

Animal advocate Matthew Scully writes that traditions can “ennoble us or enslave us, leaving human beings a little too comfortable and settled in our ways. Traditions can be changed and replaced with better ways that in time become traditions themselves.”  Scully’s point is important, because global boycotts tied directly to the annual slaughter of the seals cost Canada millions of dollars in lost revenue. Proven alternatives exist to end the slaughter and provide winning formulas for everyone – hunters, fishermen, Canadian people, government, the cod, the global community, and the seals. After five-hundred springs of slaughter, isn’t it time to end the hunt and establish a new tradition on the icy floes of the North Atlantic – one of compassion, humanity, and economic good sense.

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