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Carry on culling

Why there is so much fuss about Canada's annual seal cull - and why the Canadian government should ignore it.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

In substance, Canada’s seal cull is little different to the dispatching of cattle in a slaughterhouse. Seals are hit over the head or shot, then are harvested for their pelts and fats.

Yet every year the seal hunt becomes the focus for international handwringing. Last year one newspaper reported the start of the cull in emotive terms: ‘It was carnage on a scale the frozen ice floes of Newfoundland have not seen for more than half a century. The cull started early in the morning, with more than 70 boats disgorging hundreds of seal hunters on to the ice.’ (1) This year Sir Paul and Heather McCartney did photo shoots next to white seal pups, calling on the Canadian government to hold their fire. Campaigners have called for boycotts of Canadian seafood, and boatloads of seal-protectors follow and video the hunters at work.

It was in 1970s that the international spotlight turned on the seal hunt. America banned seal imports in 1972, and the EU followed a decade later with a ban on white pelts (2). The seal market slumped, and Canada cut its harvest. Now, with growing seal populations and an expanding market in China and south East Asia, it has increased the cull limit to over 300,000 animals.

What is it about the seal hunt? Many point to the cuteness of seals and the brutality of their deaths, but it’s about more than that. The hunt seems to have become a metaphor for the evils of human beings. White pups on white snow are seen as symbols of virginal nature, threatened by a hunter with upraised club. The message is clear: nature the innocent, man the destroyer.

It is anti-human sentiment that underlies the discomfort with the seal hunt. A past BBC News online debate brought these sentiments to the surface. ‘Who are we to decide how many of any animal is allowed to live’?, asked one reader (3). ‘I think it is barbaric. What right do we have as a human race to kill anything that gets in our way?’, argued another. Human ends are cast as sick and selfish. ‘I feel that this is a disgusting practice, where do we have the right to kill defenceless animals just because their numbers are becoming too huge – I don’t recall humans becoming God.’

A few seemed to verge on suggesting a cull of us rather than harp seals. ‘The only creatures that have inadequate natural controls are humans. We have engineered ourselves to live far longer than nature intended and create so much destruction just for our own self-interest. The vast majority of the world’s ills stem from the fact that our population is out of control. Pollution, hunger, war, power, environmental disaster etc.’ Apparently harp seals are being sacrificed for our sins: ‘this is nothing but a shield used to hide the fact that the real problems with the world are caused by us as humans and not an abundance of seals or any other animal.’

Many of the critics of the seal hunt eat meat and wear leather. In our everyday lives, we treat animals as a means to our ends, but we increasingly lack moral justifications for doing so. The seal hunt represents the relation between humanity and nature in a more basic form – man with club in the wilderness with wild animals – and so it brings underlying discomfort to the surface.

It’s not just the seal hunt: the culling of hedgehogs in Scotland’s Western Isles has also become a source of controversy. Hedgehogs were introduced to the Isles 30 years ago to keep down garden pests, and now they have become a pest themselves, threatening wild bird populations. Scottish Natural Heritage’s attempts to cull the creatures have been challenged by campaigners, who call for hedgehogs to be transferred to the mainland instead (4).

Debates about the rights and wrongs of animal culling frequently get into a twist. The only genuine justifications for culling are human ones: because we want to use a particular wild animal for fur or meat, or because we think that a particular animal has become a pest. From that starting point we can do the calculations: how much of a useful population can we take without destroying population numbers? Or, how can we reduce a pest population to zero?

Yet today many argue the toss on animal culling from the perspective of the animal. Scottish Natural Heritage has argued that transported hedgehogs would die anyway; it is better for hedgehogs to be culled than to suffer a painful death in a strange land. What should be a simple question of wildlife management becomes an agonised playing off of the rights of birds against hedgehogs, and comparisons of different methods of hedgehog death.

Similarly, defenders of the seal hunt argue that seals eat too many fish – as if we were really just killing them to protect the poor cod. There are discussions about how much pain seals feel: is being clubbed worse than being shot? Some of the seals seem to twitch as they are being skinned: is this because they are writhing in agony, or is it merely an automatic reaction, like a chicken running around after its head has been cut off?

Others take up the hunters’ method of dealing the killer blow. One RSPCA vet argued: ‘There is undoubtedly pain and suffering being caused to these animals. Some of the hunters appear callous and show no compassion….’ (5) (Though it’s difficult to imagine how one would clop a seal over the head in a caring manner.) Then there are discussions about whether those killed are still ‘babies’. The Canadian government points out that it no longer kills very young seals with white pelts; campaigners respond that seals can lose their downy fur after a mere 10 days, so could die when they are ‘less than two weeks old’.

Defenders of the hunt note that the depressed coastal towns of Newfoundland badly need the seal hunt. Mark Small, president of the Northeast Coast Sealers Co-operation, argued: ‘These are coastal people who live off the sea and depend on the hunt to survive in small communities where the fish stocks are not there. Coastal communities have to live, too.’ (6) The needs of local communities have been ignored in the international clamour about harp seals. But can we only justify the cull by presenting hunters as a kind of endangered species themselves? What about culling in regions of economic prosperity?

Of course, seals should be killed as quickly and cleanly as possible: nobody wants unnecessary suffering. And there’s no doubt that baby seals are beautiful, a sight to behold on wildlife expeditions. But seal populations are a resource for human beings. Their pelts can be made into fine bags, coats and hats; their fats have medicinal value. No doubt we could further explore the culinary and clothing possibilities of seals. This isn’t callous and soulless; it can be rich and exciting. The Canadian government should carry on culling.

(1) The Guardian, 31 March 2005, republished in the The Hindu

(2) Canada embarks on mass seal hunt, BBC News, 13 April 2004

(3) Canada’s seal cull: Your comments, BBC News, 19 April 2004

(4) Protest over annual hedgehog cull, BBC News, 30 October 2005

(5) Canadian seal slaughter must stop says animal welfare group, 27 March 2006

(6) Sealers begin hunt on thin ice, CNN, 26 March 2006

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Topics Politics

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