Veterinarians and the seal hunt

Here in southern Quebec, it’s maple syrup season. This year, the elements are in our favour: the nights are cold, and the days are (slightly) warm and sunny, which makes for perfect sugaring-off weather. There’s not too much snow left on the ground to hinder sap collection, and it hasn’t rained too much to make for a soggy and dismal harvest – but rain is forecast for next week. My son collected a large bucket of sugar water from one of our maples, and we’ve decided to use it as a beverage rather than boil it down to 1/40th of its volume to make syrup.

Maple syrup collection is a pleasant spring tradition, albeit dependent on good weather conditions.

A more nasty spring tradition in parts of eastern Quebec and Atlantic Canada is the annual (baby) harp seal slaughter, which started today. I usually try to ignore the slaughter as just another one of those horrible things we do to animals that I can’t do much to counter, except to avoid purchasing items made of seal fur – though I’d have to go far out of my way to Europe to get them.

I put “baby” in parentheses, because this seems to be an important point for some people. Yes, it has been illegal since 1987 to hunt baby whitecoats (blanchons), the very sweetest of the baby seals, the ones who are as pure as the driven snow. These babies cannot be slaughtered, and I am confident that there are enough observers out there to ensure that won’t happen. However, they are fair game as soon as they lose the pure whiteness of their coat, which happens at around 13 days old – that is still “baby” in my books. At that point, they are still spending the vast majority of their time resting on the ice floes. Their furry coats do not give them the same watertightness that adult seals have. So essentially, the slaughter goes on as before; the distinction between a baby seal 10 days old and one who is 15 days old appears to me to be a political, or immaterial, distinction.

Seal hunter with hakapik

Seal hunter with hakapik


What has arisen in recent years to re-focus my attention on the seal hunt is that veterinarians have decided that this is a field of human activity that requires their unique expertise with animals (and I’d like to thank the Dolittler veterinary blog for reminding me). The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association has taken an official position on the issue, and some Atlantic College of Veterinary Medicine veterinarians have recently been holding seminars to teach at least one-fourth of the seal hunters the proper techniques of bludgeoning and verifying death: I have not attended a seminar, but I have no trouble imagining the content. Anatomy, including particularities of the thinner skull of the young seal, the physiopathology of bludgeoning versus shooting or drowning, and the necessity of ensuring that death comes as quickly and “humanely” as possible.

The focus on “humanely” is unavoidable – it comes up in the CVMA position paper a few times to indicate that veterinarians are concerned that this mass slaughter be done correctly, “selon les règles de l’art” and therefore as neatly and swiftly as possible. In other words, just like Temple Grandin advocates in the seminars she conducts on humane slaughter of livestock. Temple Grandin is not a veterinarian, but she has had a lot of influence among veterinarians who work with livestock, in feedlots and in slaughterhouses. If slaughter is done with anatomical precision, and as rapidly as possible, then our righteousness : guilt ratio will go up – that is the ultimate desired result, at least as I see it. We have to kill these animals, so we might as well do right by them – that is the shorter Grandin.

I have a lot of respect for Grandin. She has taken the time to go where few of us wish to venture, she has pulled apart the different mechanisms of animal slaughter and studied them separately in their discrete parts, and re-designed it in a way that makes practical, “humane” sense. If animals are going to die for our consumption, why should we make it any more painful or protracted than it needs to be, especially when we have the science and technology that help us to know and to do better?

The involvement of veterinarians in assisting and guardedly approving wildlife slaughter highlights the cultural division that is becoming more and more pronounced within veterinary ranks. It is becoming difficult to believe that the same schools and nearly the same curriculum eventually produce high-tech surgical healers, physical rehabilitation specialists, and oncologists – as well as abattoir inspectors and researchers who give seminars on proper bludgeoning techniques. What can these professionals possibly have in common?

The CVMA walks the tightrope connecting these two approaches to animal life, as it carefully crafts a position on the seal hunt that will appear perfectly practical and neutral. “The CVMA accepts the hunting of seals only if carried out in a humane and sustainable manner.”

I am not a member of the CVMA (membership is optional, as it is not a professional licensing board), but if I were, I would definitely question my support for the association, given their position on this issue. There are many grounds for 21st century veterinarians to oppose slaughter, particularly slaughter of wildlife. I did not become a veterinarian to figure out better ways to kill animals; I enrolled in vet school because I wanted to learn better ways to heal, save and protect animal life; and hopefully, to gain a better level of empathy and understanding for all life in the process. The seal hunt is an annual bloodfest, no matter how it is “done” – much like 18th century whaling used to be. I’m rather glad there were no veterinarians around back then to assist whalers in how and where to direct the harpoons.

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10 Comments on “Veterinarians and the seal hunt”

  1. Alison Says:

    Fisheries and Oceans Canada reports that in Canada we’ve upped our quota by 55,000 to 338,200 seals from last year. I was surprised to learn that the combined quota for Norway and Greenland is 50,000. So now that Putin has banned the killing of baby seals under a year old, effectively ending commercial seal hunting in Russia, I guess we’ve pretty well cornered the market in seal slaughter.
    I was also surprised to learn via FOC that :
    “Approximately 1% of the total population of Newfoundland and Labrador derive income from sealing.”
    1% ?
    Given the millions spent on policing this “hunt” via icebreakers and helicopters and court costs and bureaucracy, why can’t we just give that 1% the money to stay home?

  2. deBeauxOs Says:

    It’s complicated too, from the perspective of the people who hunt, slaughter and “harvest” the young seals for their pelt.

    This is the work that they do (it’s not a sport, is it?) as source of income for themselves, their families and their communities – hate it or not. There are a number of cultural and social considerations involved that would not be addressed (I suspect) by the Federal Government paying them a lump sum not to hunt seals.

  3. brebisnoire Says:

    Alison, that is very interesting – you made me do some research, as I did not know that NL and Labrador are where 2/3 of commercial seal hunt takes place. Who, in the end, is benefitting the most, economically, from the annual slaughter? It looks like it makes up anywhere from 5-30% of seal hunters total annual income, so it’s a supplement rather than a primary activity. It may only take a few days out of the year.

    The cultural and social considerations involved are complicated – or not – depending on how you look at it. If you look at Canada as a whole as a resource-providing place, then look at the history of those resources and the history of the labour that have hunted or mined or hewed them. They are never the winners; they are always the losers – and they are very big losers indeed when the wood runs our or is no longer wanted, the fish populations decline, the seal furs are no longer wanted, or the seals have died off. The commercial hunt is the problem, and the CVMA is right, on one hand, to be concerned about its sustainability.

    But I am also concerned with the lack of empathy involved in such slaughters, and the sheer butchery of it – for what? We’re not talking about the aboriginal hunt here, which is a very different seal hunt. This is purely a commercial hunt, another activity that commodifies animal flesh, and this one is particularly brutal. I think the vets involved need to take a look at the bigger picture of the commercial hunt, and wonder what they are getting themselves into with this.

  4. mouthyorange Says:

    Glad you did this, bn; glad to see it. The baby seal hunt feels so wrong to me. I’m aware of the other issues to do with it, but it continues to feel very wrong.

  5. deBeauxOs Says:

    Oh, I agree with every concern you’ve raised, brebis noire. My process-oriented mind always reverts to the reality that a sudden ban of the commercial seal-hunt that doesn’t involve the hunters and their communities in the development of alternative work or employment opportunities will engender human misery instead.

  6. Alison Says:

    Senator Halb :
    “The price of pelts has dropped from $62 in 2007 to $31 in 2008, and will be even lower in 2009. Pelts are stacked up in warehouses—50,000 in Newfoundland, 140,000 in Greenland. No seal furs were sold at international fur auction in Copenhagen in all of 2008, and no seal pelts sold at the January 2009 fur auction in North Bay, Ontario. Yet Canadian taxpayers will continue to support the commercial seal hunt—paying for icebreakers, providing rescue support when sealers run into difficulty, marketing seal products, and sending delegations abroad to defend the hunt and lobby foreign governments.”

    It’s been a while since I read up on the seal “hunt”.
    Halb’s article reminded me that there is a US boycott targetting Canadian Atlantic seafood to protest the hunt. A couple of years ago the US market for snowcrab ground to an almost complete halt.

    Halb tabled a bill in the Senate last month to begin transitioning seal hunters to other employment. Shamefully not one single other senator supported it.

  7. joe Says:

    THIS IS SOOOOOOOOOOO MEAN HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO AN INNOSENT SEAL!!!! yOU ARE A JERK!!!!!!!!!

  8. vick Says:

    all of the people who do this are sick pussies. clubbing baby animals is just as fucking wrong as shaking babies. it’s MORE wrong.

  9. MR Says:

    WTH?! barbarians! That pic is so gory and sadistic. Please realize that vegetation is the food for human beings and meat is for carnivores.


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