Archive for the ‘seal hunt’ category

Michaëlle Jean eats seal heart, makes a dishonest point

May 26, 2009

Yes, I’m sure I could eat raw heart too, and I imagine it would taste much like sushi – i.e. like not much at all. Fresh as it is, I’m sure just a few bites would contain your RDA in iron and B12 vitamin, in addition to all that good animal protein and blood. Probably chewy too; good for the teeth. You’re not risking much, eating fresh heart muscle – apart from the brain, it’s one of the most sterile organs you can find in the body.

OK, enough with the nutrition lesson. Yesterday in Nunavut, Michaëlle Jean recently proved that she can not only eat heart, but also bond with Northern communities over seal hunting – and I don’t really have much of a problem with that. The problem is when she (implicitly) uses that occasion as a support for the commercial seal hunt, and to protest the European ban of two weeks ago on seal fur and other products derived from seals hunted commercially.

Equating traditional seal hunting with the commercial hunt is somewhat like comparing a person who builds her own home out of wood she has cut herself from the forest using handsaws and axes, and Domtar doing a clear-cut of an entire forest stand, and shipping the timber down to the United States to build a suburb of cheap houses. You just can’t compare the two and retain a sense of honesty.

In much the same way, pro-commercial seal hunters will insist that there are no baby seals killed in the hunt. That is another dishonest argument, because seals can be killed from the age of 14 days, when they start to lose the pure white colour from their coat. They are still “babies” in my books.

And again, people will trot out the old argument that hunt protesters and the European ban itself is based on “emotion” rather than on “fact”. But it is a fact that the idea of mass seal slaughter is upsetting to a lot of people. Other people are upset at the attack on (a portion of) their livelihood. I see emotions and facts on both sides – the question is: whose emotions, and whose facts are more important?

From the seals’ point of view, I’d like to think that while they might object to being slaughtered in any kind of way, it may very well be that they adapted along with humans over a few thousand years to a small-scale slaughter that doesn’t cause them mass terror at a predictable moment every year – right when their young are at their most vulnerable. This mass commercial slaughter is not sustainable – it is simply too much, too often. And that is regardless of how a person might feel about the human-animal bond and the ethics of seal slaughter.

People complain that we treat animals like objects, but in fact we treat them as prisoners of war….We had a war once against the animals, which we called hunting, though in fact war and hunting are the same thing (Aristotle saw it clearly). That war went on for millions of years. We won it definitively only a few hundred years ago, when we invented guns. It is only since victory became absolute that we have been able to afford to cultivate compassion. But our compassion is very thinly spread. Beneath it is a more primitive attitude. The prisoner of war does not belong to our tribe. We can do what we want with him. We can sacrifice him to our gods. We can cut his throat, tear out his heart, throw him on the fire. There are no laws when it comes to prisoners of war.

(from Elizabeth Costello, by J.M. Coetzee, p.104 – hardcover version, Random House)

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Veterinarians and the seal hunt

March 23, 2009

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.