This editorial originally appeared April 4, 2008, in issue 1614.
Let’s get this straight: this is not a pro-seal hunt piece. Nor is it anti-sealing. Instead, It’s a question. A question that I don’t have the answer to, but one that, amid the rhetoric and heated emotions swirling (as they do every year) like a snowstorm around the Canadian seal hunt, needs to be asked.
It starts with a familiar sight: against the crisp, white snow, a figure looms over a baby seal, weapon in hand. A rifle cracks, or a hakapik is brought down again and again to bludgeon the animal’s skull. Whether the sealer uses a gun or a hakapik, the result is the same. A young harp, hooded, or grey seal is killed, and the public debate begins anew.
One side says the seal hunt is cruel and inhumane; the other side says It’s well-regulated and an economic necessity. Whatever your stance, there’s no denying that when it comes to the commercial seal hunt, It’s the kind of imagery that inflames even the most apathetic among us. Celebrities and animal rights activists come out to protest; images of bloody seal carcasses are shown on the news; the debate rages over whether the hunt should be stopped.
Joe and Jane Canadian chime in, posting outraged (and sometimes outrageous) comments in response to news items. Following the recent accident involving the Acadien II, one reader suggested that taxpayers should not foot the bill to rescue those involved in the ?outdated barbaric slaughter,? and that sealing vessels should be on their own if they run into trouble. And now, in the face of the continued outcry, the European Union is considering a ban on all seal products.
But hold on a minute. Let’s rewind those provocative images and take a closer look. In fact, let’s swing our lenses away from those vast frozen expanses and go inside: inside the fridges and cupboards of the average news watcher who shakes his head in disgust at the footage, and inside the commercial farms where our bacon, hamburger, chicken wings, milk, and eggs come from.
If you want barbaric, the footage isn’t hard to find. Imagine for a moment those baby seals everyone is so concerned about, being crammed into tractor trailers bound for the slaughterhouse. they’re piled so deeply that many of them suffocate. Others have their flippers (or legs) broken under the crush of bodies. They travel in this misery for hours.
In cold weather, some become frozen to the metal sides of the truck, their flesh ripped away as they’re prodded onto the ramp. Occasionally, these baby seals are boiled alive in the scalding baths that remove their hair?or they would be, if they were the pigs destined to become the bacon and pork chops sitting in your freezer.
Or perhaps those cute baby seals are lucky enough to escape the overcrowded conditions. they’re placed in a tiny pen, where chains around their necks keep them from moving normally or strengthening their limbs. By the time they’re paraded in a pen for auction, they are unable to support their own weight, and some can only flop through the dirt in a futile attempt to stand. This is their entire life, the only thing they know until they die. Or it would be if they were a veal calf.
The life of these adorable seals may even be reduced to the torture of being forced into tiny cages; so tiny that, in order to avoid the animals killing each other, their beaks are cut off. Some will be artificially fattened to the point that their legs can’t hold them up. If they are sick or dying, they may be hurled against the floor until they are nothing but a twitching mass. At least, they might be if they were a commercially bred chicken.
Is every commercial farm guilty of these ?cruel and inhumane? practices? No. But the life of a commercially bred animal is far from wholesome, and the misery these animals endure has been well documented: there are the factory-farming videos at PETA, admittedly disturbing to watch. If You’re inclined to dismiss the proof offered by activist groups, the Toronto Vegetarian Association offers a well-cited article.
The Winnipeg Humane Society affirms the main issues these other groups point to, such as the overcrowded conditions that force sows to live in ?gestation crates and then farrowing crates so small that they can’t even turn around. They must carry out all of their life functions (eating, sleeping, urinating, defecating, giving birth to their young and nursing their young) in this one small area.?
The Canadian branch of the Humane Society International offers more data.
Which brings us back to the question at hand: where are all the protests? Where are the celebrity photo ops outside factory farms? Where is the outcry by the average citizen posting reader comments?
To be blunt, why is the Canadian seal hunt considered more inhumane than the horrific practices we blithely ignore as we enjoy our shrink-wrapped chicken breasts and ground beef each week?
Is it because seals are slaughtered in higher numbers than their feathered and four-legged counterparts? Wrong. According to Statistics Canada, as of January 2008 there are nearly 14 million cattle in Canada, including over 6 million animals bred for beef. That doesn’t include the millions of pigs and chickens that are slaughtered or kept in appalling conditions. Yet in 2008, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans? total allowable catch for harp seals is 275,000; for hooded and grey seals, It’s 8,200 and 12,000 respectively.
Is it because the seals are a natural resource, a vital part of our ecosystem, as opposed to the renewable supply of domesticated livestock? If That’s the case, one would expect to see the same level of outcry over all commercial fishing practices, the kind that leads to all those cans of tuna that seem to be on sale in the grocery store flyers each week. If they were full of seal meat instead of fish, would the protests begin?
Is it the shock of watching an animal die a violent, bloody death? Surely we aren’t so naive as to think that a slaughterhouse is a gentle, pain-free place. Perhaps the only difference is that seals are killed in the open, while those other beasts of industry die by the millions in closed sheds or slaughterhouses, far from our delicate eyes and burger-craving stomachs.
I don’t have the answer to this question. I do know that, for some, protesting the seal-hunt is a reflection of their broader sensibilities. They would no more wear a cowboys’s hide than they would a seal?s. It’s logical that they would denounce the killing of any animal, and that consistency of beliefs is understandable.
But it defies the odds that every individual and every media outlet speaking out against the seal hunt is vegetarian, or supports only free-range farming. If they were, then small, free-range farms would outpace the billion-dollar factory-farm industry (but they don’t). Or there would be high-profile news items on animal rights every week (but there aren’t).
And simply put, to decry the commercial killing of one animal while supporting the industrial slaughter of others is nothing more than a feast of hypocrisy.