"The time will come when men such as I
will look upon the murder of animals as they
now look upon the murder of human beings."
~Leonardo Da Vinci~
Harp seal pups are famous for their big black eyes and fluffy white fur. These are their trademarks in their first two weeks of life. But these beautiful and gentle creatures have the unfortunate status of annually suffering the largest slaughter of any marine mammal species on the planet.
Every spring, great numbers of pregnant harp seals gather together on the stark ice floes off the Canadian Atlantic coastline of Newfoundland and Labrador and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the east of Quebec to give birth to their babies.
Commonly referred to as whitecoats, these famous babies are astounding in their innocence, individuality, and beauty. Their images have been captured in a thousand ways and distributed around the world, making them the most recognizable and well known of nature's innocent and precious creatures. It is ironic and sad that all this recognition does nothing to help their plight as these seal pups are the victims of a brutal annual massacre in a politically-driven, propaganda-supported slaughter.
Every year, when the time is "right" (as soon as the ice conditions permit and the seal pups start shedding their fuzzy white coats), about 2,000 to 6,000 Canadian fishermen (most of European descent and most living in Newfoundland and the Magdalen Islands of Quebec), find their way to the floes and proceed to club, bludgeon, shoot, and skin hundreds of thousands of harp seals, most just a few weeks to a few months old.
The Harsh Reality of the 'Hunt'
Adults and resisting mothers may be shot and/ or clubbed and skinned and in the case of males, may have their penis bones removed. (Typically the penis bones are harvested from adult males). If convenient to do so, some of the bodies are recovered and processed into pet food or used to feed the animals in fur farms (though this is rare). About 95% of the seals killed in the commercial seal 'hunt' are no more than 3 months old.
In 2008, Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), set new standards for sealers to follow when killing seals. In addition to the blinking-eye test, the DFO now instructs sealers to palpate the seal's skull to assess whether it has been fatally crushed before proceeding to skin the seal. If the skull does not seem to have such a fatal wound, sealers are supposed to sever the main artery. In order to instruct sealers on the new standards, the Canadian Sealers Association sent individuals around Newfoundland with an instructional video a few weeks before the start of the hunt.
Each year, sealers kill about 1/3 of the pups born. This number does not include those seals that slip away wounded into the ice holes and sea leads. The seals killed by Canadian sealers must also be added to the natural (and human-driven) mortality. As global warming makes the ice floes less reliable, this mortality is on the rise.
Why the slaughter?
What is it about this particular species of animal that has made it the target of such an intense campaign of slaughter every year for hundreds of years? The answer is complex and varies depending on the time of history being discussed.
The exploitation and commercial slaughter of the harp seal is one of the most tragic stories ever known to mankind, and in particular, to people who care about animals and the environment. Before the advent of modern technology and hunting methods, the harp seal was hunted and used by native Canadians who lived in a traditional society. The adult seals were killed, their fur, meat, and bones utilized for food, clothing, and shelter by the native peoples. These animals were valued for contributing to their survival.
Although the sustainable killing of harp, hooded, harbor and ringed seals by native peoples of northern latitudes for food and fur had indeed taken place for thousands of years, the most recent 300 years brought about a new reason for killing harp seals: commercial exploitation, and with that, the end to any shred of necessity for seal products or respect for the animals. An incessant desire and greed for the profits to be made from the seals' pelts and blubber drove many men and businesses into a pathetic circle of death and despair for most involved.