Saturday, April 4, 2009

40 years later, baby seals face the same brutal fate

A trusting harp seal pup slides over to investigate. Photograph courtesy of Nigel Barker.

I was still just a pup myself when I discovered the horrors of baby seal hunting.

The annual barbaric ritual had been taking place in Eastern Canada for 300 years in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But the public couldn’t get close enough to witness what was happening on the remote ice floes. When animal welfare groups rented helicopters and filmed the carnage in the 1960s, people were outraged.

Three hundred thousand helpless and trusting seal pups were being killed by Newfoundland fishermen each year. The hunters used spiked clubs to beat the seals to death, then sold the pelts to top up their incomes.

Children across the continent were shocked when information films depicting the hunt were screened in schools. The fluffy white mammals were so young that they hadn’t yet learned to swim or eat solid food. Grisly footage showed live baby seals being smashed in the face and shorn of their skins. The animals whimpered in pain as they cuddled close to their terrified mothers. The wake of violence left pools of red blood on pristine white ice.

Like other kids, I was sickened and appalled by the bloodbath. I needed to do something to protect the pups that were even more helpless than I was. My brother was four and I was six when my mother took us to our first protest. At the Canadian National Railway’s Union Station in Winnipeg on the corner of Broadway and Main, we took a stand against the biggest slaughter of marine mammals on Earth.

The protest had been organized by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which was born the same year I was -- 1969. Their founding mission was explicit. To save the seals from this cruel commercial hunt. I carried a tiny picket sign I had made myself. We wore white T-shirts silk-screened with baby harp seals and emblazoned with the words “Save the Seals”.

Now it’s 35 years later, and the hunt is back on in full force. And I’m still speaking out against it, but there’s a difference.

I feel even more powerless than I did at six.

In the past three years, nearly a million pups off the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador have been brutally slain for their fur, the highest number since the 1950s and ’60s. Back then, mass killing caused the harp seal population to be depleted by two thirds.

When I attended the Genesis Awards in Beverly Hills last week, the night was dedicated to ending the Canadian seal hunt. The red-carpet affair is organized by the Humane Society of United States (HSUS), and recognizes actors, writers, directors and producers for works that highlight animal welfare issues.

Renowned fashion and portrait photographer Nigel Barker of television’s America’s Next Top Model was the special guest. This time last year, he spent two weeks on the Atlantic Canadian ice photographing the seal pups as they were being born. And then he stayed to document the carnage that followed.

“The methods used to kill them that I witnessed were brutal in the extreme,” Barker said.

Heather Mills came to the Genesis Awards, too. She and her ex-husband Paul McCartney witnessed the hunt the year before Barker, drawing world attention to the slaughter.

At my table, I sat beside Susan Hirsch, a consultant for the ProtectSeals campaign. As we ate, we talked about the hunt. I told her what I felt every time the topic came up.


As a Canadian, I am ashamed that we haven’t managed to stop this cruel event. Clubbing baby animals is not what our peaceful nation stands for, and studies show that most Canadians are opposed to it. In fact, many don’t realize it’s still going on.

If animals were being slaughtered in this manner openly in our neighborhoods and not on unpopulated ice floes, this brutality would have been outlawed long ago.

We must stretch our arms wider and protect those animals struggling to survive in Earth’s remote corners. They deserve humanity just as the rest of them do. That would be something for Canadians to be proud of.

Photograph courtesy of Nigel Barker.


The annual seal hunt is going on right now. To be part of stopping this atrocity for good, follow this link to the ProtectSeals campaign.

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