- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

Canadians are clubbing baby harp seals to death on the ice floes off Canada’s northeastern coast, a practice that was sharply restricted in the 1980s, and animal rights activists are outraged.

The seals “look like very cute and cuddly animals in the white coat,” said Steve Outhouse, a spokesman for Canada’s Fishery and Oceans Ministry. “People forget they grow up to be 500-pound animals that destroy the livelihood of people and destroy fishermen’s gear and nets, and a lot of the groundfish, such as cod, which is necessary for Newfoundland and Labradorians.”

He said animal rights activists fail to mention that Canada closely regulates the seal harvest and that only one in 10 seals is clubbed; the rest are shot.

The issue, which brought boatloads and busloads of activists to seal-hunting country in the 1980s, surfaced again this spring when the Humane Society of the United States paid $65,000 for a full-page color ad that appeared Monday in the New York Times.

Displaying a hunter about to club a seal, the ad called on Americans to boycott Canada until it bans “this senseless and barbaric killing.”

“The point here is that the slaughter of these seals is a visible and worldwide symbol of the cruelty and destructiveness of people,” said John Grandy, the Humane Society’s executive vice president.

Dr. Grandy said the Humane Society, which wants Canada to ban seal hunting altogether, is trying to raise $3 million over three years to fight seal harvesting.

In February, Canada announced it would let up to 975,000 seals be killed during the next three years, irking animal rights activists even more.

Seals can be used for pelts, perfumes and other products. In some countries, seal meat is considered a delicacy.

Canada and some of its scientists yesterday disputed claims made by activists, saying they were overblown and inaccurate.

“This is not a conservation issue. This is an animal rights issue,” said Ranson Myers, a biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Unlike the cod in the region, he said, seals are not in danger of steep declines in population.

Since the late 1970s, the Canadian seal population has grown from just under 2 million to more than 5 million. There is a ban on cod fishing in Newfoundland.

A mostly poor, rural community of 12,000 hunters and their families in and around the Magdalen Islands off Quebec have relied on clubbing seals for generations.

The islanders depend on sales of pelts for much of their income.

Canada has twice significantly restricted what they could do.

In the 1980s, Canada banned the clubbing of newborn baby seals with their white coats intact. After about 12 days, the coats begin to shed, and it is legal to hunt them. This rule hasn’t changed.

What has changed is a sense of urgency over the growing seal population, prompting Canada to raise its yearly limits on the seal hunt. But Canada says it is still trying to make the hunt as humane as possible.

Just this year, Canada began to require that hunters poke a seal in the eye to see if it blinks to ensure it’s dead before skinning it.

The ban on killing newborns, as well as the new eye-poke rule, came in response to public pressure.

But the Humane Society is not impressed.

A 2001 study produced by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a group affiliated with the Humane Society, concluded that hunters do not consistently ensure seals are dead before skinning them.

“The existing regulations are neither respected nor enforced,” it said.

But Mr. Outhouse said most hunters obey the rules.

A 2002 study in the Canadian Veterinary Journal supported this view, finding that only 2 percent of seals are killed inhumanely.

One of the doctors who helped write that study, Alice Crook, the former chair of the Animal Welfare Committee of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, said her team observed and assessed the killing of seals on the ground.

Officials from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, she said, could only watch from a distance with a camera.

Her job, she said, was not to determine whether it’s right to kill seals but whether they’re killed humanely.

Though there is room for improvement, she said, “I think if you looked at any hunt, this is probably at least as humane if not more humane.”

A spokesman for the Canadian Tourism Commission said his office has seen a small increase in queries because of the antihunting campaign.

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