U.S. animal protection group moves in to fight seal hunt

OTTAWA – The Humane Society of the United States, a powerful animal protection group that boasts more than eight million members, is opening a Montreal office in an effort to put an end to Canada’s “brutal” and “inhumane” seal hunt.

But the move, part of a recent increase in American pressure against the hunt, is already drawing the ire of Canadian sealers, who call it “an obnoxious intervention in the affairs of another country.”

“I would have thought that there were plenty of things that the United States is involved in around the world that they might devote some attention to, perhaps the plight of the people of Iraq,” said Earle McCurdy, President of Fish, Food and Allied Workers Canada, a union with 20,000 members that represents most of Newfoundland’s sealers.

“They should deal with their own issues first. To come up here and pass on their lifestyle judgments on us is, quite frankly, kind of offensive.”

The humane society announced this week that veteran animal rights advocate Rebecca Aldworth will be its director of Canadian Wildlife Issues. The establishment of the new position reflects the increasing international protest against Canada’s commercial seal hunt.

Canada is the world’s largest producer of seal skins. The federal government has announced it would allow fishermen to hunt 975,000 harp seals off Newfoundland and Labrador between 2003 and 2005. This year alone, an estimated 353,000 seals were killed, making it the largest hunt in half a century.

“This represents a quantum leap in our efforts to influence the government of Canada,” said Dr. John Grandy, senior vice-president for wildlife and habitat protection for the humane society.

“It is an abomination that a first-world government with the stature of Canada could allow this activity to continue. It’s brutal. It’s inhumane. It’s just horrible.”

American involvement in the seal hunt peaked this April when a front-page article appeared in The New York Times about the “quiet boom” in the sealing industry. This was followed by a bipartisan Senate resolution urging Canada to stop the slaughter of seals.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was a co-sponsor of last year’s Senate Resolution 269, opposing the seal hunt. However, the new Canadian director doesn’t see her recent appointment as external meddling in Canadian affairs, noting that the U.S. humane society works internationally and has many active Canadian members.

“Nobody is looking at this as an invasion of the Americans,” said Ms. Aldworth, a Newfoundland native. “This is an international issue. Animal protection has no borders.”

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has repeatedly defended the hunt and has no intention of stopping it.

“Seals are a natural resource just like anything else in nature,” said Steve Outhouse, a spokesman for the department. “There is an abundance of seals and there is a regulated harvest. It has been decided on the political level that this is a legal activity. We’re not about to get into a PR war with them.”

Ms. Aldworth said the economic benefits of the industry are overstated. “The reality is that the seal hunt is, always has been, about politics in Canada and about fisheries mismanagement,” she said. “Seals are scapegoats for bad fisheries practices that continue today.”

According to the DFO, the seal-hunting industry was worth around $20 million in 2003, and the seals are killed in an acceptably humane manner. The ministry has traditionally claimed that thousands of Canadians depend on the industry for their livelihood.

The department says the hunt is a “sustainable, economically viable fishery based on sound conservation principles,” and that the harvest is “not fundamentally different from the exploitation of livestock.”

Ms. Aldworth rejected this argument, calling the seal hunt “the largest and most cruel hunt for wild animals that exists in the world.”

“Nobody is speaking out against subsistence hunting,” she said. “What we are talking about is an industrial-scale slaughter.”