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18 April 2001 Issue
Skinned Alive

by Stuart Millar
from The Guardian (London) - April 7, 2001
submitted by CAFT13@aol.com 

Skinned alive: seal cull shocks vets: Thousands of animals are suffering a long, painful death in Canada's annual hunt, a new report claims

It was once the cause celebre of animal activists around the world. But for a decade, the annual Canadian seal hunt has managed to continue uninterrupted by claiming a new air of respectability and concern for the welfare of the animals.

Now a damning report from an international panel of wildlife vets is set to reignite demands for a crackdown by the Canadian authorities on barbaric killing methods used by the sealers.

The report, produced by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and passed to the Guardian, concludes that the 2001 hunt is causing "considerable and unacceptable suffering" to the harp seal population of Canada's Atlantic coast.

The five eminent vets - two British, two American and one Canadian - who monitored last week's hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence found that more than 40% of the seals caught were unlikely to have been unconscious, let alone dead, when they were skinned.

The Guardian has also learned that the Canadian Veterinary Medicine Association (CVMA), whose support for the hunt has been used by the Canadian government and the sealers in an attempt to persuade the public that it is humane, is considering demanding tougher welfare regulations in the light of the latest evidence of cruelty.

The organization has already contacted Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the government department responsible for regulating the hunt, demanding that it stop citing the CVMA's support in media interviews and on its website.

Ian Robinson, one of the two British vets on the panel, said: "The Canadian government insists that this is an animal production industry like any other. They say that it might not be pretty, but basically it is just like any abattoir except on the ice. But we found obvious levels of suffering which would not be tolerated in any other animal industry in the world."

Mr. Robinson, a Norfolk-based RSPCA vet with 10 years' experience treating large marine mammals, added: "We accept that the hunt is going to continue and we are not condemning the sealers out of hand. But we want to see tough regulations, enshrined in legislation and enforced, to avoid this suffering."

According to official records, more than 91,000 harp seals were killed during last year's Canadian hunt, which is the only commercial mammal hunt in the world to take place in spring, at the height of the birthing season. A further 100,000 were caught in the Greenland hunt, which is almost completely unregulated.

The killing of newborn seals - those that still have their white fur - is outlawed, but because the animals lose their white coats just 12 days after birth, up to 90% of those caught in the Canadian hunt are between two weeks and one year old.

The new evidence is unlikely to lead to the hunt being banned, but opponents hope that it will at least force the Canadian government to act to prevent suffering. Each year, animal welfare charities document instances of cruelty but prosecutions have been rare.

The vets carried out postmortem examinations on 76 seal carcasses left behind on the ice after being skinned, and their findings have shocked even the most hardened anti-hunt campaigners.

Examinations of the skulls revealed that 17% showed no signs of any cranial injury which would have caused the animal to be unconscious when its pelt was removed. A further 25% showed only minimal or moderate signs of injury which the vets conclude would also have been unlikely to cause unconsciousness.

The panel also reviewed video evidence of this year's and previous hunts. It found that in almost 80% of kills recorded, no effort was made by the hunter to check that the seals were unconscious, while in 40% of cases, the hunter left the animal on the ice before returning to club it a second time, suggesting that it was conscious and suffering in the meantime.

"Based on our observations, it is obvious that there is a tremendous lack of consistency in the treatment of each seal, and the existing regulations are neither respected nor enforced," the report says.

HUMANE KILLING

In their report, the vets say that there is only one process for ensuring the humane killing of a seal. It must be rendered unconscious with a single blow or shot, the corneal reflex should be checked by poking it in the eyes to ensure that it is unconscious, and the seal should then be bled immediately. This is standard practice in abattoirs.

"Any method for killing a seal which does not allow for the above process of stunning, checking and bleeding to be performed has an enormous potential to create suffering and is therefore unacceptable," the report says.

It continues: "As this process cannot be followed in open water, we consider that shooting seals in open water can never be humane. Any method of taking a seal which requires the seal to be recovered by gaffing or hooking before the process can be followed can never be humane."

Monitors at this year's hunt have documented dozens of examples of cruelty, from seals being hooked and dragged across the ice while still alive for skinning, to others being shot in the water and dragged by hooks on to the ice, with no attempt made to check for unconsciousness.

Rick Smith, the Canadian director of IFAW, told the Guardian: "The most valuable thing about this report is that it puts numbers to the cruelty being suffered. Even after five years monitoring the hunt, the results shocked me."

Support for the seal hunt among the Canadian public hinges on government claims that it is humane. A government survey last year showed that 54% of citizens were initially opposed to the hunt. But when they were assured that the hunting was carried out humanely, almost 70% voiced support.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada last night brushed aside the findings. Ken Jones, resource manager for the Atlantic region, said: "The findings do not match with our experience at all.

"We have had CVMA vets out on the ice and all the skulls they have found have severe fractures, suggesting a quick death."

There are clear signs, however, that the CVMA's attitude is changing. Last weekend, the organization's animal welfare committee met in Toronto to discuss the new report.

Bob van Tongerloo, a member of the committee and executive director of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, said: "My understanding is that the CVMA will announce that it is no longer in a position to give its support to the hunt. That decision will be crucial to how the government handles the hunt in future."

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