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Baby Seal Death Day

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By Kathleen Parker
Tuesday, April 14, 2009; 6:11 PM

It isn't every day that one's very own hakapik arrives in the mail.

It is probably reasonable to assume that I'm the only person on my block to be the un-proud possessor of the aptly named bludgeoning and hacking instrument used to slaughter baby seals. 'Tis the season.

April 15 may be tax and tea-party day in the U.S., but it's baby-seal death day in Canada. Although the season began March 23 (19,411 down), the largest phase was to begin Wednesday, during which sealers will destroy and skin another couple hundred thousand seals, most between 25 days and three months old.

It's a living. I guess.

Like most, I've known about the baby seal hunts for decades and have averted my gaze. From my fetal curl, I've merely wished feverishly that someone would put a stop to it.

I might have managed another year without weighing in on the world's largest maritime massacre if not for my hakapik, delivered compliments of PETA. It arrived innocuously enough in a flat, 5-foot long package.

Unsheathed, the hakapik is menacing -- like having a "Shining" Jack Nicholson crouched in the corner -- and seems more suitable to an exhibit of medieval torture instruments than to the office of someone who delivers to the outdoors (rather than squishes) visiting insects.

My hakapik -- a phrase I never expected to utter -- has a 42-inch long handle with a combo hammerhead/spike on the end. The hammer portion is used, theoretically, to crush the seal's skull, while the spike is used to haul the carcass away. (Older seals are usually shot with rifles.)

Those who favor hakapiks argue that they are efficient and humane. Efficient because they allow for a "clean kill," meaning the pelt isn't damaged. "Humane" because a properly delivered blow to the head causes instant, painless death.

Opponents of this gruesome drill claim it isn't possible to properly administer a blow to the head when one is standing on a slippery ice floe swinging a heavy club at a small moving animal. Consequently, at least some animals are not killed humanely -- or even killed at all before being skinned and gutted.

A 2007 European Food Safety Authority report concluded that effective killing doesn't always occur, causing animals pain and distress. Another 2007 report by scientists at the University of Bristol found "widespread disregard for the Marine Mammal Regulations" during seal hunts (though bashing the head of a defenseless baby hardly qualifies as "hunting").

The researchers said that a maximum of 15 percent of seals observed on videos were killed in a manner that conformed to the regulations and that violations were probably worse because they didn't have access to continuous sequences for all seals.

Andy Butterworth, senior research fellow, wrote that "although many of the seals observed were clearly wounded by the clubbing and shooting, sealers did not routinely monitor for unconsciousness (as required) befoe skinning them."

Too gruesome to consider, but then, hunters argue, so are slaughterhouses. The baby seal "harvest" is simply more visible than, say the factories where baby calves and lambs are destroyed for scaloppini and party chops. But does one cruelty justify another?

Increasingly, the answer is "no," as other countries follow the lead of Americans, who banned seal products in 1972.

As of March 18, Russia has banned its own seal hunt after the bear-hunting Vladimir Putin called sealing a "bloody industry." And, the European Parliament has adopted a declaration banning commercial seal products (but still allows for traditional hunting, e.g. Inuit). The Parliament plans to vote on a complete ban later this month, which could further emasculate the seal market.

In the meantime, market and other forces seem to be tilting favorably toward the baby seals. Pelt prices are down from $100 per animal in 2006 to just $15 this year, thus undermining government claims of the seals' economic importance.

In other news, which one may interpret as one wishes, the weather is making life difficult for sealers. Strong winds and freezing rain have been slowing them down. The pelts they seek so that human bipeds can be fashionably warm are secure for the time being on the animals who need them most.

Pressures, meanwhile, are mounting across the border where U.S. Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, recently introduced a resolution urging the Canadian government to end the commercial seal hunt.

Come on, Canada. See things Putin's way and I'll donate my hakapik to the museum of your choice.

kparker@kparker.com


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