Perhaps 118,000 baby seals are clubbed to death, or harvested, every year in the seal trade of Newfoundland, but now there is a possibility -- it is no more than that -- that the 10 European nations of the Common Market will vote to ban products using these skins.
And if they do vote a ban, when they meet a week from today in Brussels, it would dry up the seal market, and the seal harvesting presumably would cease.
Stanley Johnson, a 42-year-old member of the European Parliament from England, has spent most of the last year working for the ban. When I met him he looked familiar, somehow, maybe from some gas station in Mississippi or farm machinery store in North Carolina or some wheatfield in Montana. He has a great shock of yellow hair and the stocky build associated with farm life, and this is hardly surprising since he grew up on a farm on Exmoor, that wild, heathy, unspoiled region of western England.
"If we can't win this one," he said, of the seal ban, "what can we ever win?"
Three million signatures from England alone have supported the ban, and Canada herself is a hotbed of sentiment opposed to seal killing. The United States and England have already banned seal products, which are now sold mainly in Germany; such things as apre's-ski boots and toy seals made of fur from real ones.
The European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to ban imports in the 10 Common Market countries, but its vote is not binding. The Common Market Commission then votes (as it has done, approving the ban); then the matter is referred to the environmental ministers of the 10 nations who consult with their home governments.
Here, of course, politics enters. The Canadian government, to begin with, insists the killing is humane, that the seal population actually is growing despite the harvest, and that it is an important part of the Newfoundland economy, besides which it is a traditional livelihood.
The Canadian government does not much like having outsiders give advice about the Canadian seal industry and charges hypocrisy -- why is there not a similar outcry against the slaughter of beef cattle which, the Canadian government insists, is equally cruel or humane, take your choice.
Stanley Johnson sees red. He has sets of studies and figures that contradict everything argued by the seal harvesters. The population is suffering, the seal-fur trade is of such trifling importance to Canada, and even to Newfoundland, that it is hardly an element to consider. Besides, no matter what some Canadians say, it is patently cruel to club baby seals to death, sometimes with repeated blows, and to skin them as the mother seals watch. Furthermore, they are wild animals, and they visit Canada only briefly, though it is Canadians who harvest them.
"And it might not be so bad if they needed the meat, but they kill for such trivial purposes as apre's-ski boots."
The English, who ban importation of seal products, nevertheless export processed furs. The Norwegians transport them, and the Germans buy them.
Before we feel too superior, it should be recalled that American law forbids seal products; otherwise, nobody doubts Americans would be buying more than the Germans. The American fashion industry does not scruple to convert skins of lizards, snakes and so on (some of them rare or deserving legal protection) into shoes and pocketbooks for some old bag or watch straps and belts for some young fop. So it is no peculiarly American delicacy that has turned against seal fur, merely American law.
As for the seal population, Johnson believes the numbers have seriously declined, though nobody suggests that harp and hood seals of Newfoundland are in danger of extinction. They are not rare animals in the sense of the St. Lucia parrot, for example.
But then Johnson argues there are other things than ecological rarity to consider.
In this century, if anybody wants the point utterly clear, American deaths in war have done nothing much to disturb the population growth of the republic, but nobody argues no harm, therefore, was done by those deaths.
It is also true that many or most wild animals come to violent deaths. Still, there seems a difference between a mouse eaten by a cat, wretched creature though it may be, and a baby seal clubbed by a member of western civilization with the approval of that civilization's laws and commerce.
It is also argued the seals eat fish, the implication being that poor humans can't eat the fish that the fat seals stuff themselves with. True. But some of the fish the seals eat are fish that would eat a lot of the very fish eaten by humans, and many of the seal-diet fish are caught in waters not fished for human food.
But suppose they do eat some fish. Are we going to decimate every animal that competes, however slightly, for food that might be eaten by men?
The Canadian government has hinted -- rather than threatened--that if European countries ban seal products, they may make trouble for European fishers in Canadian waters. And already the English government is hemming and hawing about the seal ban, not wishing to offend Canada; the French, who at first seemed in favor of the ban, have now started talking about reexamining legal positions, unsure what the Canadian fishery reprisals might be.
Johnson doubts there would be any Canadian reprisals, and it is incredible to him that so small a number of Canadians with so narrow and economically unimportant interest could lead the national government at Ottawa into a seal-slaughter defense that, Johnson thinks, is bound to seem abhorrent to any civilized human.
Johnson was in town for a day this week to attend a reception given in his honor in the Capitol, arranged by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and attended by conservationist and humane-movement workers along with members of Congress. Senators Williams, Hatfield, Jackson, Pryor, Baucus, Sarbanes, Levin, Moynihan, Riegle, Boschwitz, DeConcini and Nunn in March sent to the European Parliament their strong urging for a ban on seal fur.
Any one of the 10 European nations, however, can veto and effectively block such a ban, and while Johnson is steamed up about next Friday's vote, the chances do not really seem very good.
And if, as Johnson says, the seal ban cannot be won, what chance is there for lizards, crocodiles, elephants, rare rodents or birds, who are not sweet and cuddly and who are not susceptible to color pictures of blood on the ice and all the rest of it?
"The thing is," he said, "it's not even ultimately a question of the baby seals, but of us and what we think we and our civilization stand for."