Extend Canadian decency to seals

It's cruelty season in Canada - on the ice floes east of Newfoundland and Labrador, to be exact. The annual November-to-May clubbing, ice-picking, or shooting of harp and hooded seals will take a legal quota of up to 350,000 this year - 100,000 more than in recent years. Most of the seal-skin bounty is dispatched to international fashion industries, with side profits from meat, oil, and the sale of genitalia to Asian aphrodisiac markets.

How many buyers of seal products are likely to reflect on the bloody origins of their stylish garb? Probably as few as the number of sellers who stay mum on the gory details of the Canadian kill. No asking, no telling.

Canada defends the seal hunt in much the same way as the governments of Norway, Japan, and Iceland justify their slaughter of whales for economic and traditional reasons. The cuddly seals, it is said, are really troublemakers. They're ravenous cod eaters that deplete the North Atlantic catch. But overfishing is the true cause of cod scarcity. Consider the balance of nature that prevailed eons before factory boats showed up: Seals actually sustain cod by eating cod predators, such as squid and skate.

The Canadian seal hunt is the largest mass killing of marine mammals anywhere. No wild animal is as defenseless as the slow-moving and guileless seal. Canadian government figures show that 96 percent of the 286,238 seals reported killed last year were 12 days to 12 weeks old - pups too young to swim or eat on their own.

The annual horror show goes mostly unreported. There is the expense of getting reporters or film crews to the floes. Then, too, it's an old story. In the past, media interest could be stirred when animal rights groups formed "pelt posses" that saved seals by spraying their fur with harmless paints before the clubbers came around. Sealing, subsidized by the Canadian government, hung on as public attention faded.

This year is different. Canada's dramatic increase in quotas has put new life into a protest campaign that had flagged in recent years as many countries banned imports of seal products. And the March issue of The National Geographic pictured a harp seal on the cover, with an 18-page story inside.

Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, noting that the US ended the Alaska baby seal hunt two decades ago, has argued that economics of the hunt are faulty: Subsidized sealing isn't self-sustaining, jobs are provided for only a few laborers, and the work is seasonal and part time.

Compared with the massive killing of cattle and fowl in the US - which amounts to an estimated 500,000 deaths an hour for food production - Canada's cruelty to seals seems paltry.

So why does Canada - whose political enlightenment includes strong environmental standards, a well-run healthcare system, and a distaste for military adventurism - allow the seal hunt to go on?

With the world's major environmental and animal advocacy groups calling for an end to the seal hunt, Canada, by phasing it out, could have another reason to promote itself as a country of decency.

Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington.

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