Animal welfare activists clashed with seal-pup hunters in Canada this week, just a few days into the annual sealing season. A commercial vessel rammed an inflatable boat filled with protesters over the weekend, and hunters threw seal guts. Animal rights groups oppose the clubbing and shooting of young seals. Why do hunters club seals?
It's safe and easy, and it preserves the seal's valuable pelt. Federal laws in Canada give a sealer three ways to hunt his prey. He can shoot a seal with a rifle or shotgun—provided it's above a minimum caliber or gauge; he can break its head with a blunt club (like a baseball bat) that must be at least 2 feet long; or he can smash in its brains with something called a hakapik—a 4- or 5-foot wooden pole with a bent, metal spike affixed to the end.
In general, a sealer will use a hakapik or club if at all possible. That's because with these weapons, it's much easier to aim a blow directly at the seal pup's head. One swing from a hakapik will usually kill a pup right away. By law, you have to keep clubbing the seal in the forehead until you know for sure that it's dead. Sealers are supposed to "palpate" a pup's skull after they've clubbed it, to feel the caved-in bone beneath the skin and blubber. Or they can perform the "blink reflex" test, which consists of touching the seal's eyeball—if it blinks, you've got to club it again. (Few sealers actually perform these tests, though; some say they can feel the skull collapse as they make contact with their clubs.)
A sealer chooses his weapon depending on the conditions of the hunt. You can only club a seal if you can climb down on to the ice next to it, but the ice isn't always sturdy enough to support a full-grown man and his hakapik. On the off-shore hunting grounds near Newfoundland, the seal pups tend to sit on small, unstable pieces of ice, so sealers must use rifles to kill them. On the other major hunting ground—the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where the hunt began on Saturday—the hunters take advantage of larger floes to leave their vessels with clubs in hand. Conditions also vary from year to year: This season's warm weather has led to thin ice shelves in the gulf, so hunters have had to use their rifles much more than they typically would.
Why not just shoot the baby seals? When you're firing from a boat that's bobbing in the water, it's hard to get a good shot. And if you don't hit the seal in the head, you're less likely to kill it quickly. That means you'll either prolong its suffering (until you can get close enough to club it), or, worse, you'll give it the chance to shuffle off into the water with its pelt still on. Even if you killed a seal with a shot to the body, you'd cost yourself some money, since each bullet hole reduces the value of a pelt. Sealers also say that stray bullets can ricochet off the ice and injure bystanders.
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Explainer thanks Rebecca Aldworth of the Humane Society of the United States and Michel Therien of Canada's Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Thanks also to Carly Wallace for asking the question.