Signed, Sealed, and Dismembered

Nov. 7 1997 3:30 AM

Signed, Sealed, and Dismembered

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Sound02 - VR-Hunt.avi or Sound03 - VR-Hunt.mov; download time, 3.50 minutes at 56K Sound01 - VR-HUNT.asf; for sound only

Hunt, produced by Shea & Associates for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

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The Canadian seal hunt is back, and so are the protesters. Hunt, produced by political ad maker Mike Shea for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, is part of an unprecedented effort to increase public awareness before spring and the next hunting season. Polls show that once informed of the facts, between 80 percent and 90 percent of Canadians and Americans oppose the killing. Hunt, hopes its makers, will give its viewers those facts and rouse them to action.

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The spot opens with a moist-eyed white seal pup on the ice. "Think this little fellow is safe?" asks the narrator, the camera zooming to a close-up of the animal's eye, in which a club-brandishing hunter is now silhouetted. As the pup attempts futilely to escape, we are given the numbers. Up to half a million seals, most of them pups under a year old, were killed by commercial hunters in Canada last year (a key study by economist Clive Southey offered a lower figure--269,000--that has been contested).

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A Canadian flag dissolves on a bloody ice field as the sealer drags the pup away. The image of the government's complicity is a powerful one: Southey's study claims that the hunt adds little value, especially once government subsidies (on which Canadian taxpayers spent $3.4 million just in 1996) are subtracted. The end does not justify the means, says the spot, cutting first to a Toronto Globe and Mail headline--"Sealers convicted for cruel slaughter"--and then to a shot of an abandoned carcass. The IFAW has videotaped atrocities, and while we are not made to witness a skinning or an impaling, we hear the pup crying and see hooks waving. (And though the spot never really tells us that these crimes are ignored by the authorities, there have been reports to that effect.)

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The seals are victims not of research or of subsistence hunting, says Hunt, but of an unsubstantiated claim that their penises increase human potency ("totally inexcusable" in "what is supposed to be an enlightened age," actor William Shatner, one of a growing cast of luminaries who have signed on to the IFAW cause, has been quoted as saying). We see a shot of a bustling Asian market, followed by one of a seal group on the ice. (The juxtaposition is familiar enough, and reaches for the emotional energy of other battles between environmentalists and apparently impervious consumers. But the portrayal of the transaction in question is interesting: The clerk is Asian, but the customer is white.)

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The spot ends with the image of a white-coat pup, a phone number, and an explicit exhortation. The animal can't stop this, but you can. The 1996 numbers represent a fivefold increase over previous annual takes, which had plateaued at 55,000 after mass international protest drove them down in the early 1970s. Until 1995, that is. Dwindling cod populations in the waters off Newfoundland inspired the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans to raise annual hunt quotas on harp and hooded seals to 275,000. Echoing the classical political appeal to "speak for those who have no voice,"Hunt hopes your conscience will win the day.

--Robert Shrum

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