Every year, as the weather turns nice and the pack ice breaks up, the seal hunt begins. Questions arise over the ethics of killing seals in such large numbers a practice that occurs not for the feeding of northern communities (though some does go to that), but to clothe the wealthy around the world. In a bid to limit the seal hunt, the European Union has threatened to ban all seal products, like Belgium did in 2007.
Canada's trade minister, Stockwell Day, is now demanding the EU amend the law so the trade of humanely harvested seals be allowed. If the EU doesn't change the law, Canada will launch reprisals through the World Trade Organization. The hunt amounts to a little over 200,000 seals being killed and while it isn't clear how much the communities will be affected if Europe stops buying the product, the threat suggests it is serious enough.
I suspect a great deal of the opposition to hunting seals, and particularly how they choose young pups, stems from how cute they are. Let us make no mistake then: an integral part of the seal-cuteness is the fur surrounding it and we should all agree that the fur's job is better served on the seal than on the back of a human.
The whole issue of cuteness seems to cheapen the argument. Day cannot be insinuating that if the seals are killed humanely (or as if it were a human), then that is all there is to it. I find Natalie Portman awfully cute, but if I killed her and once in court told the judge I did it humanely, I don't think that would convince many. Ah, you say, Portman is not a seal, she is a human and surely humans should be considered of greater worth than seals. Perhaps. When was the last time a seal starred in a film? I looked and Navy SEALS seem to be the most common result. Dolphins then, a bit smarter than seals but still mammals, also seem to be safe -- nobody will discount Flipper's performance.
Alright, so we have a hierarchy of intelligence (presumably), from a seal to a dolphin to a human. On the harvesting question, dolphins are considered honorary humans, as their killing is not condoned. Yet can anyone be content to say that the line should be between those two nonhuman animals? There are humans, for all manner of reasons, that have decreased brain function and so are not as intelligent or cannot even feel the same amount of pain as a seal. Society is not harvesting such humans.
Of course we don't permit such things. Although variation exists in human intelligence, the systematic killing of humans for any reason is not condoned. We dare not say it's because humans are creatures of God, because proving that would be much harder. We're better off saying that it's because they all suffer. With this in mind, what is so special about a seal? Well, nothing actually, when compared to a cow or a pig or a sheep. Portman has already shown that one's cuteness should not be a factor and the intellectually disabled have shown that intelligence is not the key.
So, if you are horrified that 200,000 seals will be killed this year, consider the 10 billion animals killed in factory farms in the same amount of time. The seals even get to live out a life of freedom on the pack ice, which cannot be said for the cows and pigs who do not have enough room to turn around. If you wish to say that it must be done for economic reasons, then consider the economic devastation the American South faced with the abolition of slaves. I'm not comparing seals to black people, but they both can feel pain and so both have an interest in avoiding it.
The idea that humans must eat meat (or wear skin) to survive is false. Feeding grain to other animals instead of ourselves is wasteful and any food shortage problems we may have would be obsolete if we stopped breeding animals in such high numbers.
Of course, one may argue that our human ancestors worked hard to get us to the point where we have dominion over other animals. Let me be the first to give my ancient brethren a pat on the back. The history of our species, though, is not an instruction manual for how we should live today.