Ever since Canada enacted reforms to make seal hunting more humane, the annual seal hunt —this year's quota is 350,000 pups — hasn't gotten much attention. But is the reality living up to the reforms?
Activists monitoring the hunt say it's not, and use video of hunters to make their point. Canada says it is, citing a report by animal vets to back its position and noting that officials are ready and able to crack down on any inhumane hunters.
Most hunting is for young pups, whose pelts fetch more on international markets than seals more than a few months old. Canada's biggest reform was a ban on hunting pups before they shed their white fur, usually about 12 days. Images of those cuddly pups became icons of the 1970s protests against the hunt, which takes place on ice floes across eastern Canada.
The debate today comes down to this: Do the young seals die a quick, humane death before hunters skin them?
Roger Simon, who oversees the hunt for Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, says activist video purportedly showing seals being skinned alive is actually showing unconscious or dead seals going through a "swimming reflex" — involuntary movements that mimic swimming. It's akin, he says, to seeing the final seconds of a chicken running with its head cut off.
"It's impossible to skin a live seal, or a conscious one," he says. "Can you imagine trying to skin a live animal ... it would scream and claw."
Besides, he adds, why would you "when you can kill it in one second."
The International Fund for Animal Welfare, which has monitored the hunts for years, counters that hunters often are in such a hurry that they club or shoot as many as possible before going back to check their condition and skin them.
"Mr. Simon cannot dismiss every instance simply with reference to a swimming reflex," says IFAW science advisor David Lavigne, a former zoology professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada.
Video turned over to Canada shows scenes like "pups being skinned alive and reacting by doing things like lifting up their heads and crying in pain or trying to grab the knife with their front paws," Lavigne says. "These behaviors are not a swimming reflex, these are wounded animals. This year we filmed one seal, left wounded in a pile of dead seals, crying out for nearly an hour while sealers stood nearby."
Simon doesn't doubt that incident but adds "you cannot describe the whole industry based on one observation. The fact that some people commit violations is the reason we have fishery officers, helicopters, and surveillance vessels out there to enforce the regulations.
"If you see a video where a pitcher is trying to bean a hitter would you conclude that this is a fair portrayal of Major League Baseball," he asks. Canada's 12,000 seal hunters should "be judged on the vast majority of sealers doing their job properly, not on some selected clips from a video."
Canada has issued 322 violations over the previous five years, most of them for small infractions.
The activists say that in that time they've documented on video what they feel are 660 serious violations of Canada's marine mammal rules.
IFAW adds that, while it would prefer to see all hunting stop, it would be satisfied with what it considers compliance with the law. "A subsidized hunt for baby animals is like paying people to kill kittens with a claw hammer," says IFAW spokesman Chris Cutter, "we are simply asking Canada to abide by and enforce its own rules. ... "A quick death is much preferred if that's inevitable."
Skinning live seals would violate Canada's marine mammal rules as well as its criminal code, which makes it a crime to willfully cause "unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to an animal or bird."
Simon insists the vast majority of seal deaths are quick and humane, citing a study by members of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association who inspected hunts in recent years. That study concludes that "the large majority of seals taken during this hunt are killed in a humanely acceptable manner."
Lavigne counters that study "only demonstrates that if you go to a sealing vessel with a (government) guide, and tell them that you are there to monitor killing techniques, that a small number of seals are still killed improperly."
IFAW points to a study it commissioned in which five veterinarians concluded that "the hunt is resulting in considerable and unacceptable suffering," including many pups skinned alive.
One area where both sides might eventually find some common ground is in what's called the "blinking reflex test" for seals.
"Basically, after a seal is clubbed a sealer is supposed to touch the seal's eyes. If the seal doesn't blink, it's dead. If it blinks, still alive," says Cutter.
Simon notes the test is mandatory this year, and that six written warnings have been issued out of the hundreds of sealers checked so far.
Cutter questions whether the test is properly enforced, saying he never saw it done on any of the 500 or so seals he saw hunted this year. He acknowledges, however, that if Canada enforced the test "it would eliminate all the controversy around this."
IFAW intends to keep monitoring this year's hunt, which could go continue through May 15, and then review its options, one of which could be a legal challenge in Newfoundland, where most of the hunting takes place.
Simon is confident the report citing a humane hunt is his department's ace in the hole against activists. That report "blows their argument out of the water," he says, because the veterinary association is "the competent authority in Canada."
What does IFAW have to say about that? "It seems entirely inappropriate for a government employee to pre-judge the courts and what they might decide," Lavigne says. "IFAW does think, however, that it is presumptuous to suggest that such an obviously deficient study — it would be torn apart in court — would play much of a role if new evidence were put before a court.
"But it is correct," he adds, "that the Newfoundland courts — sometimes with judges who, when politicians, were supporters of the hunt — have not been very sympathetic to allowing videotaped evidence into court in the first place."
The vets from the Canadian association offered yet another take, urging seal hunters to play by the rules if for no other reason than to maintain a healthy supply of seals into the future.
Even if only a few animals have died inhumanely, they concluded, that in itself warrants "continuous attention to the hunt."
"Ultimately," they wrote, "the quality of the hunt will depend on the ethics of individual sealers, something which is difficult to legislate with total efficiency and consistency unless all sealers fully realize that this is in the long-term interest of their own industry."
Canadian government background on seals and the hunt is online at www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/seal-phoque/index_e.htm.
MSNBC.com has chosen not to offer the IFAW video but select clips and IFAW background are online at http://www.ifaw.org.