The Killing Season

by Judy Ann Newton

images from IFAW are copyright

Diving the Cumberland

Diving the Cumberland

Spring – the mystic time of year when the Earth awakens from a wintry slumber and renews herself. Life is replenished as creatures great and small give birth to a new generation. Up on the Canadian ice floes, where the Spring blossoms are never sown and the land is stark and white, it is a ritual that has flourished for millions of years. It is the cycle of life, the way of all things and the land, the sea and the air are rich with the promise of regeneration and revival.

The first light of day splashes red across the sky. The ice echoes with crimson hues. In the distance a lone seal barks for her young. The colony erupts in a cacophony of primal utterances as the mother seals call to their newborn pups. The old woman blinks from the glare as the growing light shakes her from deep slumber. The new one still sleeps beside her, his chest rising and falling in a gentle rhythm. She knows this will be her last calving season. She is the elder female and her time passes quickly now. She is surrounded by the young who are strong to bear for many years and she envies them of their time.

The new one rustles and gazes up at her. Her face is reflected in his large, black eyes. He wriggles closer and finds her breast, suckling warm against her belly. Soon she will return to the sea to feed and the new one will find his own way, as has been the way of the colony since time began. But that is another day and she is most satisfied to have him close for now.

The warmth of the sun lulls her into a calming daze between reality and dreams. The ice has grown very quiet, too quiet. The old woman does not hear her nightmare approaching.

A piercing wail slices through the resolute silence and the colony bawls as one. Warning cries and shouts of agony clash across the ice in a raging, inexorable duet. Memories give rise to panic within the old woman’s heart. She knows what is coming and wretchedly, she can do nothing to stop it. They will come, she will fight, but she will not win. She never has.

She nuzzles the young one and hopes they will pass her by this time. The howling is deafening and strangles the air she breathes. The young one looks up at the stranger in confusion as his mother snaps and roars with unleashed fury. The young one yells with all his might, but he is too small to make more than a plaintiff yelp. The old woman hears his tiny voice from a host of a thousand and looks to her last born when the moment comes.

The club swings high in a rampant arc over the stranger and crashes down on the young one’s skull. There is a moment where time stops, sounds cease and life is suspended in the air like an unheard whisper. The snowy white fur on his head seeps red with his blood. She struggles to comfort her calf, nestling as close as she can until the low moans from mother and calf become one forlorn lament. Two voices lost in the billowing shrieks of the colony.

The young one drops his head and whimpers, the red gushes onto the ice. His eyes still focus on his mother, but the clarity is no longer there. Sleep beckons to him but his mother calls again, her nose rubbing gently against his as the hook slams into his spine.

The old woman screams and makes a final thrust toward the stranger as he rips her dying calf from her side. The yelps from her young grow ever weaker as the knife carves deeper and deeper into his flesh.

Is it an eternity or only three minutes from the first cut to the last? The stranger takes the white from her calf and leaves her with the carcass. His eyes are still now. They are large and black, as always, but they no longer blink, The stranger has even stolen that. The old woman inches towards her last born’s body, still warm but ever so still. Too many times she has known this hurt and the misery that They bring.

The ice is still now, still with the stench of death. The ice reverberates with the weeping of mothers agonizing with their loss. In a ritual that has been replayed since her first season on the ice, she knows how the day will close. They will nurse and suckle their dead calves and cry in vain to the skies. When the morning comes they will leave, one by one back to the sea, and the ice will claim their young.

The last light of day splashes red across the sky, The ice echoes with crimson hues. In the distance a lone seal barks for her young and the ice floe erupts in a cacophony of primal utterances. The old woman blinks as the fading light lures her into slumber. The new one still sleeps beside her, his chest is resoundingly still. She knows this will be her last calving season. She is the elder female and her time passes quickly now. She is surrounded by the young who are strong to bear for many years and she once envied them for their time.

Up on the Canadian ice floes, where the spring blossoms are never sown and the land is stark and white, the new day ends with the baying of the mother seal’s lament. The ground runs red with the harbinger of Spring. The Killing season has begun.

The Killing Facts

Canada had a quota of 319,500 baby seals for the 2005 hunting season. A government plan will ‘cull’ 975,000 seals in three years. An estimated 250,000 harp seal pups were killed during the 10 day hunt in April. Only the pelts are taken, harvested for the fur and fashion industry.

In the 400 year history of commercial sealing little has changed when the sealer hits the ice. Even with the introduction of modern vessels and aircraft, it remains, in their words, ‘the hardest, darkest and coldest work on the water that there is.’ The tools are primitive by manufacturing standards, but in the hands of an expert, they are state of the art. Using only a hardwood club, gaff, scalping knife and sharpening steel, the sealer becomes an artisan of the flesh.

It is a business. The sealers are paid piece work and not by the hour. It is a job involving speed, running it by the numbers: Thirty seconds to cut from belly to the jaw and out along the blubber. Approximately 100 cuts, slices, gashes and hacks. Three position changes around the body. Three litres of oxygen-rich blood will be spilled in the two minutes total to separate the carcass from the pelt.

US$50 per pelt sold garners seasonal wage earnings of US$975 to US$4,000 per man, depending on weather, ice thickness, seal numbers and length of the season. A crewman aboard a boat of eight will earn approximately 7.5% of the profit.

The number not calculable is the average amount of time a dead seal will exhibit ‘spasms’ during post-death reflex.

HIGHGRADING One seal product that never seems to lose a market is the seal penis. It is one of the more valuable ‘commodities’, sold primarily to Asia for use in Chinese traditional medicine as an aphrodisiac. The organs of the full grown, adult seal bring the highest price but the pelts bear no real value. The seal is killed for the penis alone. Since quotas would include this seal in the Total Allowable Catch, the penis of the male adult seal is paired with the pelt of a baby seal to report it as a single kill.

As with the penis of other animals peddled as an aphrodisiac in Asian medicine, the resources are limited and result in a lucrative black market. The ‘healthy’ penis can sell for as much as £200 (US$360) each in black market trade.

‘Highgrading’ is the practice of killing an animal solely for one organ and discarding the rest of the animal. ‘Look-alike’ trading involves the removal of the penis from an endangered seal species and selling it as a legal seal penis.

© Copyright 2004

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