March 11, 2016

Why seal hunting may come back to bite humans (COMMENTARY)

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A harp seal pup lies in front of its mother on an ice floe in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada. Protesters want the annual hunt called off. REUTERS/Paul Darrow

A harp seal pup lies in front of its mother on an ice floe in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada. Protesters want the annual hunt called off. REUTERS/Paul Darrow

(RNS) Canadian seal hunting has been controversial for decades, but its cruel and inhumane violence has come under special scrutiny this week. This is not only because we are coming up on peak season for the killings of these creatures (usually mid-to-late March), but also because Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was at the White House, and he is facing considerable backlash for his support of the practice.

Public opinion has consistently opposed seal hunting and the European Union and United States have banned the import of seal fur to their countries.

The main defense of seal hunting is that it’s necessary for the financial stability of the indigenous populations who engage in the practice. But Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, has shown that the hunt is a huge economic loser.


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The Canadian government is spending $2.5 million each year just to monitor the commercial seal hunt, which had an export value of only $500,000 in 2014. And that doesn’t take into account the many millions of subsidies and financing that the Canadian and provincial governments sink into product purchasing, development, processing, and marketing every year.

Pacelle has a new book coming out in April, “The Humane Economy,” in which he makes the broader point that protecting seals and other creatures is good for both human and animals. Indeed, he expertly demonstrates that industries that are cruel to animals cost society many times the revenues they generate.

I’ve tried to highlight this in my own work on animal ethics, focusing in particular on how factory farming billions of animals contributes to climate change, the creation of drug-resistant bacteria, economic inefficiency, worker injustice, and more. God’s creation is so tightly interconnected that treating one aspect of that creation with wanton cruelty and disregard comes back to bite humanity as well.

Pope Francis’ magisterial work of ecological theology, “Laudato Si’”could not have been more explicit about the interrelatedness of human and nonhuman. The pope insists the natural world “cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves” and it is no longer possible to separate how we treat human beings from how we treat the whole of God’s creation.

He insists we need “comprehensive solutions” that “demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”


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Demonstrating deep resonances with the central argument of Pacelle’s book, Francis also suggests we need to develop an “economic ecology” that ties our treatment of God’s creation to our economic problems.

Groups like the Humane Society now have flourishing “Faith Outreach” programs that are building on the growing interest of religious traditions in helping to protect animals. This movement goes well beyond Roman Catholicism, with growing interest among several evangelical figures and churches. I’m part of the society’s “Faith Advisory Council” which includes not only many different kinds of Christians, but Muslim and Jewish figures as well.

As a professor of Christian ethics, I can tell you that the issue of animal protection is absolutely exploding onto the theological scene. We had our first meeting of the “Animal Ethics Interest Group” this past January at the annual meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics, and the energetic crowd was from all over the theological and political map.

Charles C. Camosy is an associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, focusing on biomedical ethics. Photo courtesy of Charles C. Camosy

Charles C. Camosy is an associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, focusing on biomedical ethics. Photo courtesy of Charles C. Camosy

There is a movement afoot.

Many pioneers in the animal protection movements find this puzzling. For decades now, many of them thought of religious figures and institutions as antagonists. Wasn’t the view that humans were made sacred in the image of God, and given dominion over animals, deeply problematic? Princeton’s Peter Singer argued for a direct and sustained frontal assault on the religious traditions that espouse the sanctity of life ethic.

But especially as religious traditions continue to mobilize their considerable resources in the service of animal protection, Singer and others have begun to see them as allies rather than enemies. An authentic understanding of the dominion God has given human beings over animals leads one to conclude that we are called to be stewards and protectors. An authentic understanding of the value of God’s creation leads one to conclude that, though there is a hierarchy of being (seals, though valuable, do not matter as much as human beings), all life is deeply interrelated.

When we are cruel to a fellow creature, we not only harm that creature, we also harm ourselves.

(Charles C. Camosy is associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University. Twitter: @CCamosy)

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  • Sabelotodo2

    Wow, I really feel guilty now, for all those chickens and pigs I helped to butcher, growing up on a ranch! I’ve always been against intentional cruelty to animals, but see that as just a rational sensibilty and not something eminating from my religion!

    But why stop with the animal world–why doesn’t it extend to the vegetable world as well? Surely those soy beans feel lpain, as they’ve being turned into tofu, and sprouts into salad!

  • Allen

    Enter the people who can’t tell the difference between mowing a lawn and sawing the legs off of puppies.

  • I am sure that the professor is well meaning, but perhaps poorly informed? The responsible and sustainable use of wildlife is now promoted by every serious conservation authority, including the World Conservation Union (IUCN). Most species produce more young than their habitat can support in to adulthood; those that don’t make it feed the others, this is what aboriginal call “the circle of life”. Because humans have eliminated many top predators, we often fill that ecological niche. Many cultures and religions have recognized this. Both Judaism and Christianity explicitly teach that we may use animals, but with respect — which today includes an obligation to use the most humane slaughter methods possible. The seal hunt may seem like an easy target, but even the philosopher Peter Singer, the father of the modern “animal rights” movement you mention, said in his landmark book “Animal Liberation”, that it is hypocritical to criticize the seal hunt while most people in America…

  • Paul B

    I highly recommend reading “Dominion”, by Matthew Scully, for a similar take on the religious and moral aspects of how animals are treated by humans.

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  • Emily

    lol, @Allen!

  • Suzana Megles

    Thoughts like this re plant suffering sadden me. If plants suffer why then did God offer them as food to our first parents?

  • steve

    and yet again they show a picture of a white coat which havn’t been hunted since early 70’s

  • joecaputi

    Nice, Allen! You ever hear of the Buddhist monk who wouldn’t walk across the field ’cause he might step on a spider? He murdered his veggies tho, at dinner!

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  • Exactly.

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  • Jeff Biss

    Now that Canada has a new “progressive” leader in Trudeau, we’ll see whether Canada is really a good nation or an evil one, as it was under every government that permitted this atrocity to continue as a works program for its out-of-work psychopaths.

  • Jeff Biss

    There is absolutely no valid argument, including that we may be hypocritical, for the hunt to continue nor for us to “manage” any animal population. We’re the problem, not them. We need to accept that their lives are not ours to take and we have no right to harm simply because we consider ourselves moral. We need to reduce our population by getting people to stop procreating to drive our population to well below 2 billion.

  • Satish Karandikar

    Plants do not possess a nervous system, so it is very unlikely that plants possess consciousness or the ability to suffer. And even if we hypothetically supposed that they did, plants have to be fed to the livestock, and only a small fraction of the food that an animal eats is converted into meat for human consumption. So, by eating meat, we end up killing ten times as many plants as we would on a vegan diet.