A week before Christmas, Russia banned the import of harp seal pelts—the skins of those undeniably cute animals with their big, melting eyes and their cuddly bodies. This followed a similar ban in the E.U. and the U.S., both of which have forbidden the import of almost all seal products. Prominent animals rights activists, like Paul McCartney and Pamela Anderson as well as groups like Humane Society International, hate seal hunting—and I understand their objections. I had a toy stuffed seal when I was a kid. (Name: Sealy). But, ethically speaking, seals are the last animals activists should be trying to protect—and the latest example of misguided animal rights priorities. It’s time to pay attention to the animals who suffer most, not the ones that are most photogenic.
First, let’s consider questions of scale. Seals are killed in much smaller numbers than most of the hundreds of millions of animals killed in North America every year. In 2009, Canadian hunters killed 72,400 harp seals (that’s out of 9 million harp seals, four times more than existed in the 1970s—they’re not an endangered species). That same year, over 113 million hogs were slaughtered in the U.S., not to mention 33 million cattle and 2.6 million sheep.
Some activists, however, seem to care more about justification than absolute numbers and find it egregious that seals are killed so that we can make things from their skins, but more acceptable that we kill most pigs and cows for food. The International Anti-Fur Coalition, led by one Mitzi Ocean (whose name sounds like it came from P.G. Wodehouse), goes to protests brandishing signs that say “Don’t Kill Babies for Fashion and Money.” This logic extends beyond seals. Responding to the killing of bulls in Spanish arenas, the comedian Ricky Gervais has said, “It sickens me to know that in this day and age, people are still paying money to see an animal suffering in such a horrific way.” Killing seals for fashion or bulls for entertainment, the logic goes, is even more loathsome than killing them for food.
There are a few responses to this. If you’ve ever cooked for yourself without relying on meat, you quickly realize the stuff is hardly more necessary for survival than a seal pelt coat. (Mark Bittman, among others, has long been promoting the idea that we all can and should eat less meat, regardless of our feelings toward vegetarianism.) Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, raising animals for food—in most places in America—prompts as many ethical questions, if not more, than hunting them for fashion or killing them for entertainment. The abuses endemic to industrial agriculture have been well documented: pens that prevent animals from seeing the light of day, animals that are pumped full of steroids, death via conveyor belt. Not only are factory farm animals killed, they’re forced to live constricted, painful lives. Seals, on the other hand, live in the wild their whole lives. They get to flop around on their bellies to their hearts’ content until some hunter tiptoes around a snow bank and bops them on the head. And a bull’s life is also immeasurably better than the lot of its factory brethren, at least until it arrives in the ring. It paws the dry earth of Andalusia and charges around under the Spanish sun until it is big and strong, then experiences an afternoon’s pain, then death. (And by the way, contrary to what many people think, the meat of bulls killed in the ring is eaten. Before I became a vegetarian, I had a plateful in a pilgrim’s hostel in northern Spain.)
Yes, a bull’s death in the ring is more painful than a cow’s death in a slaughterhouse, and I don’t wish to excuse the brutality of this tradition. But slaughterhouses often provide animals with a gruesome death, too. According to a 2008 federal audit, the stun guns meant to knock cows out before they’re killed sometimes don’t work, which means animals end up being cut into pieces while fully conscious. And this raises another question: Why is the brutality of the animals’ death set above the brutality of their lives? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about animals with a terrible quality of life and an often-miserable death than about harp seals and fighting bulls, which have charmed lives but more starkly violent deaths?
The inordinate sway of emotional appeal (whether it stems from appreciation of adorableness or disgust toward gruesomeness) has affected the recent debate over horses as well. In late November, Congress effectively re-legalized slaughtering horses for human consumption when it approved funding for horse meat inspections after a five-year lapse in the practice. (President Barack Obama signed the bill.) Animal rights activists had a conniption. One Daily KOS blogger said the decision made him “sick.” The Animal Law Coalition vented it’s displeasure at length. A whole slew of animal groups jumped on the bandwagon.
But it seems likely that these activists are swayed by the epic and admirable connotations we attach to horses. (Think Black Beauty, National Velvet, Seabiscuit, Secretariat, Barbaro, and War Horse. You’d probably be hard pressed to come up with a similar list of heroic cows.) When you set these associations aside, why should horses get a free pass from the slaughterhouse? Compared to most animals killed for their meat, horses have it easy; they aren’t raised for their meat, and they are usually kept by doting owners in lavish stables with plenty of room to graze and gallop.
There are plenty of animals in more urgent need of the intercession of Congress than these equine prima donnas. Assisting them would be like sending humanitarian aid to a small colony of starving supermodels, while ignoring a famine in a country of five million frumpy cleaning ladies. You could almost call such a thing barbaric.
Eric Andrew-Gee is a former New Republic intern.