A dirge for the harp

There is bad blood between preservationists like Brian Davies (above) and the Newfoundland fishermen who earn extra income from the slaughter of harp seals
April 18, 1977

The eyes get to you first, huge sad eyes, set against a coat of pure white fluff. The harp seals of Newfoundland are only days old and appealing enough to be in an infant's crib. But weeks after visiting them you do not think of lullabies. You think of men with clubs, and of bloody carcasses, and of the frantic huffing sounds of mother seals, vainly searching for their young.

Those eyes gaze down from posters all over the world. They stare out from the pages of magazines. Talk show guests rage on about the slaughter. And all the furor was started by one man, a 42-year-old Canadian animal lover and publicist named Brian Davies. He told the world about the seal hunt, and two weeks ago, his blue eyes glinting, he sat in the gallery of the U.S. Senate, listening to a discussion of Resolution 142, "urging the Canadian Government to reassess its policy of permitting the killing of newborn harp seals." The resolution had breezed through the House, and now Davies saw it through the Senate, the first congressional resolution to protest a wildlife policy of a foreign government. Davies called it "the most significant thing ever in animal welfare." It was his work that made it possible, and at week's end only one thought could make him stop smiling: Would he and his wife, his son and daughter, the family's four cats, four dogs and three horses be able to continue living in Canada?

For nine years, as director of the 200,000-member International Fund for Animal Welfare, Brian Davies has endeavored to save the baby harp seals of Newfoundland, to stop the annual spring hunt. He is also responsible for the ban on exporting the river otters of Thailand, which were being killed for their pelts or sold to pet stores; he is campaigning to preserve the world's dwindling population of Mediterranean monk seals; he successfully lobbied for a manatee sanctuary in Florida; and in the past five years he has airlifted 58 "problem" polar bears from a Manitoba town, where they were being shot during their migration.

But the harp seal pup is his principal project. It has resulted in more 'controversy and donations for the IFAW than all the other campaigns put together, and it has made Brian Davies a prophet without honor in his own country. To the fishermen of Newfoundland, where sealing is a rite of almost religious import, as well as a commercial boon, Davies is an opportunist or "a con man," as one government official puts it. Charles Friend, a publicity man for Canada's fisheries department, says, "The seal hunt gives the IFAW people a million-dollar income, and Davies is the last guy who wants to see it end."

During last month's hunt, Roy Pilgrim, the leader of the Newfoundland Concerned Citizens Committee, said, "If the baby harp seal had the face of a pig there would be no problem." That is a familiar argument, and an interesting one, but Davies responded, "The beauty of the harp seals is the only hope they have. It is why they are killed, and if we cannot save them because of it, we cannot save any animals, ever."

There are answers to every criticism of Brian Davies and his campaign, and answers to the answers. The manatee, for example, does have the face of a pig but it has little commercial value. When Pilgrim and his associates said that killing baby seals was their right, Davies replied, "Your right? To club infant seals to death? To drive the mothers away while they're nursing?"

Other observers, pro and con, were more dispassionate. George Reiger, a writer for Audubon magazine, said, "People don't like to think of an animal that looks like a baby and cries like a baby being clobbered. Of course they don't worry about their lamb chops." Said Dr. Victor Scheffer, an eminent West Coast mammalogist, "I think that wildlife management people should consider the public's feelings, as well as questions of science. Even with a safe quota, if there is strong sentiment against the hunt, I say, 'Don't do it.' "

Even the issue of the possible extirpation of the harp seal because of the annual slaughter is clouded. Scientists from the Canadian Government say the hunt poses no danger, that the harp seal is not on the brink of extinction. Edward Roberts, leader of the opposition government of Newfoundland and Labrador, claims that the harp seal "is the most scientifically protected animal species in the world. If the herd were not kept in check it would devour millions of pounds of fish, which is the economic base to a large portion of the population of Newfoundland and Labrador." Brian Davies and his followers contend the seal could be gone tomorrow. David M. Lavigne, Ph.D., a zoologist at Ontario's University of Guelph, wrote last year in the National Geographic, "Even under present hunting quotas the harp seal may be reduced to precarious levels before the end of this century." But Dr. Keith Ronald, dean of Guelph's College of Biological Science, is awaiting the results of a new study. "I believe Lavigne's natural mortality figures were too high," he says.

In the absence of facts, the issue is clearly one of conflicting values, epitomized by the products of the hunt—mere trimmings for slippers, wallets and key-rings and, ironically, tiny white toy seals.

As this year's hunt approached, Davies rented a motel in northern Newfoundland at Pistolet Bay, due west of the ocean ice floes where the harp seals would be born. He invited more than 50 journalists from Canada, the U.S. and Europe, offering them helicopter service to the floes. When he arrived at Pistolet Bay he was greeted by a surly crowd of more than 300 locals, which was barely kept at bay by a handful of Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The crowd roped off the helicopters and began yelling things like, "We'll kill Brian Davies for calling us murderers." Davies, ever the showman, told one interviewer, "This is as bad as the early days of the Nazi takeover." He wired Prime Minister Trudeau, Prince Philip of England and the American embassy in Ottawa, and on the morning the hunt was to start 100 mounties arrived by bus.

The journalists were taken to the floating ice, 75 miles at sea, and then ferried in shifts to the scene of the hunt by Davies, in the IFAW's Jet Ranger helicopter, Blue Goose. They saw the baby harp seals killed, filed their stories—and the world responded. In less than five weeks, 32,000 letters of protest were received at the Canadian embassy in Washington alone.

To the crowd of poor fishermen at Pistolet Bay, the six helicopters and the foreign journalists represented an outside world of glamour and money. Davies, the Newfies thought, was a man having a good time, a "playboy of the Western ice." This made them resent him even more. The presence all week of actress Yvette Mimieux, an IFAW member, intensified that feeling. And the arrival of Brigitte Bardot all but set them boiling. Had they known that Davies was making an annual salary of $36,000, at the same time that he was trying to cut their annual average of $3,500, they might have strung him up. But then Davies does not talk about such things, though he makes no apologies when the facts are learned. "Where is there a law," he asks, "that animal welfare people must be poorly paid?"

The rental of the helicopters did cost the IFAW $40,000, but as Davies told an interviewer, "We decided on the most effective way to do the job, and then we raised the money we needed."

All week the battle raged, the natives vs. Davies. "Sealing is a 400-year-old tradition in Newfoundland," one said.

"Slavery was a tradition, too." Davies responded.

"Life is hard up here; the $500 to $2,300 per man for a four-week hunt is a good part of our annual income." Davies reminded them that the IFAW had offered to compensate the 200 commercial fishermen if the hunt was discontinued. But it was obvious no amount of money could buy off their pride; that is another thing that kills baby seals in Newfoundland.

When the hunters backed Davies to the wall, his real purpose was apparent. "If there were no danger of extinction," they asked, "and if our methods were completely humane, would you agree to a controlled hunt?"

"No. I just want to stop it, for no other reason than that the seals are a part of creation.

"And don't forget, I didn't find the seals," he kept reminding a representative of the Canadian Board of Fisheries. "I was asked 12 years ago by a government agency to look at the hunt, and to see how it could be made more humane."

That was in 1965, when Davies was working for the New Brunswick SPCA. A French-Canadian company had made a film of the seal hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and it showed baby harp seals being clubbed to death. Davies was asked to visit the scene of the hunt and make recommendations. He reported that it should be ended, and his advice was rejected, but now he had a cause. In 1969 he formed the IFAW, becoming its executive director. A year later he published a book on the seal hunt, Savage Luxury. National magazines and network television ran stories, and in 1972 the U.S. banned the importation of products made from baby harp seal fur. Soon afterward, the Canadian Government prohibited the commercial hunting run from large ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which accounted for two-thirds of the kill in that area.

Now Brian Davies' goal is to halt the commercial hunt off Newfoundland's Atlantic shore. It remains to be seen what effect U.S. congressional Resolution 142 will have, but even before it passed, Davies was saying that next year's hunt has a 50-50 chance of being canceled. "They'll need half the mounties in Newfoundland to protect us," he said. "It will cost 10 times what the hunt is worth."

If the hunt does end, Brian Davies will surely find another group of beleaguered animals to save. Marine mammals are his first love. Off the Pacific Coast porpoises continue to be killed in tuna nets, despite controls and regulations, and Davies is brooding over that. If oil spills continue to despoil our coasts, he will find contaminated seals and whales to be concerned about. In December, when the Argo Merchant fetched up off Nantucket he hopped in the Blue Goose and was the first one on the scene after the Coast Guard. For five days he shuttled reporters and photographers to the wreck.

In Greenland old sled dogs are reported to be hanged when their working days are over: Davies has launched a campaign to find out how widespread the practice is or if, indeed, it exists. In Davies' Oromocto, New Brunswick home, where a Labrador retriever and two German shepherds bounce from chair to chair like footballs, there is always room for more dogs.

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