The Canadian Seal Hunt

Apr 2006

The first ethical precept of Buddhism is to refrain from harming and killing living beings. Therefore, no good Buddhist would participate in the seal-hunt. This being said, I still find it hard to single out the Newfoundland hunt for special condemnation when much crueler practises go on every day in the factory farms and research labs of the country. It is hard to escape the observation that it is only the photogenic quality of the victims, and their celebrity protectors, that make this particular killing such a hot issue.

Perahps the controversy will foster more examination of our attitude toward animals in general. The implied position in our practise and law is that animals are nothing more than resources for human consumption. This has support both in secular thought and western religion; until fairly recently the life sciences followed the opinion of Rene Descartes that animals were unconscious mechanisms, and the book of Genesis in the Christian Bible gives Man dominion over animal life.

What this position avoids looking at is an idea which has always been understood in Buddhism. Animals are conscious beings; they have experience, emotions and are capable of suffering. They are not so very different from us. The mammals especially have social and familial relationships, and no one who has ever shared quarters with a dog or cat will deny that they are capable of affection. Just imagine the fear, distress and anguish that must ripple through the seal colony as the sealers go about their bloody work.

Buddhist ethics considers another angle as well; we are concerned not only for the victim but also, and perhaps more so, for the perpetrator. Every act of violence necessitates unwholesome states of mind in the actor. This is the mechanism underlying the law of karma. It has always been taught in Buddhism that those who make their living slaughtering living beings are in the greatest danger of polluting their minds with these acts of violence, and in the end taking a miserable rebirth.

You don't have to subscribe to Buddhist teachings about karma and rebirth to understand that anyone performing repetitive acts of killing must perforce insulate their minds from such positive and healing states as compassion and empathy. The sad irony is that by denying conscious experience to our animal victims, we relentlessly lower and debase the quality of our own consciousness.

There are a score of issues that could be raised around our treatment of animals, both wild and domestic. Modern methods of meat production perhaps ought to head the list. There was an old argument that our relations with meat animals like pigs and chickens was in the nature of a contract. These creatures could reasonably expect to be killed and eaten with or without human intervention; in return for their flesh we gave them food, shelter and a peaceful life until the end. Whatever the merits of this argument may once have been, they no longer apply. We have broken our side of the bargain. Meat is now produced with brutal capitalist efficiency which means a short, cramped, hellish life for the animal.

Another consideration, which bears directly on the seal-hunt, is the whole question of regarding wild animals as a "resource" to be "harvested." This leads to very unbalanced wild-life management policies and springs directly from our blindness to the reality of animals as living beings with real conscious experiences independent of our concerns. When we consider any policy relating to animals we ought to ask ourselves "what does this feel like for the animal?" This is a question, I'm afraid, that is mostly ignored.

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