Second Nature: The 1985 book that took on the anti-sealing activists

God help the animal rights activist who steps into an elevator with Alan Herscovici. 

Herscovici’s 1985 book, Second Nature, is a vivisection of the anti-sealing movement, with the focus on a handful of villains whose names one imagines Herscovici struggling to say without spitting: Greenpeace, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and several influential Germans who led the political part of the campaign. 

IMG-3176Outrage aside, Herscovici documents the anti-sealing campaign in journalistic detail and fleshes this out with theory about why, in the mid-80s, this pitched battle over animal rights centred on remote and un-endangered seals instead of, say, the animals subject to factory farming. 

He concludes that the save the seals campaign was simply extraordinarily profitable, and that the activists behind it genuinely (and also cynically) believed that the moral outrage it generated could be a tipping point for the wider application of animal rights. His views are now widely shared among people in the sealing and fur industries, yet the ideas laid out in this book remain unknown to many.

A few facts: Canadian seals in Newfoundland have been managed under a quota system since 1972. They were not, in the 1980s or afterwards, endangered or even seriously threatened in any way. The hunt for white coat seal pups has been banned in Canada since 1983. And yet if I google “save the seals” right now, up comes the image of the white-coat baby seal. 

One more fact: yes, the 1983 EEC ban on seal furs included an exemption for furs hunted by Inuit. But the hunt still died. That’s because when you destroy the market for furs, you destroy the value of the hunt. The exemption was a half-hearted, very ignorant effort to work around that ugly fact. 

It takes a lot of cynicism to know these facts and still use baby seal photos in a strident call for animal rights, as Herscovici repeatedly points out.

Here’s Bryan Davies of IFAW (one of Herscovici’s greatest villains) in conversation with some fisheries officers as a local breakfast joint after the seal hunt in Prince Edward Island was closed due to weather in 1981. “Well I guess we won that round,” Davies says. “You know full well that we were the ones that closed that hunt,” the fisheries officer tells him. “You know that,” Davies retorts, “and I know that … but the public’s not going to know that.”

Herscovici makes a strenuous effort to understand the militancy that drove the campaigns, reaching all the way back to the Bible, Descartes and various eastern religions to do so. In the end, he takes the view that it’s a spiritual crisis, part of a greater social adjustment to rapid industrialization and a resetting of man’s place in nature.

But he also points out that man’s place is nature could be better understood by listening to the men (and women) who make their livelihood from it: the sealers and the First Nations and Inuit hunters and trappers. A large chunk of this book is an attempt to add Indigenous people to a conversation to which they were simply not invited, despite the fact that these campaigns hurt them disproportionately. In addition to correcting this, Herscovici points out that people who want to protect animals should consider anyone who hunts, traps and gathers as an ally against the actual threat: industrial development like roads, hydroelectric projects and mines.

Herscovici likes big ideas like this. On the subject of vegetarianism, he pokes holes in the argument that the grain used to feed cattle could better be used to feed the world’s growing population. “If this grain were not used to feed cattle, it would not be grown at all… the meat-raising industry doesn’t merely consume grains, it is closer to the truth to say that it ‘creates’ it.”

This kinda thing makes for good reading.

The scenes of Nunavut politicians Peter Ittinuar and Peter Irniq at a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) meeting in Botswana are also a fun read, especially when Ittinuar breaks protocol to state bluntly that the anti-sealing campaign is all politics, bearing no relation to science or ecology.

Herscovici was the Canadian grandson of a furrier from Paris. He wrote this book to address claims that “seemed so absurd that the people involved felt no need to respond; they didn’t understand that the public can’t know which claims are absurd if the experts remain silent.” At the time, Herscovici was working as a journalist, but the subject of this book became his life’s work. He went on to lead the Fur Council of Canada for 20 years. Retired now, he’s still going strong, writing for the blog he founded, Truth about Fur, from which I took the above quote. 

Does anyone need to read this book now? Sadly, yes. The ideas here would still come as a surprise to many urban anti-sealers who know little of the facts on the ground. But good luck finding a copy (I got this one from the Saskatchewan library system courtesy of my mother’s library card). A better, more accessible choice would be Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s documentary Angry Inuk, which looks at the issue from a slightly different angle (and is also stunningly beautiful and moving).

But the groundwork for that film, and for much of the industry response to some of the specious claims of animal rights activists, is all right here.

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