Baby seals & bull calves bear the cruel weight of idolatry
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2004:
The 350,000 baby harp seals who were clubbed or shot and
often skinned alive on the ice floes off eastern Canada this spring
had more in common with the thousands of bull calves who were
abandoned at temples in India during the same weeks than just being
days-old mammals subjected to unconscionable mistreatment.
Unlike the much smaller numbers of seals who were killed off
Russia, Norway, and Finland, and unlike the somewhat smaller
numbers of bull calves who were shoved into veal crates here in the
U.S., Canadian harp seal pups and Indian surplus bull calves are
victims not only of human economic exploitation, but also of their
roles as icons and idols.
The words “icon” and “idol” have a common origin in the
ancient Greek word that means “image.” Yet they mean such different
things–and have for so long–that two of the Judaic Ten
Commandments, about setting no other God before the One God and not
worshipping graven images, sternly address the difference.
An icon is a physical image representative of a holy concept,
usually but not always depicting a person who is believed to have
exemplified the concept in the conduct of his or her life. Icons may
also depict animals, abstract symbols, supernatural beings, or
deities. A icon may be venerated for being symbolic of the holy
concept, but to venerate it for its own sake is considered idolatry,
and therefore wrong in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths,
as well as in some branches of other major religions.
To believers, an idol is an object equated with the holy concept
itself. Instead of seeking to understand what the idol represents,
the idol-worshipper reveres the thing instead of the thought,
failing to comprehend the values and ethics of which the thing may
have been meant to be a reminder.
This is much more than just a semantic concept. What it
means in reference to seal pups and bull calves is that even as
millions of people protest against the cruelty inflicted upon them,
powerful cultural forces are aligned to perpetuate the cruel
practices whether or not they have any purpose beyond maintaining the
What is going on, both on the ice of Atlantic Canada and in
dusty Indian villages, is that these young animals are caught at the
breaking edge of cultural transformation.
The break-up includes fracturing the old alliances between
animal advocates and environmentalists in the west, and between
animal advocates and Hindu and Jain social conservatives in the east.
Harp seal pups over the past half century have in North
America and Europe become more emblematic than any other creatures of
the idea that every animal life has moral value, even if the animal
is not an endangered species, economically useful, or “man’s best
This is why major environmental groups, aligned with
hunter/conservationists on habitat issues, long since abandoned
opposition to the Atlantic Canadian seal hunt. The enviros say that
the issue for them is simply that seals are not endangered, but the
rhetoric used in the denial is revealing.
Explained Greenpeace Quebec spokesperson Steven Guilbault in
an April 2004 interview with Canadian Press, “People aren’t talking
about climate change, the ozone layer or genetically modified
organisms. Our role is to work on issues that are particularly
Nothing is more “particularly urgent” than pain, and no
remarks could be more indicative of the loss of moral focus in
But even if Greenpeace Quebec does not give a damn about
animal suffering, it certainly should give a damn about the seal
hunt, even within the narrow compass of concerns that Guilbault
The editor of ANIMAL PEOPLE, as a young reporter working in
rural Quebec, produced extensive coverage of climate change more than
20 years ago, before anyone at Greenpeace Quebec knew enough about
it to produce an intelligent quote. One of the most profound effects
of global warming on Atlantic Canada, believed to be well underway,
is expected to be transformation of the coastal habitat such that the
depleted cod stock will never recover, no matter how many seals are
killed in the name of helping the cod and the out-of-work cod fishers
who more than a decade ago hunted them to commercial extinction.
Another inevitable effect of global warming is that that the ice
floes where harp seals give birth are gradually forming later,
melting sooner. Already scarce ice and ice giving way beneath young
seals have jeopardized seal reproduction in some traditional birthing
areas. The combination of a three-year quota of more than one
million seal pups, probable huge over-estimates of the seal
population, and continued global warming means that seals may be
truly on thin ice soon.
Greenpeace–and other environment groups–are ignoring the
Atlantic Canadian seal hunt not because it is not logically among
their core issues, but rather because they have opted to align
themselves with the “sustainable use” ideology of the World Wildlife
Fund and the rest of the hunter/conservationist crowd, against the
notion that all sentient beings deserve to be treated with kindness.
Surplus bull calves, to the fifth of humanity residing in
India, have been emblematic of some of the same ideas that animal
lovers invest in harp seals for more than 3,000 years. The yoke,
the plough, and the bullock cart for 30 centuries symbolized a
partnership of human and beast that incorporated the concept of owing
lifetime care to the animals who help to create human wealth.
In reality, the castrations were brutal, the bullocks were
often flogged and overworked, and very few bullocks–unlike
economically productive milk cows–were ever actually retired to the
gaushalas, gossadans, and pinajarpoles that were supposed to look
after them when they became old and lame. The ratio of bull calves
to cows born may always have been too high for most villages to
absorb. But even the pretense that bull calves could be worth their
keep for the value of their work and their dung, as well as for
their moral stature, disintegrated with the advent of mechanization.
The stratagem of leaving bull calves tied outside temples as
“offerings” evolved as a means for Hindu farmers to rid themselves
of an economic burden by conveying the animals through a holy
intermediary to the mostly Muslim and sometimes Christian brokers who
would claim and slaughter them. To sell the progeny of a cow to a
beef-eating Muslim or Christian without the temple as intermediary
would have been seen as profane, but with temple involvement the
transaction could proceed without guilt–until Hindu nationalists
seized the chance to denounce Muslims and Christians for practicing
“cow slaughter,” while animal defenders, increasingly sensitized to
the plight of bull calves, began trying to save some.
These developments jeopardize the entire remnant of the
ancient Indian cow culture. If Muslims and Christians cannot kill
cattle, even for export, what will become of surplus bull calves?
Even if bullocks were used to replace motor vehicles, as many social
conservatives urge, India could not produce enough fodder to feed
the numbers of bullocks who would be needed to do the same amount of
work, and still feed more than three times as many people as resided
in India at independence from Britain in 1949.
The Indian animal welfare community has already rescued as
many bull calves as it can accommodate. The only answers are for
India to accept cattle slaughter, go vegan, or accept genetic
technology enabling far fewer cows to produce more milk, while
giving birth less often and only to more females. All of these are
politically problematic alternatives. Continued conflict over cattle
slaughter meanwhile still serves the political interests of Hindu
nationalist social conservatives, at an appalling cost in both
animal and human misery.
“Sea of Slaughter” & cow-slaughter
The Atlantic Canadian seal hunt and the Indian bull calf
surplus are among the most persistent and difficult humane issues to
address effectively because they arise from ideas that are genuinely
central to how whole cultures view themselves.
Defenders of almost every commercial, recreational, or
institutional form of animal abuse try to rationalize it as central
to someone’s culture. The Atlantic Canadian seal hunt and the Indian
bull calf surplus are the genuine cultural article. The seal hunt,
as Farley Mowat documented in Sea of Slaughter (1984) is the last
gasp of a way of life which for more than 400 years has
survived–often only marginally–through the massacre of all marine
life within reach of the residents of territory so inhospitable that
without the proximity of sea creatures it might otherwise never have
been settled. Whales, many sea birds, cod, and Atlantic salmon
were each hunted to the verge of regional extirpation. Northern
manatees, great auks, and within the past few decades barndoor
skates were entirely extinguished. Sealing and lobstering exploit
the last species remaining in at least transient commercially viable
If global warming, aggressive hunting, and lack of
regulatory restraint enable Atlantic Canadian fishers to annihilate
seals and lobsters as thoroughly as they annihilated cod during the
1980s, the outcome will eventually be the extinction of their
culture too. Few have the education or the resources to cope in
other ways of life. They do, however, usually hold the swing vote
in the regionally divided national politics of Canada, and their
elected representatives can be depended upon to continue to use
leverage toward perpetuating the maritime hunting culture for as long
“Beater” harp seals meanwhile serve as scapegoats for the
frustrations of fishers and hunters who have never managed to kill
their way to genuine prosperity and security, and never will. Every
seal whom the hunters club or shoot represents to them not only the
protesters who have struggled for half a century to stop them, but
also the whole of the world that has passed them by, and now views
them with disgust and disdain.
The iconic status of the seals among both protesters and
sealers is more obvious than the idolatry of the Canadian political
establishment. Yet idolatry occurs when all major Canadian political
parties and even the minority Greens pay homage to preserving and
protecting the Atlantic Canadian traditional culture, at any cost to
species who do not vote. The only real clout this false god has is
at the ballot box. Yet that is enough to prevent any leader with
national aspirations from expressing the heresy that the false god of
maritime culture should be toppled, allowing a new and perhaps much
more sparsely populated Atlantic Canada to develop around the few
non-exploitative occupations that the habitat allows.
Surplus bull calves, a rarity in India 50 years ago, have
meanwhile become representative of not only religious conflict but
also of many of the secular conflicts most stressing the
subcontinent. When Hindus speak of the cow as the “Mother of India,”
and India as the mother of humanity, there is history as well as
ethnocentric conceit behind the remarks, and the history still very
much matters. Though the iconic status of cows and cattle in India
is almost unique in the modern world, those of us whose ancestors
lived to the north and west of India speak mostly Indo-European
languages. Western cultural iconography long ago subsumed cows to
cowboys and bulls to bullfighters, but the importance of cow-herding
as a cultural foundation is as ubiquitous as cow’s milk. Those whose
ancestors lived to the east of India are mostly not milk-drinkers,
but were profoundly influenced by Buddhism, directly or indirectly,
which originated as a Hindu reform movement.
Now Indian diaspora has scattered Hindus around the globe,
while ever increasing contact with the west may have changed Indian
ways of life more in the past half century than they had changed in
several millennia. Cattle, and what humans owe to them, especially
those who are economically unproductive, are at the heart of the
question as to whether Hindus can keep their identity in the greater
world–or want to.
Among the challenges ahead for the Indian animal welfare
movement is developing a response to surplus bull calves which works
in the modern world without accepting western-style wholesale
Ahimsa is the Jain word meaning to do no harm. Mahavir, the last of
the Jain prophets, a contemporary of the Buddha, taught that as
well as practicing “live and let live,” a moral person must help
others live, including animals. Former British
military officers who encountered the teachings of Mahavir while
serving in India founded the London Society for the Prevention of
Cruelty to Animals in 1824, which became the Royal SPCA. The
extended concept of ahimsa voiced by Mahavir nearly 3,000 years ago
thus helped to inspire the humane movements of both east and west.
The Indian response to the surplus bull calf problem will be a
significant test of whether ahimsa is at last ready to take root and
grow as a way of life, as well as a professedly revered ideal, in
the land from whence it sprung.
Both the Atlantic Canadian harp seal hunt and the Indian
surplus bull calf dilemma are regional issues of global implications.
They differ in that the world is aware of the gratuitous brutality of
the seal hunt, yet–outside of India–the world knows and cares
little about surplus bull calves, either there or anywhere else.