Seals’ death sentence in Quebec halted, thanks to outcry from animal lovers

Harp seals Zak and Mika were scheduled to be put to death on Saturday.

They're not in the clear yet, but two harp seals may have been saved from their scheduled demise thanks to the outcry of horrified Canadians — and the quick intervention from a seal rescue and rehabilitation facility in British Columbia.

Last spring, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) captured two young harp seals, named Zak and Mika, to put them on display at the Aquarium des Îles-de-la-Madeleine in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Que.

"The practice has been going on for 25 years as part of the aquarium's efforts at attracting tourists and increasing public awareness on environmental challenges in the Gulf of St. Lawrence," the Globe and Mail's Rhéal Séguin reported, adding, "This year, however, rather than allow the seals to be released back into the ocean, as was the case every other fall, the DFO ordered the captured seals killed. It argued that the animals posed a threat of disease to other marine mammals and ordered the aquarium to euthanize them."

A seasonal employee learned of the plan and contacted animal rights' groups around the world.

The Island Wildlife Natural Care Centre (IWNCC) in B.C. launched a worldwide petition to save the seals, and called for tougher legislation that would better protect animals in captivity.

"I never heard of a situation quite like this. I don't think anybody has. This is why we have 130,000 signatures on a petition to save the seals. People were outraged," said Jeff Lederman, founder of the IWNCC.

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IWNCC stated: "We are almost speechless by this aquarium's loathsome and self-serving attitude towards wildlife. While we do not condone wild animals held in captivity, a responsible aquarium will, at the very least, provide year-round habitats."

The seals were slated to be killed on Saturday.

Lederman's group, with the help of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), proposed transporting the seals to New Brunswick's Atlantic Wildlife Institute for short-term rehabilitation before releasing Zak and Mika into the Bay of Fundy.

In response to the petition, Aquarium des Îles suggested it could send the seals to Oceanopolis, a facility in France, if petition supporters could fund the seals' temporary care in the meantime, an estimated $73,000, by September 21st.

The proposal failed to impress wildlife organizations.

"It feels a little like they're taking the seals hostage — like a ransom note: 'Now that you're upset, give us some money or we'll kill them,'" Michelle Cliffe, a spokesperson for the IFAW, told the Montreal Gazette. "We think it's the responsibility of an aquarium to have a plan and the finances to care for animals prior to taking on those animals."

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While activists and organizations struggle to find the best timely solution for the harp seals, larger questions are being asked:

Why is the DFO capturing marine animals in the first place — at taxpayers' expense? If it knew the seals couldn't be released into the wild, and the department had no plans to care for them long-term, why did it capture them anyway? And, perhaps most importantly, why is there such a lack of legislation protecting marine animals, both in captivity and in the wild?

Zak and Mika's story isn't the only one raising red flags about Canada's in-captivity marine life.

The recent testimonies of Marineland workers about poor living conditions — including contaminated water — for its captive marine life moved more than 76,000 Canadians to petition McGuinty's government to enact laws and regulations that would better protect animals in captivity in Canada.

Bullet News Niagara reports that Canadian regulations concerning marine life in captivity pale in comparison to American regulations, calling the rules in the Provincial Animal Welfare Act as "vague and subjective at best."

(Photo courtesy Îles-de-la-Madeleine)