TORONTO — This is a story about a piglet, a gutted seal and a shelter for animals. They each made news last week and together revealed the ambiguities in the debate about the treatment of animals.
It began with the Monday morning rush hour in Toronto. Computer engineer Brian Bowes was driving to work on Highway 401, the city’s busiest, when he spotted a piglet “shivering like crazy” on the side of the road. He pulled over and picked it up.
Fears of swine flu weren’t going to deter Bowes. He was moved by what he described as a more powerful force: “I’m a regular animal lover.”
The piglet was two or three months old. It weighed about 10 pounds and had a broken leg. Bowes, 31, placed it on the back seat of his car and drove it to the Toronto Humane Society, a well-established and independent animal shelter. The media, always ready with a label, dubbed Bowes a good samaritan.
Officials at the humane society speculated that the piglet must have slipped through the breathing slats of a truck transporting livestock to a “factory pig farm,” where it would have been fattened for slaughter. The piglet, society officials made clear, saved itself from a gruesome end.
It will undergo surgery and, once healed, will either go to a hobby farm or petting zoo. To the media, it was fodder for cliches: “Great escape means she won’t be the B in your BLT,” said one newspaper. “This little piggy didn’t make it to market,” said another.
The humane society named it Wiggles.
The next day, another animal story got the whole country talking.
Governor General Michaelle Jean, Canada’s acting head of state, was in the north for a week-long visit of nine Inuit communities. A former journalist, Jean is Canada’s first black governor general. Elegant and intelligent, she’s as comfortable chatting with U.S. President Barack Obama as she is gutting a seal with Inuit elders. The latter activity, however, got her far more international attention than the former.
In the Inuit community of Rankin Inlet, Jean attended a festival and was presented with the carcass of a seal. Jean dug in. First, she used a traditional ulu knife to cut away at the skin. Then, an elder handed her a piece of heart. She ate it, proclaimed it “absolutely delicious,” and wiped her bloody fingers with tissue.
Anyone who has visited Inuit communities would recognize the scene as familiar. It is, quite simply, what the Inuit do. Where we might offer guests cookies, they offer seal. And they offer it raw, because that’s how they eat it.
The scene reminded Joe Fiorito, the best city columnist in Canada, of his time as manager of the CBC radio station in the northern Inuit town of Iqaluit.
“Every year, there was a spring festival — traditional games, a community feast, a seal-skinning contest,” he wrote in the Toronto Star. “My first year, the winner snicked off the skin in 38 seconds, and then he carved out an eyeball and threw it into the crowd.
“One of our journalists, a woman named Elisapee, snagged the eyeball like she was Willie Mays, popped it in her mouth and swallowed it whole. The person next to me, a woman from Quebec, threw up on the snow.
“Five hunters took part in that skinning contest; when the last man finished, the elders came forward and were given the precious bits; at the end, nothing remained, not even the guts,” Fiorito wrote.
But in Jean’s case, animal rights activists only saw red. A spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals used words like “Neanderthal” and “blood lust” to describe her cultural encounter. She was accused of making a political statement to support the commercial seal hunt — most of it practiced by non-natives — at a time when the European Union has banned its products.
Jean insisted she was only sharing in the culture of a people who have been hunting seal in a sustainable way for centuries. PETA, bizarrely, compared that to “taking part in the beating of women in the Middle East because it is part of local practice.”
Canadians are divided about the commercial hunt of baby seals. Many on both sides of the issue note the hypocrisy of Europeans squeamish about the clubbing of seals, yet gluttonous about rack of lamb and baby cows. But on the Jean debate the country was virtually unanimous: She instantly became a national hero.
“The governor general should be given one of her own medals for this,” said CBC commentator Rex Murphy.
The week ended with an investigation by the Globe and Mail newspaper of the Toronto Human Society, the new home of Wiggles, the piglet escape artist.
Reporter Kate Hammer obtained society documents noting that between January 2008 and April 2009, nearly twice as many animals — 1,843 — died inside the shelter than were euthanized.
The article quoted society staff members saying many died slow, agonizing deaths in their cages. They suggested that animals are left to suffer unnecessarily because of the society’s no-euthanasia policy.
“It is heart-wrenching,” said Magdalena Smrdelj, a veterinarian at the society. "I’ve watched critically ill animals suffer and die in my hands while I run around trying to get permission to euthanize.”
The society’s president, Tim Trow, defended its practices: “We do our best with every animal.” He said he strives to keep euthanasia rates low for ethical reasons.
But the society’s medical charts suggest some animals were loved to a painful death. A note written by a volunteer or staff member on the chart of a cat admitted last fall reads: “Died Oct. 19 3:15 a.m. Gasped and jerked and cried last breaths, because there was no one in shelter to euthanize or treat. This is not humane!”
Among other examples cited is the tale of Bobik, an old dog that spent more than a year at the shelter. He suffered from arthritis, hip dysplasia, alopecia and deafness. Cancer forced the amputation of one of his legs. In the last days of his life, “his breathing was labored, saliva dripped from his mouth and there was blood in his stool,” the article said.
“On the afternoon of May 12 (2007), after bleeding from his anus for two days, Bobik died,” it added. Two veterinarians said most shelters would have put Bobik down and spared him the suffering.
Many are hoping Wiggles has a better experience.
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