There’s a good chance that Huntwatch will break your heart. There’s no question that it will anger you.
Both are reasons for seeing this often hard-to-watch documentary about Canada’s commercial seal slaughter, but nothing is more convincing than one indelible sequence early in the film: A grieving mother seal tries to stop the bloody carcass of her pup—a hakapik still embedded in her baby’s head—from being dragged away by a sealer.
Huntwatch, which premiered recently on the Discovery Channel, is narrated by native Canadian Ryan Reynolds (also the star of Deadpool), who has criticized the slaughter for years.
Left: © StarMaxInc.com | Right: Public Domain
The film exposes the killing in all of its bloody cruelty.
Sealers use a variety of weapons, including clubs, rifles, and “hakapiks”—heavy wooden clubs topped by a barbed metal hammer head. They often hook the pups in the eye, cheek, or mouth to avoid damaging their fur, then drag them across the ice to skin them, sometimes while they’re alive. The carcasses are usually piled on the ice and left to rot.
Most of the seals who are slaughtered are less than 3 months old. This spring, more than 60,000 seal pups were shot or bludgeoned to death.
Brian Davies, the lead activist featured in the film, first witnessed the slaughter more than 50 years ago, when hundreds of thousands of pups were being killed every spring.
The Canadian government wanted to tamp down criticism of the massacre and asked him and other observers to suggest ways to “improve” it. Now 81, Davies hasn’t forgotten that moment when he got off the helicopter and saw a pup being skinned alive.
“I made eye connection with the seal and could feel the terror and pain [the pup] was feeling,” he says.
The other observers returned with recommendations to make the killing less heinous. Davies was the only one to say that it had to be stopped.
Since 1969, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)—the organization he founded—has been trying to do that in a variety of ways, including by teaming up with PETA to transport a 12-meter-tall inflatable baby seal around Canada.
Every spring, observers ignore death threats—in one sequence, a sealer with a knife chases a camera crew—and fly to the ice floes of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to document the cruelty of the commercial slaughter.
The images of carnage on the ice provoked international outrage to the point that, in 1987, the government called off the killing. But the victory was temporary. When the cod fishery collapsed five years later from overfishing, opportunistic politicians began looking for a scapegoat and blamed the decline on the harp seals. The massacre was reinstated.
Activists responded with another major blow after they flew two representatives of the European Union (EU) to the waters off Newfoundland to witness the bloodbath. In 2009, the EU banned the import of all seal-derived goods, with the exception of those from Inuits. So far, 35 countries have instituted trade bans, including Russia—which was importing about 95 percent of Canadian seal skins.
Undeterred, the Canadian government continues to waste taxpayer money on subsidies for the dying industry—votes from the Eastern provinces are prized in Parliament—and is (unsuccessfully) pursuing new markets in China.
“It’s good politics in Canada to be in favor of the seal hunt,” says cinematographer Stephen Best.
After devoting most of his life to saving seals, Davies turned the organization he founded over to a new generation. “If I had to do it again, would I do it again?” he asks. “In a heartbeat.”
His sentiment will be shared by anyone who sees Huntwatch.
Tell your family and friends about Canada’s cruel slaughter of baby seals, and urge them to contact the government to ask for an immediate end to the massacre.