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March 14, 2008

The Canadian Seal Hunt: An Interview with J. M. Coetzee

The HSUS speaks with Nobel prize winner about his opposition to the seal kill

The Humane Society of the United States

Nobel-prize laureate John Maxwell "J.M." Coetzee is originally from Cape Town, South Africa. The common themes of humanism and opposition to animal cruelty run through both his fiction and non-fiction literature.

Coetzee is a three-time winner of the Central News Agency Literary Award (also known as the CNA Prize), and he was the first author to be awarded the Booker Prize twice: for "Life & Times of Michael K" in 1983 and for "Disgrace" in 1999. In 2003, Coetzee became the fourth African writer to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. He is also the holder of many other awards and recognitions for his profound work.

Much of Coetzee's writing exists on keynote comparisons between humans and animals in attempts to explore what it means to be human. In his novel, "Disgrace," Lucy, the daughter of the disgraced lead character David Lurie, tells her father in his desperation to find direction in his life that, "This is the only life there is. Which we share with animals."

Coetzee's themes of animals and humans coexisting as counterparts ring true in the author's life as well. In previous interviews he has noted his desire to change peoples' hearts in order to change the way animals are treated. Recently, he spoke with The HSUS's Pat Ragan about the Canadian seal hunt.


The HSUS: A number of your books have dealt with the darker side of humanity. How did you first become sensitized to the plight of animals in our society?

J.M. Coetzee:  I have always been sensitive to the plight of animals. Children are by nature responsive to animals. They don't see the species difference as a huge barrier. Some children lose that fellow-feeling in the process of being socialized. Other's don't.

HSUS: When did you first become aware of commercial seal hunting? What was your reaction?

JMC:  I can't remember when exactly. Many years ago, when pictures of  the Canadian seal hunt first hit the front pages. My initial reaction was of horror, like most people's—horror at images of big men beating helpless little creatures with beautiful dark eyes to death. My second thought was: Is this much different from what goes on in abattoirs every day?

HSUS:  As you may know, South Africa has one of the strongest laws in the world to protect seals, and has outlawed commercial seal hunting since 1990. Yet, just over the border in Namibia, there is a large commercial slaughter of nursing baby seals. Do you have any thoughts on why these neighboring countries have such differing approaches towards seals?

JMC: I don't know enough about the economics of fishing/sealing in Namibia to make an informed comment.

HSUS:  Similarly, the United States banned commercial seal hunting in 1972, but the Canadian government supports and even subsidizes Canada's commercial seal hunt. While most Canadians oppose the commercial seal hunt, the Canadian government defends it as an important tradition. Do you think tradition can justify the commercial slaughter of seals or any other animal?

JMC: One might as well argue that because Canada used to hang convicted murderers by the neck until they were dead the tradition should not be allowed to disappear. Sealing in Canada is not a tradition, it is just an unenlightened, outdated practice.

HSUS: South Africa, Namibia, Canada and Russia have thriving seal watch ecotourism industries—have you ever been able to see seals in their natural environment?

JMC:  I have rowed around Seal Island in False Bay, the eastern bay of the Cape Peninsula, and watched seals enjoying a fairly normal life. (For the sake of historical accuracy I ought to say that these visits to the seals took place in the 1980s, when the seals of Seal Island were still quite wary of strangers—fisherman regularly visited the island too, bearing rifles, and shot the inhabitants dead.)

HSUS: A number of countries have banned their trade in seal products, and the European Union is now considering a ban on all seal product trade within the EU. What are your thoughts on the responsibilities of governments to end their trade in unethical products?

JMC: The phrase "unethical products" means different things to different people. I should think that to any dispassionate observer all products of murder are unethical. But I don't foresee the EU or any other governmental agency banning trade in the products of murder anytime soon.

HSUS: Millions of people—including a number of prominent authors such as Farley Mowat, Timothy Findlay, Michael Ondaatje, Barbara Gowdy and yourself—have spoken out against Canada's commercial seal hunt. What is it about this slaughter that provokes such strong reactions from the public?

JMC:  In the first place, baby seals are highly photogenic. In the second place, they are entirely helpless and haven't the faintest idea of what is about to happen to them. In the third place, even the hardest-hearted among us has private reservations about killing creatures that have barely tasted the sweetness of life. In the fourth place, the people who do the killing are very unappealing, very unphotogenic.

HSUS: One of our greatest challenges in this campaign is that most people are unaware commercial seal hunting still happens. What kind of role do you believe fiction can play in exposing animal issues to people around the world?

JMC: Documentary images are more immediate and more powerful than anything fiction can do.

HSUS: Societal oppression of both people and animals has been a recurring theme in your novels. Do you see a connection between violence towards people and violence towards animals?

JMC: That is not a connection I care to make. In the first place, quite pacific societies slaughter animals on a large scale. In the second place, if we are going to reform our behavior toward animals we should not be doing so for some ulterior motive, e.g. reforming our behavior toward members of our own species.

HSUS: One of your characters, Elizabeth Costello, talks about kindness being a universal quality and that children all over the world have a natural affinity for animals and have to be taught that it is acceptable to kill them for human consumption. Given that it is our natural instinct to treat animals kindly, do you think we are making progress in countering what we have been taught for thousands of years—that it is acceptable to cause animals to suffer for our own purposes?

JMC: It depends on what you mean by "we." At the same time that a segment of the educated middle class in the West is having second thoughts about treating animals as if they are things, demand for "animal products"—that is, pieces of dead animals—grows apace among newly prosperous peoples of the world who until very recently felt themselves starved of meat.

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