People have asked me about some of my past animal campaign experiences. First and foremost; I am a live animal transport person. But as with this site; there are other issues which I also feel strongly about; and the slaughter of innocent baby seal pups in Russia was one of them. So here goes – memories of some of the work revolving around being a voice for the baby seals. It was a long campaign as you can see, but eventually the effort paid off; Russian seal pup slaughter was stopped.
One issue that I was very pleased (and proud) to have been involved with in the past was that regarding the saving of thousands of baby Whitecoat seal pups in the Archangelsk region of Russia. I campaigned with a fantastic animal advocate; and someone who became a very good friend; Robert Mouland, (pictured below) from the town of Folkestone in my home county of Kent which is located directly South East of London.
After many years of intensive campaigning; we finally had a victory for the pups – the Russian authorities stopped the slaughter of all whitecoat pups. My written records of the campaign say nothing more at the end of a massive fight other than a simple ‘Job Done’. The baby seals were saved.
I vividly remember many things that were done on that campaign; as they are with so many issues; but one in particular was when Bob (Robert) dressed up as Father Christmas in order to get into the Russian Embassy here in London. He made it, got through security and I think he even got to meet the Russian Ambassador here at the time; to give his objections to the hunt.
We never had any support for the massacre from the then Prime Minister, John Major. He just ignored all requests and literature that was sent to him asking for help. So years later, after John Major had quit politics and instead turned to his memoirs in book form, Bob decided once again to pounce. Mr Major was at a book signing ‘thing’ in Folkestone; and being a good citizen, Bob joined the queue for the book signature. When he got to the table after a while, Mr Major asked him who he wanted the book signed for. ‘For all the baby Russian seal pups you committed to death’ was the response – and Bob let further rip telling John Major that he was ‘evil’. The whole place turned blue and security arrived en masse to eject Bob from the facility. I thought it was great – all those years on and still John Major was being reminded of his failings for the baby Whitecoats ! – the incident made the local press:
The following is a part of Mark’s written memories of the Russian seal pup campaign. Photographs show the Russian seal pup farms, Mark and Robert campaigning at Downing St., London, as well as with senior MEP’s from the European Parliament when they took their campaign to Brussels, Belgium. That was another incident which started the day with Belgian police pulling and aiming their guns at us. Things like that sometime happen; as we say in England ‘shit happens’; and after some discussions with members of the European Parliament and the Belgian police; things calmed down and we were allowed to do our protest. Read more later on about this in Part 2.
The netted seal pup photo shows how baby seals, if they were not killed on the ice, were transported back to seal farms; to be killed at a later date when their coats had changed colour. This ‘farming’ issue was the biggest difference to the Canadian seal pup murders which are still happening as I write this in 2020. – where young suckling babies are killed on the ice directly rather than being ‘farmed’ for a short period before they were killed.
Harp Seal – sub order: Pinnipedia.
There were basically 3 separate major seal populations within Russia; the Eastern, Central and Western herds, with original numbers probably around the 3 million mark, A very limited number of European nations engaged in taking harp seals in the Spring months to supplement their catch of bow head whales during the rest of the year. As seal stocks gradually became depleted, hunting was controlled by the former USSR, Denmark, Norway and Greenland.
In doing this control, the White Sea herds of the Russian White Sea region recovered gradually to its level of around one half of a million. In 1965, commercial sealing was stopped in the former USSR except for the hunting of the seal pups. Harp seals can live naturally for over 35 years; they feed mainly on herring and polar cod, and also crustaceans if possible.
In the January / February months of each year, pregnant females eat heavily due to the requirement to put on large amounts of blubber which is then converted to produce milk for baby pup offspring. Pregnant females give birth to their young pups once they have come onto the winter ice pack during late February or early March, following a gestation period of around 10 months. The new born pups are approximately 80 to 90 cm in length and weigh anywhere between 5 and 11 kg. At first, their coat colouring is yellow rather than a pure white; it is only after approximately 2 to 3 days post birth that the pups fur turns into what we familiarly know as a ‘whitecoat’.
As the milk on which they feed contains up to 45% fat, as compared to approximately 4% from typical cows milk, the young pups almost triple their weight in the first 12 days of their lives. They are nursed for about 12 days by their mothers, before being abandoned. Weaned pups usually weigh anywhere between 34 and 40 kg at 18 days of age; more than half of this weight is comprised of blubber. After reaching 18 days, the young pup completely sheds it whitecoat; this is replaced by a short silvery coat which is flexed with dark spots. At this stage in their life the pups are being called ‘Beaters’.
The beater period usually lasts for approximately one year; with full moulting taking place after around four weeks during early April. By the time it has reached its sixth week, a young pup can swim and take on regular food in the form of crustaceans. Over the next four years up until the age of approximately 5, that the beaters gradually lose their spots.
In the mid-1990s, in the Arkhangelsk region of Russia, were located approximately 19,500 out of a total of 30k to 31,000 seal pups to be hunted. The remainder were allocated to other regions within Russia; however, these quotas were sold back to the Arkhangelsk region, who took the whole quota. of Russia’s 31,000+ quota. Approximately 4,500 pups were taken alive and delivered by helicopter to what was known as ‘seal farms’.
The remainders not shipped to the farms would be killed directly on the ice as baby whitecoats. The size of the annual quota was recommended by scientists at the Arkhangelsk branch of the Polar Research Institute of Marine Fisheries and Oceanography. One of the key parameters in setting an annual quota for the seal pup hunt was directly related to fish stocks, which had declined to the pre-mid-90s due to overfishing; though not by seals !. The final decision was primarily political, taking in a joint Russian / Norwegian forum style. Any contracts were supposed to be fully enforced by fisheries inspectors with a group of four or five inspectors counting every animal caught. Allegedly, if it was noted that more animals were caught than allowed for under the quota, there were supposedly supposed to be heavy fines. But as the quota enforcement was undertaken by a local fishery collective, it was often the case that it was very difficult to enforce any of the quotas originally set.
Above – Typical Seal Pup Farms
A typical Russian seal pup farm contained approximately 4,500 pups which were delivered alive to seal farms located on the White Sea coast. The remaining 26,000+ animals were killed directly on the ice as whitecoats. Hunts normally took place in early March, with reconnaissance being undertaken by scientists who identified the optimum time for the hunt. This was when pregnant females had travelled down into the White Sea area and began breeding en masse on the ice flows; hunters were delivered to the ice flows by chartered helicopters belonging to national airline.
Weather permitting, approximately 7-8 helicopters were used, flying on average around 4 to 6 hours each per day. Whitecoats which were killed directly on the ice, were killed by a blow across the top of the head or blows made by the blunt end of a gaff. One blow was usually sufficient to kill the animal, but inexperience on the part of some sealers meant that more than one blow had to be used. The initial blow to the nose or skull was followed by a ‘brain spiking’ which was supposed to prevent a return to consciousness.
The baby seals were not bled on the ice as there was a fear that this process would ‘spoil’ the fur; but when a certain number of dead or unconscious pups were collected, these were all loaded into a special net device which was collected by any one of the helicopters. On arrival at the collection point, the helicopter would disperse an empty net, whilst at the same time collecting a full net of dead seals to be delivered back to base.
A Netted Pup
Once the full quota of whitecoats had been taken from the ice, the operation was stopped and the attention turned instead to the catching of the moulders to be taken to the seal farms. The capturing, transportation, confinement and eventual inhumane killing at the farms meant that pups were continually inflicted with a great amount of stress and suffering.. Seal farming was started because there was a market for pelts from beater pups; with these pelts being soft and silver grey covered with black spots. Around this time the coat becomes thicker and stronger and the quality of the fur generally improves. And so some live pups had to be kept until they became beaters; and this was done on the farms.
The basic theory of the seal farming policy is that young pups are captured shortly after abandonment by their mother; they are held in fenced enclosures until they are fully moulted; at which time they are killed and pelted. It is generally agreed that the practice of seal ‘farming’ causes more stress and suffering to the seal pups rather than the direct killing of them on the ice. In the farms, many pups who was still underage and not fully weaned, would try to suckle from other pups.
For the capturing of the farm pups, groups of sealers were taken to the ice flows by helicopter; individual pups were restrained in individual sack type nets, after which they were emptied into larger metal containers. Around 20 pups could be transported in one metal container, which were flown back to the farms where the seal pups were unloaded and restrained in a series of fenced ‘pens’ each about the size of a tennis court. During confinement at the farm the pups were not fed; with many succumbing to disease which was generally attributed to both overcrowding and stress of their capture and transportation.
Mouth Bleeding – A typical Sign of Stress In Young Seals
On the farms many of the pups would suffer from mouth infections which was considered a typical sign of extreme stress. Congealed blood combined with ice was often seen to be hanging from their mouths; something which was never seen under normal circumstances in the wild. On the farms the pups were under constant 24-hour guard, with tall watchtowers and guards overlooking each of the penned / court sized areas. When the coats of the pups had reached the correct stage, the pups were killed, normally in batches of about 50 by injection under the flipper using a drug named Dithyllinum.
This drug produces death by immobilising the skeletal respiratory muscle; in other words the animal suffocated to death because it is unable to breathe. As a sideline, this is fairly typical of the type of drugs and systems used to kill stray dogs in Serbia and the Balkans; something which we have also worked hard on for years. When any animal is given a dose of this drug, it only becomes paralysed in its breathing function, and as such it is impossible to see whether the animal is actually dead or alive.
Above – A ‘Beater Coat’ Pup
Information – Read more about the Serbian strays at our other site; SAV – https://serbiananimalsvoice.com/about-serbian-animals/
As an animal welfare campaigner, there are one hell of a lot of issues that currently involve animals and absolutely disgust m each and every day. Anything and everything to do with the fur industry is just one of those issues; and this was one of the major factors that influenced me to try and help out Robert with his fight for justice for the young / baby seals of the White Sea region of Russia. There is nothing hidden in fact that the fur from beater pups is one of the most popular furs used in both peaked caps (pictured below) and some forms of fur coats. A lot is sold within Russia, but beater further is also popular both in Norway and in Denmark, two nations which regularly take part in Russian fur auctions. The Norwegians were alleged to have processed Russian beater pelts and then sold them on after further processing; most probably within the EU.
The pitiful end product of a baby White coat seal is its fur being used in hats and earflaps etc. There were / are allegations that it whitecoat pelts from Russia were reportedly sold direct to Norway. At the time of my deep involvement in this issue with Robert, many whitecoat pelts from the White Sea region of Russia were being dyed in order to improve and develop wider markets. It was really almost an impossibility for anyone at the time to detect the origin of any such furs, as furs from many different sources are mixed at the auctions; combine this with the fact that whitecoats furs were often dyed brown before sale and you have (as low budget animal welfare groups will tell you) an almost impossible task to get any real proof of what you’re after.
Boxed Beaters Delivered for Skin Processing
Dead Seal Pups in Box
At the time in the mid-90s, Norway itself had a ban on the killing of seal pups of the year; ie. those being under six months of age; and yet it, Norway purchased furs from Russia for sale. Denmark was bound by the European Commission (EU) ban on the import of whitecoats furs, and yet at the time really took no action to prevent the purchasing of beater furs which are generalised as causing even more suffering. There was always a question of, unknowingly, the fact that Denmark had purchased whitecoat furs at auctions and imported them into the EU by this method. This was our gripe with the EU and we wanted to change it !
At the time in the mid-90s, the effectiveness of the EU was up for question, (it still is in 2020) as it was possible that Russian seal pups could be captured and moulted, and then their whitecoat furs be dyed colours such as Brown; only then to be traded within the EU by nations such as Denmark. Back in Russia, the blubber from these farmed seals was used as feed for poultry farms, with meat being sold on to fur farms where it was rendered down and used as food for other captive fur bearing animals. Investigations found out that some of the meat from Russian seal pups was used to manufacture a product known as ‘Backtophoc’; which was a medium used for medical purposes. Little was really known about this as the product was labelled as ‘commercial in confidence’, and as such, very little was available for further investigation. However, it was known and documented that the drying equipment for the process of ‘Backtophoc’ production had oddly enough, been provided by Denmark.
It was not uncommon for the capacity of ‘normal’ Russian fur farms to be able to deal with over 20,000 Arctic foxes and over 120,000 mink. Some Russian experts were open in admitting that the killing of seal pups on both the ice and in seal farms were inhumane, and that the development of ecotourism was viewed as much more viable alternative. Ecotourism also gained widespread local support as an initiative from many sectors of the Russian communities. And so, having knowledge of this information and the real expertise on the subject from Robert, the view was taken that something further had to be done at EU level.
Cut to late Summer 1996 – I (Mark) am in the back garden of a friend and fellow campaigner (Clare and her husband David) who runs a cat sanctuary at Kingsdown which is near to Deal on the Kent coast – it still exists to this day – https://www.kingsdowncatsanctuary.org/ .
It is a beautiful Sunday afternoon and a group of us are having tea and biscuits (how very typically English !) whilst discussing possible routes to be taken for further Russian seal pup actions. Robert is there and very much casually directing us through his thoughts and views on where we go and what we do. After a short while we have basically produced an action plan – firstly, we tackle the UK government at Downing Street (London) to try and get the (then) Prime Minister John Major to bring up the issue of Russian sealing when he either visits Russia, or he uses the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office for communications directly with the Russian authorities, or also, when he has Russian diplomats to visit him at Downing Street.
Secondly, we take our campaign directly to the heart of Europe; the EU in Brussels, Belgium, with the hope of meeting a Commissioner to discuss the trade and the import of pelts (into the EU) from non EU states such as Norway.
Whatever we were to do, we need some publicity; as anything good and decent always does. So, what was it ? – to cut a long story short, we end up planning the Downing Street efforts into something for Easter the following year.
By planning ahead we can take a few months to produce and obtain signatures for the thousands of individual petition cards which we would personally deliver to PM Major. And as it will be Easter, what shall the cards all be delivered in ? – a very large Easter egg; that should go down well with the ever present mass of media photographers in ‘the Street’, and obtain a much needed boost to our fight for the Russian baby seals. After the London efforts we can then divert our campaign into Europe and hopefully with the support of Members of the European parliament (MEP’s), get a foot in the door towards a meeting with the EU trade commissioner.
It is going to be hard work and the timescale for producing and printing the petition cards was short, as well as getting them all individually signed (by people on the street) was rather a tall order; but we were committed and decided without hesitation to go for it. Robert gets full backing from all present ‘in the garden’ to move ahead with his plans. Mr. Mark Watts MEP; a great guy and animal advocate had volunteered his time to support Robert and us with our presentation of all the cards in Downing Street in an attempt to try and make the subject a little more attractive to all the photographers who wait directly opposite Number 10.
I decided that for the day in London I would try and take on the role of a Russian seal pup Hunter. To do this I borrowed a couple of Roberts life-size soft seal pup models, who had their backs covered in a substitute fake fur (by my mum) which I then covered with fake blood obtained from a local theatrical shop. It looked okay and, in our opinion, would have been quite good for gaining attention of the photographers; who once had given you their attention, often followed up with interviews and reports on the particular issue that you were dealing with.
Myself – Mark- (Left), Mark Watts (Centre) and Brilliant Bob (Right) – at the entrance to Downing Street, London with ‘that egg’ !.
I had a black beanie hat, and made up a Russian flag which was stuck across the front. Using this theatrical blood once again, I spattered it all over a white T-shirt which was going to be worn over another shirt typical of those which I had seen on photographs taken of the Russian hunters. My Black ‘tank trousers’, thick black knee length socks and a good sturdy pair of veggie boots completed my outfit. As I had expressed some concerns at the ‘garden meeting’ about being dressed like this and carrying a pick (typical of that which was used to kill the pups) through the streets of London, I decided that a large wooden baseball bat was probably the better thing and kind of just as effective, whilst still getting the message across.
So the big day was finalised and Number 10 accepted our request to deliver all of the petition cards.
Cut to Charing Cross station sometime around Easter 1997. – I had made the short journey up to London from my home in North Kent, to the place where everybody on the campaign that day had planned to meet, which was just outside the entrance to Downing Street. Once off the train, I shot down into the underground toilets at Charing Cross station, where I changed from my travelling clothes into those of this ‘Russian seal hunter’.
I must admit, the walk from the station through Trafalgar Square and up the Mall to Downing Street did get me a few glances from all sorts of people going about their normal business in the city area. The fact that I was dressed as a Russian sealer, carried a baseball bat, and had two life-size whitecoat seal pup models splattered with blood and wrapped in transparent plastic bags under my arm sort of added to my ‘interest appeal’ from the city goers.
But what the hell, I was there to get attention for the campaign to stop Russian seal pups being butchered, so what did it matter how I personally looked like walking the streets of London ?; After all, there are probably many people who walk around the city dressed in similar kind of garb every day.
London is known as the home of the Brash, Outrageous and Free, so I guess this day was my turn to be a little ‘outrageous’.
But who cares; there was a job to do ? – I did not give a hoot how I looked. I got to the entrance of Downing Street where I met up with Robert, Mark Watts MEP and a few of the girls who travelled up on the train with Bob from SE Kent.
We posed in Whitehall for a few photographs with some of the guys from the press, and then made our way up to the (security) gates of Downing Street for the ritual inspection and verification by the Met. police that we had an official invite to present our petition. Once the police saw us coming with our giant Easter egg full of petition cards, things took on a negative approach. After some discussions, the police informed that we were not allowed to take the Easter egg into Downing Street; and that instead, all of the petition cards contained within it would have to be instead placed into carrier bags which could then be manually transported up to the door of number 10 for presentation.
This was, in our opinion, just a feeble attempt to destroy everything that had been planned and agreed on with the authorities prior to the day. But it was really nothing new to us – animal campaigning delivers bad times sometimes.
With a giant egg being involved I guess you could say that someone did not want to be left and with yolk on their face, but it could also be argued that in going through the process of having to take all of the postcards out of the egg in order to place them into the many bags, the police were in a position where they could verify / certify that a bomb or something in their fantasy dreams was not hidden away at the bottom and would not blow the PM to kingdom come – God forbid !! -so reality proved that it was effectively ok to use; but they said ‘no’ regardless.
Regardless of being able to see the complete interior of the egg before we even entered Downing St., the police refused to accept our argument and insisted that the egg be left at the entrance gates. And so, in a rather undignified manner, the postcards forming the Russian seal pup petition were delivered to the steps of number 10 by several campaigners each carrying as many plastic bags full of petition cards as they could. At the entrance to Downing Street, the police also took me aside and told me that I would not be allowed into Downing Street carrying a large baseball bat such as I had on my person. “You might try and get through the door (of No. 10) and bash somebody’s brains out with it” was the rather pathetic argument that was put forward by the police on duty Oh, don’t tempt me, Mr Major had tried all in his power to cull us, how about I start here ?, was the feeling that I had deep down inside; knowing just how much Robert had been ignored and pushed aside by the British government and Prime Minister John Major over many years regarding this issue of the seal babies.
The ‘Met’ Badge we used to wear during live animal export proitests
And so thanks to the Metropolitan police that day, things went a bit pear shaped and to a point, our presentation of the petition at the door of number 10 was dealt a blow that made it rather less effective than it should have been. Regardless of their attempts to cause us problems, plastic bag after plastic bag of petition cards against a Russian seal pup cull, and more importantly, 10,000 signatures calling on the British government led by Mr Major to act, were delivered unceremoniously in through the door of number 10.
One good thing which had been planned in advance by us anyway, and which did happen as a result of events at Downing Street, was that the giant empty Easter egg was afterwards taken by us to one of the nearby London children’s hospital where it was handed over to one of the children’s wards to be used as, I think, a big storage container for their toys on the ward to go into. There were no quibbles at the hospital regarding special security activities and the egg was simply accepted for what it was, which was a gift for the sick children in the hospital ward. At least we had no problems there. Who are the real children in this case, you have to ask ! – the Met police; those in government in Downing St. or the sick youngsters at the hospital ? – I say the former two.
Thinking ahead, we also had plans for action in Europe. Surely things will go better there – wont they ? – hopefully !
‘Europe’ is in Part 2 – to be published soon.
After all that; Enjoy a few tracks from one of my favourite English bands – ‘The Cure’:
I don’t have many ‘Heroes’ – and if I do, they are animal people:
In memory of Robert Hunter – Seal Man and campaigner – taken way too early !
Hero – Robert Hunter RIP