Public outcry from across Canada and around the globe may be forcing the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to reverse a decision to kill two harp seals it had captured last spring to put on display in a small Quebec aquarium.
The protest from animal lovers has also renewed calls for legislation that would provide tougher regulations to protect animals in captivity.
Swift intervention from a seal rescue and rehabilitation facility in Salt Spring Island, B.C., may end up saving the lives of Zak and Mika, the names given to the seal pups held in captivity at the Aquarium des Îles-de-la-Madeleine in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
"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 Island Wildlife Natural Care Centre in B.C.
Mr. Lederman said DFO officials told him they had reversed their decision on the harp seals.
The DFO could not be reached for comment Sunday.
The two seals were captured last spring and put on display at the small aquarium in Havre-Aubert in the Magdalen Islands. 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.
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.
"Was the risk present before and we were just lucky that nothing happened? I can't answer that. But now that we know the risks, we no longer have the authority to release them," said aquarium president Jean-Michel Leblanc in a Radio-Canada interview Friday. "The solution is like when you have a pet you no longer want to keep, in order to limit the suffering, you have it euthanized."
If the fate of the animals was known then why did the DFO allow them to be captured in the first place, Mr. Lederman asked? And why, after 25 years, was there a sudden change in attitude? "No one knows for sure what the DFO is doing capturing display animals for an aquarium anyway."
Pressure on the federal government mounted quickly after a seasonal employee at the aquarium learned the seals were going to be killed at the end of the tourist season. The employee immediately launched an SOS to animal- rights groups across the globe.
Mr. Lederman's small group, through its website sealrescue.org, launched a worldwide petition and, with the help of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), offered a solution to save the animals. The plan calls for transporting the seals to the Atlantic Wildlife Institute near Sackville, N.B., for short-term rehabilitation before releasing them into the Bay of Fundy.
The IFAW has offered to donate the funds and facilities to get the seals ready for safe release. But, instead, the aquarium has called on people to donate $73,000 to care for the seals before transporting them to the Océanopolis aquarium in Brest, France. This would require several hours of transportation and a dramatic change in habitat, which could pose serious risks to the health and well-being of the seals.
The aquarium's call for donations prompted several individuals and groups to criticize the effort, suggesting it was nothing more than a bid to have the public pay for what should have been the aquarium's responsibility in the first place.
"You should never have taken the seals if you were not in a position to keep them," wrote Jennifer Rodgers on the aquarium's Facebook page. "How dare you now demand money from those who have had the courage and humanity to speak out against the impending execution of innocent creatures," wrote Susan Young. Another observer, Hazel Keane, stated bluntly: "You have some nerve to expect people to pay for your mistake."
IFAW spokesperson Michelle Cliffe said the latest incident involving the two seals was just another example of how poorly Canada is equipped to deal with the welfare of animals in captivity. She urged the DFO to end its practice of capturing marine mammals to be placed in captivity, as it did with whales in 1999. More importantly, she argued, the country needs to adopt legislation to protect marine mammals.
"There are no rules. There is no legislation protecting marine mammals in captivity," she said. "We are in contact with DFO at the moment and we do intend to push for legislation."