Thursday, December 02, 2004

Seal deaths

I was in Maine for Thanksgiving, at the house of some friends. To protect the innocent, I won't give precise localities on any of this.

It was a beautiful weekend, full of marvelous food, great company, and the gorgeous Maine coast. The house is near a stretch of sandy beach as well as the famous Maine rocky shore.

There are pictures of the weekend at Fotki. The second photo in that album is a dead seal. When I saw it on the beach, I had a couple reactions. There was the biologist's “cool” which overwhelmed the normal person's “eww,” but that teamed up with the concern of the conservationist and the curiosity of the scientist to produce and intrigued “hmm.”

When I got back to Kansas, I did a Google search on “seal deaths,” because some other beach walkers mentioned that these deaths were pretty common this year. Turns out, there are a couple reasons seals die in large numbers. Canine distemper can do a real job on seals, and there are a bunch of hits from North America, northern Africa, Europe, and as far west as the Caspian Sea, all citing odd viruses as causes for mass deaths of seals.

Canine distemper and related viruses wreak havoc on lots of carnivores, not just dogs. Clearly, seals are susceptible, but the last black-footed ferrets nearly died of distemper when people tried to vaccinate them. Luckily, there was one last population that didn't get vaccinated. It should come as no surprise that dogs are closely related to the weasel family (including ferrets) and the seals, so this is just a fairly non-specific virus, that gets into wild populations, and once there, the social behavior of seals allows rapid spread of the virus.

Other deaths are attributed to fishing. Seals get caught in nets, fishermen get pissed and cut the seal up to get it out of the net. Or fishermen see a seal near their fishing grounds, and decide to eliminate a competitor. Since seals are federally protected marine mammals, this is the sort of behavior that, if intentional, can send a person to jail for a while, or cost someone a check with a lot of zeros.

The other cause that shows up is trophy hunting. People want the skulls, since they look cool, and apparently think the seal penis is some sort of aphrodisiac. So they kill a seal, take the head and cock, and leave the carcass. If you look carefully at the picture, you'll see no head attached, and a wound in the genital area. I don't know if these wounds were administered pre- or post-mortem, nor do I know whether they were done by humans or animals. The area around the genitals is a common area for scavengers to begin digging into. Since the body remained undisturbed for several days, I have a sneaking suspicion that this was a person, but I don't know whether he or she was raiding the corpse or if the seal was killed for a trophy and a fake aphrodisiac.

In either case, there are a bunch of laws and international treaties this person violated, and I hope they do some time in Leavenworth.

Why do people think that eating a penis will make them sexier? People do this with all sorts of species around the world, including bears, monkeys, rhinos, whales, and probably many more. There's no evidence to back these practices up, and honestly, I think the peddlers of these animal products make it up as they go along.

As proof, consider the fascinating tale of “Flannigan's Astonishing Pinnepedia Elixir” (sic). It is the heart-warming tale of a fictional inventor who patents a 19th century viagra based on powdered seal penises. In the non-fictional modern Toronto, unpowdered seal genitals go for $500 a piece. The seals being killed in Maine aren't the same as the ones in China and Korea, where this “tradition” seems to originate.