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10 may 2016

Victoria Dickenson, author of one of the best Reaktion Animal books (Rabbit), is back with the impressive Seal. After some taxonomic narrowing of definitions, she writes entires about the true seals, excluding the sea lion and the walrus. Dickenson looks at how people have identified with and understood seals, have bonded with them and have hunted them mercilessly.

I've seen seals in zoos, I suppose. I've seen California sea lions in nature, molting on beaches – walked right up to them, perhaps not a brilliant or ecologically sensitive idea, but no harm seemed to come to me or the sea lions. At any rate, Dickenson's book is not about sea lions, despite what would seem a natural pairing. Perhaps a Reaktion Sea Lion is in the works. The animals are similar in habitat and in some behavior, but sea lions have external ears and much different locomotion both on land and at sea. The classic trained seal of circuses and aquariums is a sea lion.

Seals are slightly less anthropomorpic – sea lions can get uncanny at times, when trained to mimic human mannerisms – but for that very reason seals have eldritch associations with humans in many a culture. Dickenson reprints matter-of-factly an 1895 photograph from Shetland, of the "great-great granddaughter of a seal woman" (102). At the heart of Dickenson's Seal, arguably, is the "selkie" myth, where humans and seals exchange identities in ways that are both comforting and terrifying. She treats selkies in just a few pages (coincidentally midway through the book, 95-104), but human/seal identification and interaction is her overarching theme.

Dickenson considers seals who have become familiar sights in human communities – not pets exactly, but sometimes raised by humans and released, becoming continually-returning visitors who seem to bear good tidings from an entire ecosystem. Seals figure as mythical creatures and totemic beings in many cultures.

But of course the dark side is the hunt, which continues to this day. Seals have been exploited for meat, for their skin and fur, and for their oil. As fashions change, they drop out of demand for one of those commodities and come into demand for another. Seals became the archetypal animal of modern ecological activism when Greenpeace trained attention in the mid-1970s on Canadian seal hunters. Clubbing baby harp seals to death was not just unnecessary, not just ecologically destructive: it also just might be the single greatest affront to global sensibilities ever conceived. There is literally nobody who can advocate clubbing baby harp seals to death. Clear-cutting forests, dumping toxic waste, poisoning wolves, harpooning whales – these may be vile things, but they can still be defended on grounds of practicality and economic exigence. But it is practically impossible to argue that in order to create new jobs and gain access to valuable resources, we have to go on clubbing baby harp seals to death.

Not that nobody's tried the impossible. "We consider the seal the same as seaweed – a marine resource to be harvested," says one expert that Dickenson quotes (161). A Canadian official once opined that "I do not care what happens to them … the more they kill the better I will love it" (164). Despite these rear-guard efforts, clubbing baby harp seals to death has been illegal in Canada since 1987. The quota of adults allowed to be taken is still in the hundreds of thousands per year (though the number actually killed tends to fall far short of quota as the market dwindles). Hunting marine mammals is one of the few areas where the United States has seized the moral high ground, eliminating the practice except for some traditional hunting by indigenous Arctic dwellers.

Dickenson, even while focusing on the political and economic controversies over the seal hunt (the last two of her five chapters), maintains throughout a sense of the mystical, almost uncanny connection between human and seal. Seals are manifestly not like us, their world, their Umwelt, being alien; yet their eyes are like ours, only more so, their expressions like ours, their voices like ours. They remind us, perhaps, of how uncanny it is to be human.

Dickenson, Victoria. Seal. London: Reaktion, 2016.