Skip to content

An Interview with Sheryl Fink on Canadian Wildlife Campaigns and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/06/01


Sheryl Fink is the Director of Canadian Wildlife Campaigns for IFAW – International Fund for Animal Welfare. She discusses: family background; building a specialization and a reputation; pivotal moments regarding seal hunts; an ethic around cruelty to non-human animals; important collaborations; blunt force trauma; the developmental trajectory of seals; clubbings gone wrong; ignoring an issue as a culture; noteworthy cruelties; impacts of seals; and appeal to reason rather than pity.

Keywords: Canada, Canadian Wildlife Campaigns, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Sheryl Fink.

An Interview with Sheryl Fink on Canadian Wildlife Campaigns and the International Fund for Animal Welfare: Director, Canadian Wildlife Campaigns, IFAW (Part One)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Let us start from the top to provide some background for the audience. What is some personal or familial background, e.g., geography, culture, language, and so on?

Sheryl Fink: Personal stuff, I do not even know my culture. I am a cishet white girl [Laughing]. I live in Ontario. I did not know what I wanted to be growing up. I wanted to help animals at the time.

I thought the only way to do that was to be a veterinarian or work at the zoo. I realized at university that I could get into wildlife biology. I did that. I did an undergraduate at the University of Guelph. I did not really know what I want to do. I wanted to work for the government of natural resources or something.

It did not work out that way. I found IFAW. I describe myself as an animal wildlife advocate now. We try to make better policies and better legislation for animals and wildlife around the world.

2. Jacobsen: In term of your own focus in Canada, how are you building a reputation in addition to a specialization in work within Canada?

Fink: IFAW was founded in Canada in 1969. It was started by one man named Brian Davies who was with the New Brunswick SPCA. He went out to the ice flows on the East Coast. He saw the seal hunt there.

He was brought by the government of Canada to see how the hunt could be more humane. After seeing the hunt, he saw that the hunt could never be humane. He donated his life to stopping it. Our first campaign was 50 years ago with it.

We are still fighting the fight in Canada today and others too. We have expanded in Canada. We are working to protect the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale.

3. Jacobsen: What was a pivotal moment in terms of seal hunts becoming a danger to the populations in general, especially in terms of simply unreasonable amounts of seal hunting?

Fink: Seal hunts are interesting in Canada. They have hunted seals off the East Coast for hundreds of years back to the 1700s and 1800s for the blubber rendered down into blubber and then sent to Europe to fuel lights and make all sorts of products.

But with the advent of electricity, the demand for seal blubber dropped, obviously. It shifted in the early 1900s to a hunt for fur. The Norwegian companies primarily run it. So, the hunt continued for fur up until the 80s when the world became aware of what was happening on the East Coast of Canada with the images of seal cubs being clubbed and slaughtered on the ice in front of their mothers and the mothers chasing the skinned carcass of the seal cub as the hunters dragged it away.

These images quickly made their way across the world through television and journals. The seal hunt was one of the first animal welfare issues that took the international stage, which is interesting.

Because of the public outcry and groups like IFAW, Europe banned the import of white coat seal products in 1983. That had the effect of almost ending the hunt here in Canada. Canada stopped hunting white coats. They stopped the large vessel hunt for seals.

The hunt pretty much died down to a few tens of thousands of animals each year. The pivotal moment – and the only reason we have the seal hunt now is because of the Liberal Government and Brian Tobin – was the Cod fisheries around 1992. Tens of thousands of fishers being put out of work. Brian Tobin promised the moratorium on the cd fisher would be 2 years.

Then it was like 20-25 years until we can fish these areas again. A politician does not want to hear that or deliver that message; that you are going to be out of a job for 20 years. But 2 years came and went, and the cod stocks had not recovered. He stood up and blamed seals.

He literally stood up and said, “There is one player in fish stocks. His first name is harp. His second name is seal.” Not taking any responsibility for mismanagement or overfishing, it was the seals.

He increased the quota for seals. He started putting tens of millions of dollars into the seal hunt to have seal products, developing marketing campaigns for seal products. They started paying individual sealers a per pound subsidy for meat that was landed.

That was what reinvigorated the seal hunt in the 1990s. It brought it back up. It had the highest quota of seals in the world, 400,000 seals. 400,000 seal pups could be killed every now. It reinvigorated the seal hunts to levels that had not been seen before. In 2009, the EU banned seal products once again. This time banning products from all seals, not just white coat seals.

This brought the seal hunt number down to tens of thousands. We are working again today to bring it lower than that. We are at a position in which there is no need to be killing seals for their fur to make luxury products. It is not a hunt for meat or sustenance.

It is to make purses, coats, and mittens. Those sorts of things.

4. Jacobsen: What about an ethic around the cruelty down to animals? How does this play into living in an age of less innocence, especially as per the note about the documentation, the video documentation, of the clubbings? How does an ethic of reduced cruelty to animals and seals play into some of the work of IFAW and others?

Fink: The seal hunt, I have been part of this for 12 years and witnessed this firsthand. Even if you are in the position of thinking that it is okay to eat and use animals, I think most people would agree that it needs to be done in the most humane way possible if you want to kill another creature.

It should be for a good purpose. I do not think purses and multi-thousand-dollar coats are good examples. Some will say, “It is humane. It is well-regulated.” Being there, it is not. I have seen some horrible disrespect for the lives of these animals.

People chasing them and swinging their clubs like a bat, tossing them on the ice. People hooking animals through the face with a steel hook while they are still alive and conscious. They are barking and biting at the hook trying to defend themselves.

To hook an animal and haul it onto a boat while it is alive and conscious, it is one of the most horrible things that you can ever view. I do not think that is a situation that could be called human, necessary, or justified in any way.

5. Jacobsen: What are some important collaborations that may be necessary to reduce the amount of clubbings, killings, and post-hoc justifications given for the violence against seals in Canada at least?

Fink: The thing that has been most successful in our experience is reducing the demand for seal products and closing the markets for seal products. A lot of people are not aware of where the big seal products or seal products come from; they are not aware of the suffering going into the product.

Getting people to think about where their clothing comes from, where that fur comes from, how was it obtained? Once they realize that, once they see that, once they are faced with the video footage, it is compelling. I think helps to pack a lot of people to change their position on wearing fur.

6. Jacobsen: As a biologist, what does, as one example, blunt force trauma from clubbing to various parts of a seal’s body do to it?

Fink: It is horrible. By law, they are supposed to club the animal on the skull. These are very young animals. The skulls are not completely formed yet. It is a relatively soft thing. In a perfect world or a laboratory setting, if you are clubbing the skull of an animal, crushing both hemispheres of the brain, the death could be relatively quick and painless.

What we see on the ice, this does not happen. Because you are not in a laboratory setting; you are chasing an animal fleeing on the ice with a bat. It is hard to get a clean or accurate blow. We see seals beaten all over their body with this bat or a pick. It is a stick with a spiked metal end on it.

It is horrible. Seals are being bashed alive. They are not being killed quickly and cleanly, as the government would have you believe. It is a horrible thing to watch.

7. Jacobsen: What is the developmental trajectory of the seals in question here? What timeline does it take for them to become adults? What is a relative estimate at to when their skulls, for instance, in an ideal situation of this form, are being clubbed in, to crush the hemispheres?

Fink: That is a good question. Harp seals live to 20 to 25 years of age and are sexually mature at around 5 or 6 years of age. It is a long-lived species. The adults give birth to one pup per year. When the pups are born, they are born with this white, fluffy coat that people are familiar with.

They have the coat for 2 weeks after they are born and nurse with their mother. After 2 weeks, the mothers will leave the pups and leave off to mate with the males for the next season. Currently, the pups are not feeding. They are lying there and feeding off their blubber supplies from the mother.

This is a time when the seal hunt opens. They are 2-3 weeks old. They have been abandoned by their mothers. They are trying to shed their coat. A new silvery coat will come in. That is why the hunters get them currently. It is fresh and new fur. It has not been scarred by life in the water.

The pups are helpless. They have not learned to swim yet. They are lying on the ice when they were born. That makes it easy for the hunters to go out and kill the seals in a brief period. I get criticized a lot for calling them baby seals.

The government will say, “We don’t kill baby seals anymore.” They do not kill the white coat seals anymore, during the first 2 weeks of life, but 98% of the animals are killed between 3 week and 3 months of age. For an animal that is not sexually mature until 5 or 6, I would say very much that they are baby seals.

8. Jacobsen: In a non-laboratory setting, in other words, in the real-world setting in which the clubbings are taking place with the bat or the bat with spikes, what are some things that can go wrong in terms of people thinking they’re working within the bounds of the law but also enacting violence against harp seals or other seals?

Fink: The thing is that these are mostly within the bounds of the law. Sealers can go out and club seals in this way. There are two big causes of the problems and why this cannot be conducted humanely and why mane veterinarian experts say that it cannot be done humanely.

One is the competitive nature of the hunt. It is not about a hunt for food or feeding family. It is about getting as many pelts as quickly as possible before the weather turns bad, before the seals learn to swim and get to the water and are hard to find, before the quota is reached some years and the hunt is turned down.

It is basically getting in, kill as much as you can, and then get out. Killing methods are not a priority and the welfare is not a priority, the main purpose is profit-making. That is why we see a lot of killing. It is about killing quickly rather than properly.

The second thing that we see is because for the weather conditions here with a boat or a slippery ice flow. In the case of clubbing, you are on a slippery ice flow with an animal that is panicked and trying to get away while trying to get at it with a club.

They also shoot seals in some circumstances. In which case, you are trying to shoot an animal from a moving boat with a moving animal, on a moving ice flow, trying to get a shot that will kill quickly. It is very, very difficult. We see animals shot and left to suffer, trying to escape again, until the hunter gets another shot, or the sealer needs to club the seal after getting off the boat. Then it is finally killed.

You cannot control many variables. There are many things out there. Those combine to make for a horrible experience on the ice.

9. Jacobsen: Does the culture consciously ignore this issue or simply not have it brought to their attention in a proper way?

Fink: People want things to be done humanely. They do not want to believe things are being done cruelly. They want to believe they are being done quickly and humanely. That is part of it. That is why it was important for IFAW to go, get the footage, and show what is going on out there.

Another part of it. There is still a feeling that seals are different. They are considered fish under the law. There is this feeling seals are fish. It had to do with Easter. It goes back to a Pope declaring seals are fish, so Catholics could eat them on Good Friday. It is called a “Seal Fishery.”

Many people do not recognize the fact that these are sentient animals. They are mammals [Laughing]. It is interesting. You see how fishers feel about whales and how they feel about seals. Whales are given more respect. Seals are treated as another fish that should be fished.

10. Jacobsen: Have there been any noteworthy cases of obscene levels of cruelty to any of the seal species?

Fink: Yes. A lot of it before my time. I will speak to it. I have seen animals hooked through the face while alive. We filmed a sealer’s boat that had an animal pup in the bottom of the boat. It was sliced open from the belly to its throat, to its tail. It was still alive. It was breathing.

It was clenching its fore flippers. It was gasping for air. The sealers, I do not understand. They could see the animal was alive in their boat. They were not doing anything about it. They were going along and shooting more animals

We have come across stockpiles of seal carcass on the ice. This used to happen a lot while we were there. There would be on there still alive, gasping, trying to breathe, crying out. They just left it there.

There is some horrible stuff that you find out there.

11. Jacobsen: Some individuals in popular culture or the general citizenry in some sub-cultures. They may say, “Do not appeal to my pity. Do not appeal to my emotions. I want to know the facts.” Thus, I ask you. What are the facts in terms of the extent of the issue around seal populations and the impacts on the ecosystem, on other species, and potentially on human beings as well?

Fink: In terms of the population, I think it is interesting. We hear a lot of fishers say that there are too many seals. We need to kill them. They are eating too many fish. If you want to talk about the facts, the government scientists have been looking at this for three or four decades now.

There is no suggestion, no scientific suggestion, or evidence that there are too many seals. We are seeing a recovery of seal populations to the pre-exploitation levels before humans drastically overexploited them.

Almost everyone alive today, we have never lived with healthy abundant populations of marine mammals on any of our coast because we have overexploited them for so long. So, it is easy to look out and say, “There are more seals than when I was a kid.”

Of course, they were overexploited in the 60s and 70s. 70% of the population was depleted. The populations are in recovery. There is nothing o suggest that there is too many or the ecosystem is in balance or that we need to kill seals to maintain some mythical balance in nature.

As far as the facts go and as far as science goes, we are returning to a normal and healthy ecosystem. I think that if we can manage our activities and make sure that we leave enough fish for the other creatures in the ocean rather than keeping them all for ourselves.

Nature has a way of finding its own resilience and a way to maintain.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Director, Canadian Wildlife Campaigns, IFAW.

[2] Individual Publication Date: June 1, 2019:; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2019:


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: