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The Story Of Wild Animals:
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 Story Of The Seal

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Story Of The Seal

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

When the killing of wild animals is done for commercial purposes only it is deprived of all elements of sport and becomes merely a trade or occupation.

The true sportsman, therefore, takes no enjoyment in "sealing," as the killing of seals is called, yet the seal is by far the best of the fur-bearing animals. It possesses remarkable intelligence and is of an affectionate disposition.

The best skins are afforded by the young seals, and these are prepared for use by the inner layer of the skin being shaved away with a sharp knife, thus causing the long hairs, which are deeper rooted than the woolly underfur, to fall out.

During the early part of the last century fur seals existed in countless numbers in many parts of the world, but human greed and folly have succeeded in so reducing their numbers in most regions that their pursuit is no longer profitable. Fortunately, however, the seal rookeries of the Prybiloff Islands in Bering Sea have been placed under such restrictions as to restrict the annual slaughter in proportion to the number of births. As an indication of the number of fur seals formerly existing in various parts of the world, I may say that in the year 1798 Captain Fanning, of the ship Betsy of New York, after obtaining a full cargo of skins from the island of Musapura, on the Chilian coast, estimated the number of fur seals remaining on the island at from 500,000 to 700,000; and it appears that but little less than a million skins were subsequently taken from the same locality. Fur seals were still found on the Chilian coast in 1815. From the Georgian Islands, at the extremity of South America, no less than 112,000 fur seals are reported to have been taken in the year 1800, of which 57,000 were obtained by one American vessel. About this date the discovery of fur seals in Australia was announced, and in 1804 a single ship obtained 74,000 skins. Large numbers were also taken about the same period on Prince Edward's Islands, lying a few hundred miles to the southeastwards of the Cape of Good Hope. Again, between the years 1820 and 1821, more than 300,000 skins were taken from the South Shetland Islands alone, while it is estimated that at least 100,000 young seals were left to perish miserably, owing to the destruction of their mothers. In 1814 and 1815 the number of skins exported from Antipodes Island, off the coast of New South Wales, was upwards of 400,000, of which, it is said, no less than a-fourth were spoilt owing to bad curing, and on arrival in Europe were sold as manure. As early, however, as the year 1830 the number of fur seals in the southern seas had been so greatly diminished that vessels generally made losing voyages; and at the present day such a voyage partakes largely of the nature of a lottery. The number of skins taken in the Prybiloff Islands is still large but it may be mentioned that at the present time the annual slaughter of fur seals throughout the world averages 185,000, while that of hair seals reaches the enormous number of 875,000.

When seals are taken very young they can be made as tame as a cat or dog, answering to their names and following their owners. Two little children once had a young seal brought to them from Alaska. It soon became very fond of them, living in the house, and eating from their hands.. Visitors used to be much amused by its funny ways, and it was a curiosity for miles around. After a time the children were sent away to school, and their parents presented the seal to a neighboring zoological garden, where it was the delight of the keepers on account of its tameness. Three years after the children returned, and decided one day to go to see their old favorite, not imagining that it would remember them, but to their surprise it was so delighted to see them that it was almost ill from the excitement. It barked and whined like a dog, and when they left retired to a corner, where it pined and moped for days, refusing to touch its food, and not taking any notice of the -keepers, with whom it was usually so affectionate. The children, soon after paid it a second visit, when it renewed its demonstrations, whining piteously if they left it for an moment. When they heard how unhappy it had been they begged to have it back, and as the authorities were afraid it might pine to death if left there, they consented, and it returned to its old home, where it passed many happy years with its beloved master and mistress, who never parted with it again.

The usual length of these animals is five or six feet. The head is large and round, the neck small and short, and on each side of the mouth there are several strong bristles. From the shoulders the body tapers to the tail. The eyes are large, there are no external ears, and the tongue is cleft or forked at the end.

The legs are very short, and the hinder ones are placed so far back as to be of but little use, except in swimming. The feet are all webbed. The tail is short. The animals vary in color, their short, thick-set hair being sometimes gray, sometimes brown or blackish, and sometimes even spotted with white or yellow.

Seals delight in thunderstorms, and during these times they will sit on the rocks and contemplate with apparent pleasure and gratification the convulsion of the elements.

The Icelanders entertain, respecting these animals, a strange superstition. They believe them to resemble the human species more than any other creature, and that they are the offspring of Pharaoh and his host, who were converted into seals when they were overwhelmed in the Red Sea.

One very curious result sometimes follows from the manner in which the seal shuffles along. If it is alarmed upon a stony or shingly beach, it at once makes for the sea as fast as possible, jerking itself along with its hind flip pers, and so throwing up the stones behind it in showers. If a hunter is in the chase, he is, of course, struck by many of these stones, and with such force are they propelled that for years it was thought that the seal purposely resorted to this mode of defense, and actually took aim at its pursuer. I have discovered that the only object of the seal is to reach the sea as fast as possible, and that the stones it throws up are merely jerked up in the air by its hind feet, and are not in any way meant as weapons of defense.

Near the city of San Francisco, and not far from a hotel on the shore, is a rock called Seal Rock, which is usually covered with seals, which sport there all day long, to the great amusement of the people, who watch them from the hotel piazza. They are not at all afraid, for no one is permitted to harm them. In warm sunny days they may be seen climbing up on to the rocks and sliding down again into the water, barking as if they enjoyed it. Some sleep in the sun, wake up and bark, slide down into the sea, and then crawl up again and bark, keeping it up all the day. Partly on account of the structure of the ear and partly because the seals pass so much of their time below the surface of the water, it has been supposed that the sense of hearing will be little needed by them, and that it is not at all acute.

Yet any one who has been accustomed to diving must have discovered that when the body is entirely submerged in the water, the auditory organs are very sensitive to sounds which are, conveyed through the water, although not to those which are produced on land, and are only transmitted through the upper atmosphere.

For example, although when a man is entirely submerged he is unable to hear the loudest shouts that can be raised by persons on shore, his ears are almost painfully sensitive to any sound that is produced in the water and is transmitted through its mediumship. A stone thrown into the water, or a blow struck upon its surface, is heard with perfect distinctness, while the measured strokes of the oars, and their peculiar grinding roll in the row-locks, become perceptible to the ears long before the sound is audible to those who are on land.

When expeditions set out to capture sea-lions, the animals are driven a distance of from ten to twelve miles along the shore to the villages of the natives where they are to be killed; and from their slow rate of motion the journey is a long and protracted business, usually taking about five days. When once fairly started, and accustomed to the presence of man, the animals are, however, readily controlled, and kept in the desired direction. At the end of a day's journey they are allowed to refresh themselves by plunging in the pools found in many parts of the route. When thoroughly tired out at the end of a day's march, the unfortunate animals stretch themselves at full length on the ground, with extended limbs. Even then, however, their rest is not peaceful, for some restless one soon starts up and flounders over the others, as if seeking a better place. This disturbs the whole herd, which constantly keeps up a low moaning, apparently expressive of sore distress. By this time the sea-lions have become so accustomed to their captors that they will sooner fight than run from them; and they are too much deafened by their own noise to hear or fear any other sound. As they lie on the ground in a compact mass, one of the men takes an umbrella, and goes twenty to thirty yards to the rear of the herds, and approaching stealthily until he is quite near, suddenly expands the umbrella, and runs with it all along the edge of the herd; then, closing it, he retires to repeat the maneuvre. This has the effect of rousing the rear rank, which, thus suddenly alarmed, plunges forward and arouses those in front, which suddenly begin struggling and biting. The return of the man with the umbrella communicates another shock, and adds another wave to the sluggish mass. This is repeated at intervals of four or five minutes, till the successive shocks have aroused the whole herd, when, with much roaring and bellowing, the whole mass begins to move, gradually extending itself in a long irregular line in open order, each animal lumbering along as best it can. By shouting and waving flags at the rear, and on the flanks of the herd, they are kept moving until it is necessary to halt them again for rest.

Finally, the herd reaches the village, when the sea-lions, being far too formidable animals to be despatched with clubs, are shot with rifles; the full-grown males being killed first, after which the fore-part of the herd is driven back upon and over the rear, when the slaughter is continued with lances. The description of this scene is, however, by no means pleasant reading, and may accordingly be passed over.

In captivity these sea-lions display great affection for one another; and when one of a pair dies the survivor not infrequently pines away and dies soon after. From observations made on captive specimens in Chicago, it appears that before the cub takes to the water the parent secretes a kind of oily fluid from her body, with which the hair of the cub becomes anointed, owing to both animals rolling on the same spot.

A curious circumstance I discovered is that in the stomach of every sea-lion I have examined, with the single exception of a young animal, there existed a quantity of pebbles. The amount varied in individuals from a few to many. Some of these pebbles weighed as much as a half pound.

A seal that was exhibited in London answered to the call of its keeper, and attended to whatever he was commanded to do. He would take food from the man's hand, crawl out of the water, and when ordered would stretch himself out at full length on the ground. He would thrust out his neck and appear to kiss the keeper as often as the man pleased, and when he was directed would again return into the water.

Some time ago a farmer of Aberdowr, a town on the banks of the Frith of Froth, Scotland, in going out among the rocks to catch lobsters and crabs, discovered a young seal about two and a half feet long, which he brought home. He offered it some pottage and milk, which the animal greedily devoured. It was fed in this manner for three days, when the man's wife, considering it an intruder in her family, would not suffer it to be kept any longer. Taking some men of the town along with him for the purpose, her husband threw it into the sea, but notwithstanding all their endeavors it persisted in returning to them. It was agreed that the tallest of the men should walk into the water as far as he could, and, having thrown the animal in, that they should hide themselves behind a rock at some distance. This was accordingly done, but the animal returned from the water and soon discovered them in their hiding-place. The farmer again took it home, where he kept it for some time; but at length growing tired of it had it killed for the sake of its skin.

The chief sealing districts, or, as they are called, "sealing-grounds," in the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans are West Greenland, the Newfoundland district, the Jan-Mayen seas, Nova Zembla and the Kara Sea, the White Sea, and the Caspian. The most important of these is the Jan-Mayen, where, as in all other districts except the Caspian, the Greenland seal is the kind mainly hunted. So incessant and unremitting has been seal-hunting in the icy Jan-Mayen seas that the numbers of these animals have been very sensibly diminished; and as far back as 1871 attention was called to the necessity of some stringent regulations being applied to the sealing trade. This was followed in 1876 by an enactment on the part of the British Government establishing a close-time for seals, so far as their own subjects were concerned; and not long after similar action was taken by the other governments interested.

The chief sealing-trade in the North Pacific was the capture of the elephant-seals on the Californian coast a trade which has of necessity come to an end by the extermination of the object of pursuit. In the more south-ern seas the trade was likewise confined to the capture of elephant-seals. From their great abundance and their large size, the pursuit of these animals was a paying occupation in the early years of this century. Now, however, as we have seen, these seals are exterminated from most of their former haunts, and only remain in any numbers on Kerguelen and Heard Islands, where they would also long since have disappeared had it not been for the inaccessible nature of the beaches they frequent. Consequently, the southern sealing-trade has new shrunk to almost nothing, although there is a prospect of it being re\ iv eel in the neighborhood of the Antarctic pack-ice.

Of the various methods of capturing seals in the northern seas notably the oldest is that of harpooning from canoes, or kayaks, as now practiced by the Esquimaux. The kayak, which is made of skins, although upwards of eighteen feet in length, is so light as to be easily carried in the hand. In "sealing" the victim is approached within some twenty-five feet, when the harpoon is hurled from a wooden "thrower." The harpoon, in addition to its line, is furnished with a bladder attached by another cord, which marks the course of the seal while below the water, and enables the hunter to follow its track and wound it with his lance time after time as it comes to the surface to breathe, until it is finally despatched. The lance is thrown from the hand, and, after striking the seal, always detaches itself and floats on the surface.

A large number of seals are also captured in nets, this method being chiefly employed during the spring and autumn visits to the shore. Nets appear to have been in use longest in the Gulf of Bothnia, the Capsian Sea, and Lake Baikal, where they are set either from the shore or beneath the ice. In the Gulf of Bothnia such nets are from sixty to ninety feet in length, and about six feet in depth. Two of them are generally set together in the neighbor-hood of rocks to which the seals resort, and are always placed to the leeward of the mainland or some headland. When they strike against the nets, the seals thrust their heads through some of the meshes, and by twisting themselves about gradually become completely involved. In the Caspian Sea the nets are usually hung from boats at a considerable distance from the shore. ln Lake Baikal, on the other hand, the nets are let down through the breathing-holes of the seals in the ice, and the animals become entangled on rising.

The seal-box used in parts of Scandinavia is a contrivance with a swinging plank, upon which, when the seal lands, it is precipitated headlong into a deep pit. Another Scandinavian plan is to surround a seal-rock with a line armed with a number of barbed hooks. These hooks allow the seals to land with impunity; but when a number of the animals are on the rock, and through a sudden fright rush headlong into the water, some of them are pretty sure to be caught. A third method employed in the same country is to fix a harpoon in a tube, with a spring-and-trigger arrangement, and to bury the whole contrivance in a hole bored in a seal-rock in such a manner that when a seal presses against the trigger the weapon will be discharged into its body.

A large number of seals are also shot on the shore with rifles; and others fall to the harpoon of the Esquimaux, who either steals up to them while asleep, or awaits their rising at a breathing-hole. When a large number of seals can be surprised on shore at one of their favorite landing-places, clubbing is resorted to as the most effectual and speedy means of despatch; and it is said that sometimes as many as 15,000 have been killed in this manner in one night.

The above methods apply only to sealing on or near the shore; but for the capture of seals on the ice-floes at long distances from land, vessels of some kind have to be specially equipped. In the Gulf of Bothnia these expeditions are or were carried out in open boats, each manned by eight sailors; but in the Newfoundland and Jan-Mayen seas steamers of considerable size are now employed. When the seals are found on the ice, they are killed in the same way as on shore, that is, either by shooting, harpooning, or clubbing.

The strange circumstance that young seals take to the water reluctantly, and have to be taught the art of swimming by their parents, would alone appear to be a sufficient indication that seals originally descended from land animals. Among some species the young remain entirely on the land or ice for the first two or three weeks of their existence, or until they have shed their first coat of woolly hair. Numbers of seals are destroyed by the Polar bear, while others fall victims to the rapacious killer-whale. Others again are frequently destroyed by being jammed between ice-floes; and it is stated that thousands are sometimes killed by this means. The reduction in their numbers by all these causes is, however, trivial compared to those inflicted by man, who requires about a million and a half to supply his annual needs. So reckless, indeed, has been the destruction of seals, that some species are already well nigh exterminated, while others have been so reduced in numbers as to render their pursuit no longer profitable.

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