Image: Screenshot from Vísir

Seal Pup Born at Reykjavík Zoo Raises Ethical Concerns

 In Nature, News, Society

Kobba, one of two female seals that live at the Reykjavík Family Park and Zoo gave birth to a seal pup on Tuesday night, Vísir reports. While the pup, who has yet to be sexed by zoo staff, is feeding well and appears to be in good health, following its mother wherever she goes, its birth has raised concerns about the suitability of the zoo’s seal habitat as well as the pup’s future.

The zoo’s seal enclosure has been home to three seals, two females and one male, since it first opened in 1990. The adults are all around thirty years old. The enclosure is, however, fairly small, meaning that there is not enough space to accommodate more than three adults. Current law prohibits animals that have been raised in captivity or domestic situations from being released into the wild. As such, all seal pups that have been born at the zoo – around 30 in total – have, up until now, been euthanised.

Times have changed

Marine biologist and Reykjavík Family Park and Zoo division head Þorkell Heiðarsson told Vísir that times have changed and that it would be nice to see the seal facilities expanded – to make the seal pond large enough for more animals and also deep enough for the seals to dive in.

“It’s important that the park be at the forefront of stewardship of the animals that are here…We need to take initiative…that’s my general opinion on the issue,” he remarked. The fate of the zoo’s seal pups has been a particularly hot button issue since TV presenter and former City Councillor Gísli Marteinn Baldursson tweeted about it. Þorkell says that the increased public scrutiny hopefully means that planning for an expanded enclosure can get underway soon.

Even so, Þorkell wanted to remind people of how much public attitudes have changed toward seals since the zoo first opened. He explained that Icelanders used to consider seals vermin on the country’s shores. At that time, people were concerned about seals carrying ringworm, as well as upset about the damage that they did eating through fishermen’s nets. Because of this, people were actually paid to shoot seals, which, when combined with environmental changes in the ocean and indirect fishing, has caused the population to decline significantly over the last 30 years or so. There were about 33,000 seals around Iceland in 1980, whereas today, there are only about 7,000.

“They have a very strong instinct for fishing”

Þorkell says that the law governing the release of animals into the wild is also complicated because it’s intended to apply to domestic pets that would be unable to take care of themselves in nature, not wild animals. Þorkell believes that seals born in captivity have the ability to learn the skills they need to survive in the wild. In fact, he conducted a small study with two young seal pups to see if they could learn to catch live fish and said that “they have a very strong instinct for fishing.”

He also noted that in the wild, mother seals stop caring for their pups after only two months, forcing them to become self-sufficient. As such, he believes that the best thing would be to release seal pups born at the zoo instead of euthanising them and also stated that it would be his preference to release the new seal pup into the wild this September.

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