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    To eat or not eat animals?

    Sigurður Jónsson

    We really don´t know much about the mind of animals – other than the human species perhaps? Some of them seem to have kind of intelligence or instinct that is far beyond what we can understand. How does the arctic tern figure out the optimal route from the Arctic to the Antarctic and why is she so focused on maximizing her time in the sun that she undertakes this extreme journey back and forth every year? I guess insects such as bees and ants are not intelligent but still they show more remarkable skills and techniques than many people I know. Fellow mammals seem a bit closer relatives to us humans and often we adopt them and decide to give them “human status”. In our western world we have chosen dogs as our best friends and decided that they deserve much more respect and attention than for instance pigs. Some people maintain that dogs are more intelligent than pigs; some people even think dogs are as bright as cats? Quite a few people believe that horses are smart, even smarter than their neighbours the milking cows? And then there are others that believe that whales are particularly intelligent, maybe even more so than the above mentioned farm animals?

    Some of us eat animals. Most of us do not kill them or butcher ourselves but we buy them neatly prepared and packaged from the supermarket. Which animals we eat depends more on our cultural background than on any particular logic. More than half the earth’s population likes to eat dogs, rats or guinea pigs. Where I come from dogs almost have all the same rights as humans and rats are considered pests that can be tortured and killed by any available means – guinea pigs are somewhere in-between. We don´t mind killing cute little lamb, piglets, foals or calves but we would rather not see puppies or kittens killed, and certainly not for food. Icelanders love their special breed of horses and they have an almost religious status with many people. But we also love our horsemeat on the barbecue!

    Our society has generally agreed that it is acceptable to keep some animals such as pigs and chicken captive in horrible conditions for all their life. But, we have also decided that when it comes to finally killing them it shall be done swiftly and cleanly. Actually in some so-called civilized countries people use the same arguments for some specimens of the human race as well (!).


    Other animals we allow a happy life in the wild without our interference. Depending on our culture, we may or may not be interested in hunting them down to kill for food at some point. In many countries there is a long tradition to hunt mammals such as moose or deer and all over the world people hunt birds and fish for food. In many cultures there is a tradition to hunt marine mammals such as seals and whales in the same way. Just as for the farm animals it is now generally accepted that we should try to kill these animals in a quick and painless fashion. In Iceland now there are for instance special tests for those going to hunt reindeer to make sure they can shoot their rifles properly.

    A nasty part of man´s history is the so-called trophy hunting where people kill animals only for fun. My rule says that if you kill it you eat it. You don´t eat a steak of lion or elephant or fox. Humans have guns and so we can set the rules – basically no animal is a direct threat to us anymore. Some animals can be a threat to our farm animals. The eider-duck farmers protect the nesting birds by killing foxes that enter their farms. Most of these farmers respect the foxes and would normally hope that they stay away so only reluctantly kill those who are caught “inside the fence”.


    The East Greenlander is still very much a hunter. Of course the supermarket is now available with its frozen Danish chicken and pork, but they maintain their traditional hunt for seals, whales, polar-bear, birds and fish to supplement their income and maintain their traditions. Throughout thousands of years their every need was met with animal products. Their food, clothing, fuel and building materials all came from the animals they hunted. Hardly any vegetation was available for food except minor pickings of crowberries and angelica in the summer. All their vitamins came from eating raw meat, blubber, liver etc in addition to the cooked food. The word Eskimo actually means “eaters of raw meat” and is now considered offensive in much of the Arctic.

    Their life was in a cruel way fully sustainable. Their own population was quickly reduced when the hunting failed. In the 1700-1800´s the seal, whale and polar bear hunt sometimes failed and the locals who lived behind the ice belt in East Greenland didn´t know that the reason was excessive hunt for these animals by European ships just outside. They didn´t even know that there was another world out there. Similar thing is happening now when the polar bear population is possibly endangered on a global scale because of global warming and pollution even if the local management has been fully sustainable for hundreds of years. International environmental organizations have given Greenland a thumbs-up for their good management of the very limited polar bear hunt but still the hunters are not allowed to trade their products internationally and the meat is so full of chemicals from the industrial world that it is only safe to eat in small quantities. As of now the most endangered species seems to be the Greenlandic hunter himself.


    Whales are majestic animals and a fantastic sight to see on our expeditions. Some people maintain that whales are highly intelligent and perhaps they even have similar intelligence as our cows and horses or even pigs? Fortunately the global whale hunt is now highly regulated and most likely fully sustainable. Many people like to stop all hunting for whales but that is then for philosophical reasons saying that we should simply not kill large marine mammals like that ever again. That is of course a valid argument and we can agree or disagree on that point. I am sure that the major industrial hunt for whales is a thing of the past. My good friend Konni Eggerts is a legendary minke whale hunter in Ísafjörður. There are many things we disagree on (!) but we both like cross country skiing and we both love whale meat. His boat was similar size as my sailboat and in the latter years he hunted only a few minke whales each summer. I enjoyed being able to buy meat from this small-scale, sustainable hunt straight off the boat. Lately you were not allowed to buy the meat on the wharf but had to buy it via some strange company in Reykjavík after the catch had been trucked back and forth and then I have to say that the taste was a bit bitter. And even if I support the small-scale, traditional local hunt I cannot support the Reykjavík based industrial hunt where an eccentric millionaire can spend his money on trophy hunting for fin whales just to smuggle the meat to Japan for pet food.

    The East Greenlanders hunt narwhal, dolphins, minke whales and recently also orcas. All the meat, blubber and skin go to feed people and sled dogs. I support the right of these people to continue this hunt but of course they also have to show responsibility. The kill has to be clean and swift and the entire whale has to be utilized. You kill them, you eat them!


    Seals seem to be plentiful all around the world and they continue to be a major contribution to the diet and economy of the Greenlanders. Campaigns to stop the Canadian seal hunt have pretty much wiped out all markets for Greenlandic sealskin so from a business point of view they have been struggling for decades. And talking about “saving the seal” campaigns. I don´t have any sympathy for the Canadian or Norwegian industrial seal hunters that often were doing a horrible job. Seals like any other animals that we decide to hunt deserve to be killed in a clean and proper way and this most often means that they should be shot with a rifle which is how Greenlanders have been hunting almost exclusively for a hundred years. The clubbing of baby seals is an outdated hunting method even if the hunt can be sustainable as such. Netting of marine mammals such as seals and whales is still allowed in many places (such as Iceland) but nowadays there is no reason to drown any animals like that.

    It is a valid philosophy to say that we are not entitled to and should not kill or eat any animals. Personally I do not agree with this but I respect this view. If we on the other hand accept that meat is a part of our diet we need to accept that same rules should apply to all animals: deer, pigs, whales, cows, seals. Given that the population is strong and a hunt can be sustainable, they should have a healthy and “happy” life and a swift and painless moment of death.