Hout Bay ‘tourist attraction’ seals removed after SPCA-led court order
Seals at Cape Town’s Hout Bay harbour have long attracted tourists who interact with them for a small donation to informal ‘handlers’ of the animals. The Department of Forestries, Fisheries and the Environment, the city and the SPCA are now urging people not to harass the seals for social media content.
Seals from Duiker Island off the coast of Hout Bay, Cape Town, have endured everything from beatings and overfeeding to being forced to physically interact with people.
This has prompted legal action.
On 8 November, the Cape of Good Hope SPCA obtained an order from the Wynberg Magistrates’ Court allowing it to seize five seals which were being abused and exploited at Hout Bay harbour.
‘Cycle of abuse’
The chief inspector of the Cape of Good Hope SPCA, Jaco Pieterse, warned on the organisation’s website: “Exploiting these wild animals for the sake of getting a good picture for your social media platforms is not only morally and ethically wrong, it also perpetuates a cycle of abuse and cruelty. Please prioritise their welfare over how many likes and shares you can generate online.”
The SPCA took to Facebook to explain what was happening to the seals.
It said the animals were effectively exploited because seal “handlers” charged tourists to feed or engage with the seals and photograph their experiences.
Daily Maverick has previously reported that this activity is primarily driven by the human appetite for entertainment.
Cruelty and obesity
SPCA communication manager, Belinda Abraham, told Daily Maverick on Thursday that the cruel part about using animals for entertainment was aversive training methods.
“The real cruelty is not generally apparent when the animals are performing. We received a complaint of just such an example where an eyewitness reported one of these seals being beaten with a plank of wood. This is what prompted the Cape of Good Hope SPCA to act,” she said.
“We have a record of all investigations undertaken by the SPCA. Two seals were found to be obese. They were overfed, with two of them presenting as obese at the time of their rescue. This is an unheard-of condition in the wild and the likely result of the seals being prevented from expressing their natural behaviour, including swimming and hunting for their own fish.”
Abraham said the SPCA was working with other authorities to ensure animals were not ill-treated.
“The city will continue to promote responsible tourism, as will the SPCA,” she said.
“We are supported by law enforcement whenever issues relating to animals – requiring the arrest of perpetrators or the seizure of animals – arise. We will also continue to work together to effect change via punitive means if this is the only alternative,” said Abraham.
In an update on Thursday, the SPCA said, “This past weekend, the seals were relocated 900km away to an undisclosed location for their own protection and in the hopes that they will not be able to find their way back to the harbour again.
“We hope that this will afford them the opportunity to live in an environment free of coercion and abuse and where they can freely express their natural behaviours.”
Peter Mbelengwa, chief director of communication and advocacy at the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), told Daily Maverick he was concerned about increasing incidents of harassment by the public of Cape fur seals along the coast.
“These incidents have included allowing dogs to approach or attack resting seals, throwing stones at seals, enticing seals to chase people for social media footage or feeding seals for financial gain,” he said.
Mbelengwa added, “The department emphasises that the activities currently taking place constitute harassment and are therefore a criminal offence in terms of the regulations and are dangerous both to the public and to the seals.
“There are measures in place to rehabilitate or provide medical care to any seal should the need arise, and the public should therefore report any concerns they have to the department, the SPCA or the City of Cape Town.”
Cape Town deputy mayor Eddie Andrews told Daily Maverick that feeding seals in harbours was a common practice.
“This issue has a long history but has become more active in the last few years,” he said.
“Seal-feeders in the past have been arrested by the DFFE environmental management inspectorate and charged in terms of the Marine Threatened or Protected Species regulations. City law enforcement has also assisted in issuing fines to people for harassing/disturbing seals.”
The city says residents and visitors should not pose with any wild animals or pay or engage with any seal feeders as this allows the informal economy around the abuse of seals to grow.
As far back as 2020, complaints were raised on CapeTalk about the illegal feeding of seals.
Callers said it was cruel, with the seals often being hit by handlers who were rude to people who refused to give them money.
Read More in Daily Maverick: Why are we seeing an increase in aggressive behaviour by seals?
According to the Two Oceans Aquarium, there are about two million Cape fur seals along the southern coastline, living in 24 to 40 colonies. The seals in Hout Bay harbour come from a colony on Duiker Island, just off the coast. DM