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article imageSeal pups at Aquarium des Iles will be released back to the wild

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By Elizabeth Batt     Sep 19, 2012 in Environment
Quebec - After a public outcry, two harp seal pups who received a reprieve earlier this week after being scheduled for euthanasia, can be returned to the wild says Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO-MPO).
The 6-month-old pups, Zak and Mika, were captured from the wild this spring as newborn pups by Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO-MPO), and sent to the Aquarium des Iles in Quebec, who accepted the pups for tourism display.
But when the facility closed its doors for the winter on Sep. 15, Zak and Mika were scheduled to be destroyed for research. Now, thanks to a petition with over 150,000 signatures, the two pups not only escaped a date with the executioner, they will be released back to the wild.
British Columbia's Island Wildlife Natural Care Centre (IWNCC), a registered wild animal charity, took up the cause of Zak and Mika after learning of the pups impending euthanasia from a summer employee at the aquarium.
The female worker who had cared for the pups throughout the season, blew the whistle on her employers, and contacted several animal rights groups for help. When IWNCC learned of the pups' fate via the Brigitte Bardot Foundation, the group immediately launched a petition targeting the Honourable Keith Ashfield, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans.
According to the Aquarium des Iles, the facility has been receiving seals from DFO-MPO for the past 25 years. Normally at the end of the season, the seals are always returned to the wild. But this year said the aquarium on their Facebook page, the Department of Fisheries told them that they couldn't release the pups back into the environment because it posed "a risk of contamination not only to the seal herd, but also to other marine mammals."
Pedro Baranda, of IWNCC said the facility accepted the seals anyway, knowing full well that they would be destroyed at the end of the season. IWNCC's petition which garnered more than 150,000 signatures in less than two weeks, ratcheted up the pressure for the facility. They finally granted a reprieve to the seals and offered to find them a new home.
But in a bizarre twist that earned them further condemnation, the facility asked petition signers for donations of $73,000 before September 21. This, they said, would ensure the seals' welfare and help pay for their cost of living until they could relocated.
Alicia Graef of Care2.com called the proposition little more than a "ransom note;" IWNCC added, "We think this is extortion! Tell the Fisheries Minister to step in for Zak and Mika" they said, "$73,000 or no."
Now in an about face, and after the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) got involved, Canada's DFO has said the pups can be returned to the wild. Jackie Ballerone, a director at IWNCC told Metro, "They’ve (DFO) done a 360, they really have, and I have to tip my hat to them, it’s really really hard for a big bureaucracy to turn on a dime as you probably know."
Yet even though the DFO came through Ballerone said, the director still queried the policies surrounding the issue and why DFO was capturing seals for the aquarium every year. "Why they do it, I don’t know," she said.
Meanwhile, the Aquarium des Iles issued a statement yesterday from its President saying (Bing translation):
The Aquarium of the Islands received confirmation of fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) that he had authority to release its two seals at sea. We will therefore proceed with rehabilitation as soon as possible, taking care to ensure their good health.
The public however, wasn't so forgiving about the issue. Facebook user Carolina GM posted on the aquarium's page:
Maybe if you stop borrowing wild animals for seasonal exhibitions you wouldn't have all this trouble. Now it is your responsibility to make sure that these baby seals are prepared to survive in the ocean before releasing them.
But IWNCC responded that unlike cetaceans who would need rehabilitation before being released:
These 2 seals will do just great in the wild. They are healthy and of good weight. Foraging is instinctive, not taught by mom. It's in their DNA to chase and eat fish. This is a win-win situation that has resulted. Maybe it's time to back off a bit, please.
Although no date has been set for the pups' release yet, interest in their welfare remains high. Many hope that the release of Zak and Mika when it comes, will be opened up to the public.
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