It was the morning of Friday, April 1, 2005. Newspapers were reporting that hundreds of well-wishers had taken up vigil in St Peter’s Square in Rome after Pope John Paul II had suffered heart failure.

Cable news channels were anticipating a family fight over the burial of Terry Schiavo, the focus of the national right-to-die debate, who had died in a Florida hospital the day before. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) was reporting that more than 300,000 seal pups had been killed in the 2005 Canadian seal hunt, which the HSUS claimed was the largest slaughter of marine mammals on the planet.

Discouraged by the news, but knowing that Flickr has a way of bringing like-minded individuals together to share their thoughts and feelings through words and pictures, Gale and Gini created the Flickr group Voices in the Wilderness. They then began to discuss the purpose of the group.

“I would like this group to be a celebration of the beauty we see, then record with our cameras, the meditations of healing we whisper with our photos, the anguish we feel for our endangered world, the hope we have for our children and the future,” Gini wrote. “I would like the group to be a refuge for those of us who can hear the voices in the wilderness.”

“Perfect . . . [that] really does portray the basic yearning,” Gale said.

Since its creation almost a year ago, Voices in the Wilderness has grown to more than 450 members. These members have posted more than 6500 images and started scores of discussion threads to share their feelings about a broad range of natural and environmental issues. Drilling for oil in Alaska, Japanese whaling, and the Kyoto Protocol are just a few of the recent concerns that have kept members at their computers late into the night.

One of the first issues to be discussed on Voices in the Wilderness, the Canadian seal hunt, has been attracting attention again, as the 2006 hunt will begin in March. The seals are primarily killed for their fur, most of which is exported to Europe for the fashion trade. When the pups are around 12 weeks old, they are weaned from their mothers and left in large nurseries on the ice. As the ice melts (or is broken up by the Canadian coastguard ships), the pups become vulnerable to hunters in their fishing boats. The pups are too immature to get away, and most carry too much body fat to escape beneath the surface of the water.

The hunt can be brutal, as is seen in distressing video of the 2005 hunt on the HSUS website. The footage was particularly difficult for the author to watch after having walked among the seal herds during a photo trip to the Magdalen Islands in the Canadian Gulf of St. Lawrence just before the 2005 seal hunt. The pups were easily approached and exhibited a variety of behavior: some barked like little puppies, others scrambled away, while most simply lay there staring up with those deep, round eyes. Stroking their fur was an irresistible and not impossible joy; it almost seemed like some of them enjoyed being scratched.

Voices hopes to raise awareness of the hunt and to encourage Flickrites, as Flickr users call themselves, to put economic pressure on the Canadian government to stop the hunt forever. To do so, they are promoting the HSUS list of 11 things you can do to stop the hunt. This action plan, posted on the Voices in the Wilderness home page, encourages people to boycott Canadian seafood, to stop vacationing in Canada, and to write to designers asking them not to use fur in their clothing. The HSUS is reporting great success with this effort. More than 300 restaurants and seafood businesses have signed on to boycott Canadian seafood, and at last count, more than 130,000 individuals had pledged not to eat it.

Voices in the Wilderness is also raising awareness of the issue by posting images of seals and their pups in their natural habitat, many of which come from the author's aforementioned trip.

It’s only days until the next seal hunt takes place. Voices hopes future generations will have a chance to walk on the ice floes amongst the great seal herds of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to stroke the gorgeous white fur of the baby harp seals, and to simply experience a peaceful and heartwarming time with these creatures.

Sean Russell is an active member of the Voices in the Wilderness Flickr photogroup.

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