Monday, March 30, 1998
Hunters stalk harp seals
in hopes of libido boost
LAST week, while driving, I heard several Canadians on
the radio debating seal hunting.
People were disagreeing over how many harp seals there
really are in Canada, an important issue since this determines the number
that can be killed each year without wiping out the species. Some folks
also voiced strong opinions about the rights and wrongs of killing marine
"Why are people killing seals?" I wondered.
A few days later, I found my answer in a science
journal. Toronto shops specializing in traditional Chinese medicine are
currently selling seal penises for $500 each.
They can get such a large sum for this unusual product
because it comes with a tantalizing promise: Seal penises will improve
sexual function in men.
How? Traditionally, a man is supposed to mix seal penis
powder in wine and drink it. Some convenient potions come with seal penis
already mixed in wine.
Alternate choices are to buy the bone (seal penises
have a bone inside them) with preserved tissue on it or buy crosswise
slices of the organ and grind up your own concoction. One recipe, named
Three-Penis Wine, calls for dog, deer and seal penises.
There are a couple of serious problems with this seal
penis remedy for flagging libidos. First, when buying this product, people
don't know what they're really getting.
A team of Canadian scientists recently analyzed DNA
from supposed seal penises sold in Canada, the U.S and Asia. They found
the real thing but also found penises of cattle, dogs, water buffalo and
some protected species.
One DNA sample had an alarmingly close match to the
African wild dog, a critically endangered species. Another from Hong Kong
resembled the DNA of the protected Australian fur seal.
But even it you get the real thing, does it work?
I searched the medical literature but found no
published studies on seal penises as aphrodisiacs. To my surprise,
however, I did find a paper on the effect of ambergris on the sexual
behavior of rats.
Ambergris is a gray, waxy secretion found in the
digestive tract of some sperm whales. It was once used as a fixative in
perfumes, and apparently, is used as an aphrodisiac in some parts of the
When given a dose of ambrien, a major constituent of
ambergris, male rats got a lot more interested in sex, even when no female
rats were around.
And when receptive females were put into the cages ...
Well, compared to their usual performance, the male rats had a
"vigorous and repetitive increase" in their sexual activity.
The researchers, pharmacologists from King Saud
University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, concluded that ambrien is indeed a
This shows that sometimes medical folklore is right.
And sometimes it isn't.
During my search of aphrodisiac studies, I also found
two reports on the effects of swallowing a substance containing toad
secretions. Of seven previously healthy men who took the drug for its
supposed aphrodisiac effects, four died.
Toad secretions contain a drug that causes abnormal
heart rhythms in people, perhaps producing the high they feel when taking
it. Unfortunately, it can also stop the heart.
What's the right thing to do when there's a suspicion
that an animal product may help a human ailment?
Researchers must first study the substance according to
strict scientific protocol to see if it's truly beneficial. If it is, we
don't rush out and kill as many of the animals as we can. Today, we make
the drug in laboratories. This not only saves animals but also allows for
regulation of the drug's content and use.
Buying seal penises is wrong.