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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 mammals.

"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 world.

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 sexual stimulant.

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.

 

 


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, "Ocean Watch",
for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, www.starbulletin.com