Paro, Japan's cute & cuddly seal pup therapy robot, has begun soothing and comforting elderly residents of a senior care center in Montreal, Quebec. Naturally, Canadian seal hunters have a problem with this.

“Sealgate”, as we'll call it, erupted when Quebec Minister of Health Yves Bolduc visited a Montreal senior care center on Monday, April 2nd. Bolduc was shown the center's newly arrived pair of Paro robotic therapy seals (left), purchased at a cost of $6,000 each from the manufacturer in Japan. 

Bolduc discussed the robots with reporters covering his visit and defended their purchase stating “It's very serious, these people have trouble with their cognitive abilities and the seal helps them feel very pleasant emotions.”

Emotions of a quite different kind are being expressed by seal hunters, however, who feel the white-coated robot seals have no place in government-run care centers. “It's been half a century that we are treated like assassins or barbarians,” stated Leonce Arseneau, “and our minister, he thinks (the robotic seals) are cute.”

Arseneau, a member of a seal hunters association based in the Magdalen Islands located in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence north of Prince Edward Island, is leading the charge against the pair of Paro robots.

His main point of contention is that by condoning the purchase of the robots, “the government is reinforcing the image of the cute and cuddly seal” and in perpetuating this stereotype, participation in the federally sanctioned seal hunt becomes more problematic because public opinion is further tilted against seal hunters.

“With all these myths about the hunt that we have to try and dispel, we don't understand why the government didn't choose a baby dog, or a baby cat or a baby rabbit for senior care centres,” fulminated Arseneau. “We haven't even been able to kill baby seals since 1987.”

This is technically true: Canadian law allows hunters to take young seals once they begin to molt their downy white newborn coats. As this occurs when the pups are 12 to 15 days old, they are often considered to be “babies” depending upon one's POV of the seal hunt itself.

As for Arseneau's contention that the Montreal senior center should have chosen a different animal therapy robot, let's just say there aren't a lot of alternate choices out there. Paro may be modeled after a white-coated seal pup but we must assume the senior center's managers based their selection on the need to acquire proven, effective therapy robots. Paro happens to lead its class in both criteria, having been certified by Guinness World Records in 2002 as being “The World's Most Therapeutic Robot”.

Meanwhile, Quebec's government was frantically exercising spin control in an effort to defuse the brewing tempest in a teacup. According to Natacha Joncas-Boudreau, Bolduc's spokesperson, the minister “did not encourage the buying of the seals, he just highlighted a local initiative.”

Joncas-Boudreau also stated the Minister of Health “recognizes that Quebec's seal hunt is a sustainable activity that does not involve cruelty.” Even Jean Charest, Quebec's Premier, was drawn into the fracas and was forced to defend his minister, denying claims his government showed support for a stuffed animal over its citizens and reiterating that Bolduc “only described what he saw.” (via Canoe, Spiegel Online, and Eueublog)


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