|A robotic baby seal is seen at a senior care centre in Montreal. (CHANTAL POIRIER/QMI Agency)
MONTREAL — They are white and fluffy, have round, black eyes and long eyelashes, and make adorable squirmy noises when touched.
They are two new robotic baby seals that two senior care centres in Montreal bought from Japan for $6,000 each. And they've provoked outrage from seal hunters in Quebec's Magdalen Islands.
The province's health minister had to publicly defend the seal hunt on Thursday after he dared to show support for the stuffed animals.
Minister Yves Bolduc visited a Montreal senior care centre on Monday and told reporters the robotic seal is no joke.
"It's very serious," he said. "These people have trouble with their cognitive abilities and the seal helps them feel very pleasant emotions."
The robot vibrates and responds to touch, mimicking the way a dog or cat would respond to petting. It also make cute baby seal noises.
However, Quebec seal hunters said they were livid when they found out about the minister's visit.
Leonce Arseneau, a member of a seal hunters association in the Magdalen Islands, said he nearly fell out of his chair when he read a QMI Agency article about the minister's visit.
He said the government is reinforcing the image of the cute and cuddly seal. That stereotype makes killing adult seals harder because it turns public opinion against hunters, he said.
"It's been half a century that we are treated like assassins or barbarians," Arseneau said. "And our minister, he thinks (the robotic seals) are cute."
Arseneau said stuffed seals have no place in government care centres.
"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," he said. "We haven't even been able to kill baby seals since 1987."
The federal government authorized the slaughter of 400,000 adult seals in 2012. The government says the animals are destroying fish stocks because each seal eats 3 kg of fish a day. There are nine million seals in Canada, making the seal population the largest it's been in 30 years, the federal government says.
The Quebec government quickly went into damage-control mode after learning of the hunters' dismay.
Bolduc's spokeswoman, Natacha Joncas-Boudreau, said the minister "did not encourage the buying of the seals, he just highlighted a local initiative."
She also said the minister recognizes that Quebec's seal hunt is a "sustainable activity that does not involve cruelty."
Premier Jean Charest also spoke out against the claim his government showed support for a stuffed animal.
"(The health minister) only described what he saw," Charest said.