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‘The Walrus and the Whistleblower’: Meet the activist who fought to expose Smooshi the Walrus’ ugly abuse

Having once been opposed to the protesters who regularly lined the sidewalks and entranceway outside Marineland, Phil Demers instead joined them, and quickly became their loudest voice.

NICK SCHAGER: Phil Demers had a love affair like few others. After getting a job as a trainer at Niagara Falls, Ontario’s Marineland of Canada, Demers was excited to hear that the famed park would be receiving a walrus. When that animal arrived, it immediately took an intense liking to Demers, smooshing up against him as a sign of affection and, as a result, earning herself the name Smooshi. During an early attempt to get bloodwork from Smooshi, Demers put his hand over the walrus’ face and, as he says, “in that moment, I became her mom.” Demers had imprinted on Smooshi, and as elucidated by Nathalie Bibeau’s The Walrus and the Whistleblower (out March 4 on Discovery+), so too had Smooshi imprinted on Demers, creating a bond that was next to unbreakable…

In September 2011, the park’s water disinfection unit broke, meaning that chlorine levels had to be raised in the pools housing not only Smooshi but the other four walruses that Marineland’s founder and owner John Holer had purchased, along with various other sea mammals. Through a combination of Demers’ commentary and covertly shot footage from inside the park facilities, The Walrus and the Whistleblower alleges that this crisis allegedly led to intense animal suffering, with sea lions losing their skin because they were isolated in dry cages for months, and Smooshi receiving chemical burns that caused her flippers to become inflamed and her fur to come off. On top of the already questionable medications they gave the animals, the documentary claims this treatment was too much for Demers to bear, and when Holer wouldn’t fix the situation, Demers up and quit…

He did more than just leave his job, though. Having once been opposed to the protesters who regularly lined the sidewalks and entranceway outside Marineland, Demers instead joined them, and quickly became their loudest voice, not only exposing the park’s supposed shady conduct but demanding that it hand over Smooshi… A fight was thus born, carried out not only with lawyers but in the court of public opinion, as Demers used every available media opportunity to rail against Marineland—a place he had loved to work at, before his epiphany—and to advocate for Smooshi’s liberation from conditions that, he believed, were awful and outright dangerous.

The fact that, in the ensuing years, Smooshi’s four walrus companions at Marineland have died under sketchy circumstances—the park claims they were healthy until their sudden demises, which makes little sense and doesn’t jibe with leaked reports from park employees… The Walrus and the Whistleblower’s raft of archival material establishes the national popularity of Marineland, just as its collection of home movie clips proves the amazing connection that Demers shared with Smooshi, who’s seen chasing after, listening to, and snuggling her face up against her trainer with undeniable affection. Far from some fancifully exaggerated fairy tale, Demers and Smooshi’s union was the real (amazing) deal…

The Walrus and the Whistleblower eventually morphs into a story about many things: the activist power of social media, which gives little men a big voice; a rigged judicial system that lets corporations triumph in legal battles by simply drowning rivals in bureaucratic filings that interminably delay the process; the often terrible ways that water parks care for their captive creatures… There’s no happily-ever-after conclusion (yet) to this tale; The Walrus and the Whistleblower ends on a note that’s both hopeful and despondent. In that sense, it becomes something else as well: a study of the intense personal costs of being at the forefront of a fight against influential adversaries whose primary interest is crushing you, at all costs. SOURCE…

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