The bitter fight over treatment of animals at the popular Marineland attraction at Niagara Falls, Ont., has taken a weird turn with management accusing a critic and former trainer of trying to kidnap a giant walrus named Smooshi.
Marineland, owned by John Hofer, has filed a trespassing lawsuit against Phil Demers claiming he and fellow activists stormed the marine park during a live stadium show on closing day Oct. 7, the Toronto Star reports.
Demers strongly denied the allegation Thursday, saying he has evidence he never entered the property during a protest staged outside Marineland that day.
“The notion that I’m ‘plotting’ to steal Smooshi is absurd,” he told the Star. “I also doubt my second floor apartment would hold a walrus. My hands are full enough with my cats."
Marineland was put on the defensive last summer after the Star published stories, based on interviews with former staff and documents it had obtained, alleging seals, sea lions and whales were suffering skin problems and some had gone blind due to poor-quality water.
Hofer vigorously denied the claims in a message posted on Marineland's web site.
Demers, who quit as a trainer last May, was one of eight people to come forward with allegations against Marineland, the Star said.
In its statement of claim, Marineland alleges: “Mr. Demers and others agreed on or about October 7, 2012 to unlawfully gain entry into Marineland at a time known only to them, utilizing Mr. Demers’ knowledge of Marineland security as a former employee . . . in order to steal Smooshi the Walrus.”
The suit further claims Demers risked visitors' safety by illegally entering the park during the closing-day show. It said he and other activists were loud and hostile, causing young children to flee, damaging its business, the Star reported.
Demers said he stayed outside the park gates during the protest.
Marineland is seeking an injunction to keep Demers from coming into the park, as well as the property of Hofer and anyone else connected with the aquatic theme park.
Given Marineland's international profile as a tourist attraction, the suit is receiving coverage south of the border.
“I look forward to defending myself against the claims brought about by Marineland and hope the focus can once again be concentrated on the animals I continue to care for,” Demers told the U.S. network ABC News via email.
According to ABC News, the Marineland suit alleges Demers became "upset and displeased" when management in 2011 rejected his idea for a reality TV show "The Walrus Whisperer," based his close relationship with Smooshi.
The television production company that helped Demers pitch the show cast him as the “Kanye West” of animal training because of his candor and outspokenness, the former trainer said.
He denied any connection between the failed show pitch and his departure from the park.
“The notion of my leaving on account of some rejected TV show is absurd and simply serves as a distraction from the real issues which were brought forth by 15 ex-employee/whistleblowers,” he told ABC News. ”This is, and remains, about the animals.”
Demers admitted he and Smooshi were close.
“Smooshi and I share an anomaly of a relationship which continues to inspire me, and I do dream of a day when we can be reunited,” he said in his email to ABC News.
“Her well being was historically dependent on my being a part of her life, and it saddens me that she can’t see me anymore. I miss her and all the animals a great deal.”
ABC News noted that in response to the allegations animals were mistreated at the park, Canada's Accredited Zoos and Aquariums organization did an inspection last November and found nothing to support the whistleblowers' claims. But Demers questioned the group's objectivity, saying it has a close working relationship with Marineland.