The Whistleblower Who Fought to Expose Smooshi the Walrus’ Ugly Alleged Abuse

Mike DiBattista/AP
Mike DiBattista/AP

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.

Their relationship soon became national news, as well as jokey fodder for Jimmy Kimmel Live! It was not to last, however—at least in person. 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.

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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. Long infuriated by those who sought to shut him down on the grounds that his operation was inherently inhumane, Holer viewed this as a betrayal perpetrated by a close confidant. 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—bolsters Demers’ case that something is greatly amiss at Canada’s preeminent tourist spot, which since 1970 has been a well-known cultural presence due to its ubiquitous jingle-y TV commercials. 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.

In new interviews that drive the documentary, Demers comes across as an individual willing and eager for a fight, and The Walrus and the Whistleblower soon transforms from a portrait of his animal-rights awakening to a David vs. Goliath legal saga. Convinced that aggression is the best means of making his case, Demers chastises Marineland on Twitter (his posts are routinely plastered over Bibeau’s frame) while fending off Holer’s various lawsuits. What he discovers, in real time over the course of the film, is that Holer’s strategy isn’t to silence him through court decisions; rather, it’s to inundate him with litigation (and its immense attendant costs) until he opts, from sheer battle fatigue, to silence himself.

The trauma of being out of one’s natural element is central to The Walrus and the Whistleblower, with regards to both Smooshi and Demers, and director Bibeau’s up-close-and-personal scenes with the latter paint him as a man adrift. Demers’ dogged combativeness is his greatest asset in his struggle against Marineland (and on behalf of Smooshi), but it sometimes also comes off as unpleasant belligerence, and the film wisely doesn’t try to sand off his rough edges to make him a more palatable crusader—as when, during one of his rants, his girlfriend (and former Marineland employee) Christine can be seen wrinkling her nose at his tone and language. Bibeau takes a warts-and-all approach to depicting Demers, and in doing so, bolsters her action’s authenticity—which, in turn, goes a long way toward lending legitimacy to Demers’ cause.

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, and then allegedly cover up their misdeeds in order to maintain a sunshiny outward appearance for customers; and the genuine rapport that can develop between humans and animals. Though Bibeau’s film gets a bit draggy in its middle section, and is prone to the occasional unnecessary visual flourish (shots of Demers naked in his bathtub, or sticking his face in water and screaming), it finds magic in the lasting, unshakeable affection between Demers and Smooshi.

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.

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