Who is Smooshi? And why is she haunting my dreams?

I hate these animal documentaries.  A friend might recommend one—knowing I love animals—and I run the other way. But as much as it pains me to say it, I can’t recommend The Walrus and the Whistleblower enough. So, here goes: Friends, please watch it. Open your eyes to reality, as painful as it may be.

I’ve been following Phil Demers for a while; on Facebook, Twitter, the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, various newsfeeds. Give him a platform and watch him run. I knew that viewing this doc was inevitable. And necessary. I needed to know more about him, to learn why someone would put their livelihood, their reputation, and their mental wellbeing at peril, to save a walrus.

Phil Demers (b. 1978, Welland, Ontario) was a Canadian marine animal trainer at the Marineland of Canada in Niagara Falls, Ontario. (It’s quite a popular tourist spot. Admire the waterfalls, then spend big bucks at Marineland. Otherwise, there’s not much to do in Niagara Falls.)  The entrepreneur John Holer first opened the park complex in 1961. It was a simple operation in the beginning—two water tanks housing three sea lions—but gradually it expanded, adding dolphins, orcas, and other sea mammals. Today business is booming, thanks to the elaborate show that draws enormous crowds every year.

In 2000 Phil was looking for work, when the offer to become an apprentice at Marineland came up. He stayed in this dream job until 2012. In 2004 a contingent of walruses arrived, Smooshi among them. While carrying out a veterinary procedure, Phil imprinted strongly upon her, cementing an exceptional connection. The world celebrated their bond on the news, on talk shows and throughout public imagination. The love story between a walrus and a lad was the favourite of everyone.

Things seemed to go well, until 2012, when a breakdown occurred in the complex’s ozone generator. Instead of replacing it, the owner increased the chlorine content in the water. The effects on all the sea animals was disastrous: burnt eyes and skin, hair and weight loss, decreased appetite, and lethargy. It hit Smooshi hard. Fed up with animal neglect by Marineland, Phil quit. They agreed that he would return regularly to visit Smooshi, since it had become clear she suffered in his absence. This agreement didn’t last, and the more Phil heard of Smooshi and the other animals suffering, the greater his resolve. He became a whistleblower.

Marineland hit back hard, using scare tactics, threats, and legal action; they sued Demers, claiming he was trying to steal Smooshi for his own financial gain. The fight elevated and in 2017 Demers brought the issue before the Canadian Senate.

In recent years Canada has altered its stance regarding wild sea animal confinement. They banned Orca captivity in Ontario and put better conditions and care practices in force from May 2018. In summer 2019 Canada passed Bill S-203, banning the trade, breeding and display of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) for entertainment.

Since then, Marineland has justified the continued use of these animals by calling them “educational presentations”.  Smooshi remains in captivity, apparently destined to go to a marine park in Germany. More recently she has given birth – a dangerous practice at her advanced age.

Phil Demers continues to fight for her. He hasn’t seen her in years and he wants her freedom.

The Walrus and the Whistleblower, directed by Natalie Bibeau, won the top prize at the Canadian Hot Docs international documentary film festival in June 2020.

I hated watching this documentary. But I want you to see it too.