“When I imprinted on her… F***. That changes your life immediately. Once an animal starts to look at you with those eyes and does it every single day and now you’re the thing she’s attached to… Oh, my God.” – Phil Demers describing the moment he met the walrus that would change everything—Smooshi.
For over a decade, Phil Demers had his dream job as an animal trainer at MarineLand, where he swam with killer whales and ran the animal show. For around $7 an hour he would get in front of an audience of several thousand park visitors, jump in the water with the orcas and allow them to launch him into the sky to a light show of flashbulbs, a symphony of “oohs” and “aahs”.
When Smooshi arrived at MarineLand as a baby, she quickly bonded with Demers and together they became a viral sensation on social media. Demers became known on Twitter as the ‘Walrus Whisperer’ and currently has over 32,000 followers. The bond between Demers and Smooshi was like that of parent and child. Demers weaned Smooshi, who had been captured in Russia and separated from her biological mother while still nursing, and taught her how to fish.
He gave her a sense of security, she gave him a sense of purpose, but not all that glitters is gold. As time went by, Demers began to feel differently about being a part of MarineLand. He eventually quit his job and blew the whistle, making claims of animal abuse and calling for an end to the near 60-year-old practice of keeping marine mammals in pools. In a stranger-than-fiction custody battle, he also plotted to steal his beloved Smooshi, leading MarineLand to sue him for $1.5 million.
The Walrus and the Whistleblower, which won the Rogers Audience Award at the Hot Docs Film Festival, was directed by Demers’ childhood friend Nathalie Bibeau, offering uniquely intimate access to Demers himself, as well as the ensuring consequences of whistleblowing and the ongoing courtcase surrounding Demers and Smooshi.
Demers’ campaign to #SaveSmooshi is also entangled with a wider movement to end marine animal captivity, with national and international animal rights activists focusing their protests against MarineLand and the practice of keeping marine animals in captivity, but ironically conflicts also arise between Demers and other activists, when they learn that he isn’t vegan. The film portrays a unique dynamic in the characters who embody this David and Goliath tale, depicting Demers not as a saint but perhaps a hypocritical carnivorous animal activist.
At the heart of it all, The Walrus and the Whistleblower raises questions of compassion for others, whether human or animal, the nuances of all our stories, and the hills we are willing to die on.
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