Walrus and the Whistleblower Documentary Premieres at Hot Docs 2020: Wins Audience Award

Phil Demers in the Walrus and the Whistleblower, Credit Joseph Michel Gratton
Phil Demers in the Walrus and the Whistleblower, Credit Joseph Michel Gratton

SYNOPSIS: Phil Demers (aka Walrus Whisperer) is a part-time mailman who lives in a bungalow across the creek from Marineland, the iconic amusement park in Niagara Falls, where he had his dream job as an animal trainer for over a decade. He swam with killer whales and ran the show, until he quit 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.

On the heels of the Tiger King phenomenon, which highlighted issues of animal abuse in the bizarre underworld of exotic animals, The Walrus and the Whistleblower, directed by Nathalie Bibeau, follows the story of the fight to save marine animals as seen through the point of view of Demers.  Demers, the self-proclaimed “mom” of the endearing walrus, Smooshi, has been embroiled in a custody battle, since 2012, to save Smooshi from the seemingly negligent hands of Marineland owner, John Holer.  

Phil Demers and Smooshi in Walrus and the Whistleblower
NIAGARA FALLS, ONTARIO-FEBRUARY 02, 2007- Female walrus at Marineland named Smooshi has developed an extraordinary attachment to her trainer Phil Demers to the point where she lets him ride her and she follows him like a dog. Photo by Simon Wilson for the Toronto Star

This story peels back the layers in our relationship with animals in captivity, while exploring the life of a whistleblower who is on a quest to be reunited with the walrus he left behind. The film includes disturbing video footage and photos of animals who appear to be malnourished (skeletal in appearance), lethargic and suffering from neglect in skin care/hygiene (peeling, lacerations, extreme dryness). The film also points out a “highly unusual” number of walrus deaths (4) in a 24-month period; Smooshi is the lone surviving walrus, prompting a passionate plea from Demers to transfer Smooshi to another facility. 

Bibeau clarified why the film is just as important now as it was back in 2012. “There has been a seismic shift in the public perception of marine mammal captivity since those allegations were made 8 years ago…This is a nuanced film that explores not just the treatment of animals and the paradigm shift in our relationship with them. It is a film that explores corporate accountability in a changing world, and the cost and courage of speaking out against an industry that may be losing control of the narrative,” she explained.

Phil Demers in the Walrus and the Whistleblower, Credit Joseph Michel Gratton

The Walrus and the Whistleblower premiered at Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival on May 28, 2020 and launched across screens on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) main network and CBC’s streaming service Gem. Six days later, Marineland announced that Smooshi the walrus had given birth to a baby walrus.

On June 16, 2020, Marineland provided the following statement in response to the allegations contained within The Walrus and the Whistleblower, “Like all Canadians, Mr. Demers is entitled to express his opinions on whatever topics he chooses, even when those opinions may be inaccurate or unfair and despite the fact, he resigned his employment at Marineland in 2012 and has not been in the park in 8.5 years…The allegations were investigated by CAZA [Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums] and the OSPCA [Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals] when they were first made eight years ago and demonstrated to be false.” 

Bibeau responded, “Marineland’s representative says in the film that, at the time, ‘no agency under the Criminal Code and the OSCPA Act’ believed it had reasonable or probable grounds that a marine mammal at Marineland was or is being abused. The CAZA and OSPCA investigations took place some months after Phil left Marineland and there are competing views on the reasons for the outcome of those investigations.”

For more information, please visit The Walrus and the Whistleblower

About Jillian Dale 16 Articles
Film festival coverage and digital content ninja.

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