My childhood acquaintance became the @walruswhisperer and is battling to end marine mammal captivity

By: Nathalie Bibeau, director of The Walrus and the Whistleblower

When I left my small home town in the rust belt of Canada, like a shot, at the end of high school, I never imagined it would be the birthplace of my first feature film.

I have been a journalist and storyteller for years. I was a documentary producer at CBC when I first heard that Phil Demers, a friend of my brother’s growing up, had become a viral sensation in the early days of social media. He had landed his dream job as an animal trainer at Marineland, the iconic amusement park in Niagara Falls, Ont. — a place my parents took me when I was a kid — and he had become famous in the media for his relationship with a walrus named Smooshi.

Phil and Smooshi became an inseparable pair after she arrived at Marineland as a baby, and no one had ever seen anything like it. He gave her a sense of security while she gave him a sense of purpose, and together, they became the poster children for the human–animal bond.

Years later, in 2012, Phil was in the news again. Only this time, he was a whistleblower and the principal source in a Toronto Star exposé. I was shocked. He made claims of animal abuse and substandard conditions of care at Marineland, eventually calling for an end to the 60-year-old practice of keeping marine mammals in captivity that had made his relationship with Smooshi possible.

Though they have faced increasing pressure regarding the wellbeing of their animals, Marineland maintains that “we have a strong record of providing for the welfare of our animals and will continue to prioritize their health and wellbeing as a central focus of our mission.”

Watching this heated debate play out in the public eye, I knew there was a film waiting to happen. But it took me years to take the leap. It felt too close to home, and the risk was great. I had heard about the lawsuits filed against whistleblowers and members of the media who reported on their claims. I still thought of Phil as an adolescent troublemaker with a quick tongue and a sharp edge, and I had happy memories of Marineland. But as time passed, I felt the paradigm shift around the issue. The questions in my mind grew louder, and I realized what was keeping me from telling the story were the very reasons I needed to do it.

When I approached Phil about making this film, there was an immediate connection based on our shared mutual history, growing up as francophones in the same small town. But we were total strangers at the same time, because I had left and he had stayed. Our lives and careers could not have been more different. He was embroiled in a stranger-than-fiction custody battle to save a walrus, with a raw desire to vindicate himself, and I was coming at it with the fresh eyes of a storyteller. A natural tension between trust and critical distance evolved, but we found a way to communicate. 

Within a few months of following this story, John Holer — Phil’s nemesis and the owner of Marineland — died. It made my head spin thinking about how I would ever get Marineland’s point of view into the documentary, which was crucial to me. On top of that, my parents sold my childhood home, and our former high school was torn down. It was as if I was being called back home to witness the destruction of what once was. But it was also the beginning of a new era.

MORE:
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The sands of public opinion on captivity were shifting beneath my feet. For two years, while making this film, I spoke to activists, scientists and politicians far and wide, following several stories at once and having unforgettable life experiences. I travelled across the continent to see killer whales in the wild; a walrus sucked on my thumb; I remote-directed a shoot in Russia’s Far East; some subjects screamed or cried, while others tried to convince people not to talk to me.

I have cried over this film myself, which someone once told me is a sign you have a real movie on your hands. Near the end of a long, exhausting editing process, we were trying to crack a problem with the emotional structure of the film. I started rewatching old CBC footage of Phil and Smooshi at the height of their life together, and I saw Phil clench his jaw in utter adoration, calling her name and putting a snowball on her head. My eyes welled up with tears, and I finally felt the pulse of the film I wanted to make.

I sought to tell a story that strikes at the heart of our relationships with each other as we reimagine our relationships with animals. For me, the tale of Phil and Smooshi is one of longing and resilience, and the questions it raises about our desire to have and hold on to what we love — at any cost — are mine, too.

Watch The Walrus and the Whistleblower.

 

Produced with additional funding from: