Animal activists fear for the health of Smooshi the walrus and her baby at Marineland

Despite inquiries from animal activists and the media, Marineland has remained silent about the well-being of Smooshi the walrus and her calf.

Marineland has not confirmed or denied allegations that Smooshi has died

The documentary 'The Walrus and the Whistleblower' captures the bond between activist and former trainer Phil Demers and Smooshi, the lawsuit against him by Marineland, and his quest to gain custody of the walrus. (Hot Docs)

Where are Smooshi and her calf?

Animal rights activists have been asking Marineland this question for at least two months out of fear that the pair of walruses have died. There haven't been any updates since Smooshi gave birth in June.

The activist community, including Smooshi's former trainer and whistleblower, "walrus whisperer" Phil Demers, had been preparing for the worst. But now there's even more confusion.

Demers tweeted out that he's heard from four separate sources that Smooshi and her baby are actually alive and well. 

CBC News spoke to Demers, who forged a special bond with Smooshi that's known worldwide, ahead of these reports. 

"Whereas before, my gut told me that nothing was stopping me from being reunited with Smooshi, now I find myself in a heap of tears, multiple times a day, inexplicably," he said.

CBC News also emailed Marineland multiple times about whether Smooshi and her baby were alive, but did not receive a reply. When reached by phone, the marketing department said it had passed the request on to its public relations department, but would not comment. 

If Smooshi died, it would mean five walruses at the Niagara Falls zoo and amusement park have died in a span of just over three years.

'Walrus mom'

Demers, who worked for more than a decade at Marineland as an animal trainer, has a unique closeness with Smooshi. 

Demers has said that Smooshi imprinted on him, which made him Smooshi's "mother" in her eyes. Not knowing about her health, he said, is torturous. 

"I didn't physically give birth to her. I didn't go through the pains of labour, but I can certainly attest to the relative pains of being a suffering mother," he said. "I know that makes me sound crazy … but I'm a walrus mom, and until you meet another one, I'm definitely going to come across as crazy." 

"Until you're in my shoes yourself, you're never going to understand."

Demers left the park in 2012 and has been an outspoken critic about marine mammal captivity and claims of animal abuse at Marineland.

New interest because of documentary

The park launched a $1.5 million lawsuit against Demers in 2013, which alleged that he plotted to steal Smooshi. 

The Walrus and the Whistleblower is a documentary that captures this lawsuit, Demers's activism, and his "custody battle" for Smooshi. 

It premiered as part of Toronto's Hot Docs festival, which was online this year, and is being shown next week at DOC NYC, a documentary film festival in New York City. The documentary has been listed in the Winner's Circle section, which highlights films that have won major festival awards but might "fly below the radar of American audiences."

It was commissioned by the Documentary Channel, where it will be featured, as well as on CBC Gem.  

Demers said he thinks the film and its international exposure is why Marineland hasn't provided an update on Smooshi's health. 

The walrus is noticeably absent from the park's social media channels, he said. The park last posted a photo of her on Instagram in February. 

'A positive outcome'

Marineland has been closed for the majority of the season due to COVID-19, but briefly opened from August to early October with reduced hours. 

In a media release announcing that Smooshi had given birth, Marineland said the pair "appear[ed] to be doing well."

"While it is too early to tell, Marineland's team is working with Smooshi and her calf and is hopeful that by working with experts who have successfully supported the development and growth of walrus calves previously, that there will be a positive outcome," the release said. 

The release also noted that because mother walruses are fiercely protective of their offspring, active care following a delivery is challenging. 

Marineland included this photo of a baby walrus when announcing Smooshi had given birth. (Marineland)

Demers said not having a photo of Smooshi with the release, and the talk about not having a positive outcome, "set the stage" for inquiries about her. 

Smooshi giving birth at 18-years-old, he said, is dangerous.

Apollo was the last walrus to die at Marineland. The park said he died of a heart attack in May 2019. 

Other walruses have died

Zeus died in December 2018, and Buttercup died some time before this. The park's first walrus, Sonja, whose death was described as as surprise, passed away in May 2017.

Walruses normally live 30 to 35 years in the wild, Demers said. 

He said that comments about Smooshi's whereabouts on Marineland's social media channels have been deleted. 

WATCH: The Walrus and the Whistleblower

The Walrus and the Whistleblower: Trailer

Documentary Channel

1 year ago
Part-time mailman and ex-trainer at MarineLand, Phil Demers is known as the Walrus Whisperer on Twitter. He has appeared on the Joe Rogan show, testified before the Canadian Senate, and is being sued for $1.5 million for plotting to steal a walrus. 3:07

With Smooshi has been plastered on posters to advertise the park, and all the controversy surrounding her, he said, Marineland has a responsibility to provide an update about her and the other animals' well-being. 

"They're going to have to provide answers," he said. 


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