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Hot Docs At Home Review: The Walrus and the Whistleblower

May 28, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

With this year’s in-person edition of Hot Docs cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a selection of festival films are being given broadcast premieres every Thursday night from April 16th to May 28th on CBC, documentary Channel, and the CBC Gem streaming app, as part of the Hot Docs At Home series. Tonight is the final instalment.

Phil Demers began working in 2000 as a trainer at Marineland, the Niagara Falls, Ontario amusement park and tourist trap that keeps marine mammals in captivity for entertainment. He first gained media attention in 2007 for the bond that formed between him and a walrus, one of five such creatures at the facility, that he affectionately named Smooshi for the way that she would “smoosh” up against him. The animal imprinted on him, and seemed to view him as a mother figure.

But what was initially presented by the media as a feel good story became much darker and turned into a fierce legal battle when, in 2012, Demers quit working at Marineland in protest over the poor conditions that the walruses and other animals were being kept in. He joined other former employees – including his partner Christine Santos, whom he met and fall in love with while working together at the park – to become a whistleblower, helping expose the horrific treatment of animals behind the scenes at the park, as press coverage of Marineland started to take a negative turn.

Demers gained notoriety when he utilized his twitter account (@walruswhisperer) to try and get his beloved Smooshi freed from the facility, which led to Marineland suing him for “plotting to steal a walrus.” This led to appearances on Joe Rogan’s hugely popular and influential podcast, as he gained incredible support for his cause. Demers is the subject of director Nathalie Bibeau’s very engaging documentary The Walrus and the Whistleblower, which could be viewed as a companion piece to filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 SeaWorld exposé Blackfish.

Bibeau has made a captivating, often upsetting film that follows the Niagara resident over a couple of years as he embarks on an embattled quest to #SaveSmooshi, joining forces with local animal rights activists who have a long history of protesting outside the gates of Marineland, trying to get the place shut down. These are the same protestors that he used to brush off on his way into the park, but now he finds himself on the other side, becoming a fierce advocate for animal justice causes despite the fact that he still eats meat, (which he fully admits the hypocrisy of during a long scene where he cooks steaks on the barbecue).

This film comes fresh off the heals of the Netflix documentary series Tiger King, which became a viral sensation for its wacky cast of characters, but also drew attention to the plight of animals being kept in captivity and exploited for entertainment, as well as the narcissistic men who hoard them as symbols of status and power. Marineland had its own larger than life figure running the show in the form of its late owner John Holer, the so-called “King of Niagara Falls” who passed away in 2018, and whose ownership over a large swath of land gave him incredible political sway in the area.

Holer, an admirer of Walt Disney who came to Canada as an immigrant and got his start training circus animals in Slovenia, opened Marineland in 1961, and turned it into one of the most ubiquitous tourist spots in Niagara Falls, aside from the falls themselves. Holer allegedly carried a gun and would threaten people who crossed him, and there are allegations that he buried dead animals in mass graves on the park’s property. But after Holer’s death, the film finds Demers unexpectedly grieving and grappling with his complicated legacy, including the friendship that he had with his former boss’s son.

In these moments, Bibeau allows for more emotional complexity in the film than I was expecting. Holer was ruthless, but so is Demers, and it’s his refusal to give up or quit, even in the face of rising legal bills, that provides the driving force of the film. He just wants “the fucking walrus” as he says at one point, but also won’t settle for being silenced in exchange. With his beard, shaved head, and weed-smoking habits, Demers has all the earmarks of a Canadian folk hero. The film also documents his active role in pushing for the passage of Bill S-203 in the Senate, making it illegal to keep whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity in Canada.

At the beginning of The Walrus and the Whistleblower, Demers recounts in voiceover that he was initially called a “whistleblower” by investigative journalists, before musing that he “blew whistles for years at Marineland, but it was to tell the dolphins to come back to the stage to get their fish.” This sums it up quite nicely. The film is as as much about his activist work as it is about a man being thrust into the role of whistleblower when he could no longer tolerate being part of an abusive system, spurred on by the need to rescue and be reunited with his beloved walrus.

The Walrus and the Whistleblower premieres tonight at 8 PM EDT on CBC TV and on the CBC Gem app, and at 9 PM EDT on documentary Channel.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Allan Hughes permalink
    May 29, 2020 9:15 am

    I was moved by the relationship between Demers and the walrus in this cinema verite film. It reveals an exploitation of marine animals I wasn’t aware of and the playful scene between Demers and the walrus is priceless ! Also that of the fuddy-duddy board officials deciding the fate of the poor exploited animals. A ++
    Allan Hughes


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