«Everyone loves Marineland.» This was the line of a catchy jingle advertising the famed Niagara Falls waterpark in Canada Since it was opened in 1961, and few at the time saw any reason to contradict it. The keeping of marine animals in captivity was assumed by the wider public, with little second thought or scrutiny, to be a humane form of grand entertainment for family outings. The park’s founder and owner John Holer, who had cut his teeth working as a circus animal trainer in Europe, had become known as the «King of Niagara» due to his clout in the otherwise economically depressed region creating jobs and harnessing tourist dollars. But below the frothy media hype and wholesome reputation of Marineland, life was far from fun and games for the orcas, belugas, and walruses upon which its shows depended. Director Nathalie Bibeau sets out the story in her documentary The Walrus and the Whistleblower, which was named audience favourite of this year’s online incarnation of Hot Docs.
The walrus whisperer
Ex-trainer Phil Demers called out malpractice and animal mistreatment at the park upon his resignation in 2012 after more than a decade there. He’d initially been paid only $6.45 per hour as an inexperienced trainer to swim with killer whales but had found it his dream job, and was a substitute mother to Smooshi, a performing walrus who he’d developed a close bond with after it was brought over from a Russian facility. However, as he describes it, he ran out of excuses to justify the cruelties that he was complicit in. Becoming a popular social media presence under the twitter handle «Walrus Whisperer» in his newly declared mission to save Smooshi, he was able to crowd-fund and mobilise support to take on the highly litigious waterpark, even as it tried to muzzle him and his former colleagues with lawsuits. While Marineland declined to cooperate in the making of the film, Demers is front and centre. He adds emotional texture to the much-reported story, and …
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