The 2013 documentary “Blackfish” was a gamechanger for animal rights activists that turned SeaWorld’s abusive treatment of Orca whales into a national issue. “The Walrus and the Whistleblower” may not contain quite such breadth, but it’s a natural extension of this urgent subgenre, with the intimate dynamic between one man and his beloved furry marine animal coming across as both devastating and more than a little surreal.
The saga of Phil Demers, the former trainer at Niagara Falls theme park Marineland, has many strange chapters, but director Nathalie Bibeau’s first feature assembles them into a fascinating overview. When Demers defected from Marineland in 2012, he embarked on a winding path to rescue his beloved walrus from captivity, and that saga is at once alarming and strange. Saddled with a $1.5 million lawsuit from Marineland, Demers takes his crusade to the streets, but the battle stretches on. While the movie gets a little too lost in Demers’ headspace, his story brings to light the limitations of the “Blackfish” effect, and shows why the war against marine park cruelty has a long way to go.
Demers spent the first decade of his career entrenched in the world of training aquatic animals under the usual questionable safety standards, but his situation started to change when the park adopted a walrus named Smooshie that imprinted on him. Shouldered with newfound maternal responsibility, Demers grew frustrated with the horrific physical abuses the animals suffered — from chlorine burns to human drugs buried in the food — and finally quit, generating a minor media storm in his path. Finding his combative footing under the provocative Twitter handle @WalrusWhisperer, Demers found himself at the center of a growing public debate about animal safety that had surrounded Marineland for ages — and which reverberated across Canadian politics, culminating in a bill that banned whale and dolphin captivity in 2018.
Sadly, that victory couldn’t safe Smooshie, who remains trapped at Marineland while Demers and his partner (another former Marineland trainer) live less than a mile away. Even as that narrative continues to unfold, “The Walrus and the Whistleblower” provides a bracing summary of everything leading up to it, with particular attention paid to Demers’ simmering showdown with aging Marineland founder Jon Holer, who died shortly before the passage of the bill. Holer’s history in the community dates back decades, and he makes for quite the convincing movie villain, as a scowling, hot-headed businessman who reigns over his business with a mafia-like grip. Meanwhile, the protest movement outside his park grows, to the point where one activist singles out four decades of relatives gathered at the park’s doorstep.
The early footage of Demers and Smooshie endows the movie with its unique tone early on, as it hovers in the poignant absurdity of their unusual interspecies bond. Bibeau’s competent blend of talking heads and archival footage endows the movement’s gradual development with a poignant center, showing how much Demers’ frustrations speak to a broader frustration with the park’s survival. SeaWorld may have buried its animal abuses with costly marketing magic, but as countless trainers speak out, it’s clear that Marineland didn’t even bother to cover up the miserable conditions endured by its animals.
Having established this passage of the drama, the movie circles back to Demers’ weird saga, sometimes stumbling on unusual tangents (his mixed feelings over Holer’s death, and a subplot involving his ailing cat, feel shoehorned in, and too mopey for their own good). At its best, however, “The Walrus and Whistleblower” doubles as an intriguing psychological profile of an animal lover whose extreme mission raises all kinds of questions about the motivations at hand: As the years stretch on, has the path to Smooshie’s salvation become impossible? Now a part-time mailman and full-time tweeter, is Demers on a valiant path to achieve a broader activist agenda — or a Quixotic figure consumed by a lost cause?
It’s exhausting to watch him struggle through the desire to see his beloved walrus again, and it remains unclear if he ever will, but “The Walrus and the Whistleblower” at least proves that his journey deserves a wider audience. In its lawsuit, Marineland claimed that its situation with Demers was exacerbated by company turning down his pitch for a “Walrus Whisperer” reality show. Whether or not that’s true, “The Walrus and the Whistleblower” is the best pitch he could ask for.
“The Walrus and the Whistleblower” won the Audience Award at the 2020 virtual edition of the Hot Docs Film Festival. It is currently airing on the CBC and has been acquired for other territories by Gravitas Ventures.