Published on June 9th, 2020 | by Keegan Barker0
The Walrus and the Whistleblower
Recent Hot Docs Audience Award winner, The Walrus and the Whistleblower, is an emotionally charged, personal examination of Marineland’s unethical animal captivity.
Like so many Canadians, I grew up watching commercials with that infectious jingle, “Everyone loves Marineland.” I remember going to Marineland in 2001 when I was 8 years old and doing the whole nine yards with my family. The memory of that adventure was encapsulated in a picture of me petting a killer whale as well as a little killer whale plushie; both relics are still somewhere in my mom’s basement. However, a lot has changed since 2001. Recent years of defiance and insight have revealed the dark underbelly of marine theme parks.
The Walrus and the Whistleblower follows “The Walrus Whisperer,” Phil Demers, a former animal trainer at Marineland. The documentary explores his metamorphosis from being a cog in the abusive world of animal performance, to becoming a prominent voice and face in the fight against animal captivity, particularly that concerning cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) and pinnipeds (seals, seal lions, walruses). The heart of his story is found in his relationship with Smooshie, a female walrus who saw Phil as a surrogate parent from a young age.
For most of Phil’s tenure at Marineland, he and Smooshie were virtually inseparable, and the young walrus thrived under his care. However, Phil left Marineland in 2012 after he could no longer support the park’s increasingly reckless and neglectful means of caring for its animals. Upon his departure, Phil began speaking about his experiences at the park, and informed the public of the atrocities taking place there. As result of his activism, Marineland actively pursued legal action against him. The film documents his David and Goliath story against Marineland and its team of lawyers, while continuing his fight for his walrus and his beliefs.
Writer/director Nathalie Bibeau does an amazing job of taking us through the history of Marineland and how it went from one of Canada’s most popular tourist destinations to being a testament to the worst sins committed in the business of animal captivity and performance. Bibeau follows in the footsteps of Blackfish (2014), but she elevates the material in a way that Blackfish did not.
Like Blackfish, The Walrus and the Whistleblower takes a strong stance against marine mammal captivity to the point of blatant bias. This was a point of criticism for Blackfish, and I feel that this film could be subject to that same critique, but perhaps not to the same degree. While Blackfish relied on the narrative of all captivity being inhumane across the board, The Walrus and the Whistleblower personalizes the argument to be, specifically, about Marineland and how they care for their animals. The questionable practices that are talked about and shown are enough evidence for the strong anti-captivity stance to be welcome and justified. Perhaps the lack of opposing arguments is less about confirmation bias, but more about a manifestation of social change. I would argue that the Western world has become far more aware of the cruelty of keeping animals in captivity for the purpose of entertainment.
Phil’s relationship with Smooshie is the emotional driving force behind the documentary. Archival footage of Phil interacting with Smooshie and other marine mammals is expertly used to show the youthful idealism which the young man felt at the beginning of his career. This is sharply contrasted by Phil in the present time, who looks significantly older due to the chronic stress from his ongoing legal battles. The film perfectly captures Phil’s alternating emotional states–from frustration and sadness in defeat to joy in every little victory. While the documentary depicts the legal battles in court and in the Senate, the narrative vein of Phil’s conviction to save Smooshie never falls to the wayside. The audience feels for Phil, and they feel the same joy and frustration throughout the film’s emotional beats.
For me, I was with Phil for the entire film, but I am biased because I had heard of Phil’s story over two years ago, and I have been anti-marine park for all my adult life. However, my mom, who I would not consider very knowledgeable or invested in this particular subject matter, watched the film and was blown away by it. She was both astonished and troubled by Phil’s story and the legacy of Marineland. It just goes to show that you do not have to be an animal rights activist to become emotionally invested in the film.
No matter where you might find yourself in terms of awareness or care on the subject matter, The Walrus and the Whistleblower addresses the greater issue of marine mammal captivity. Underneath the social activism lies a beautiful and tragic story of a walrus, and the man willing to risk everything to rescue her, and the rest of her marine companions.