The Walrus and the Whistleblower


Phil Demers is at the center of the protest.

(2020) Documentary (Gravitas) Phil Demers, Doug Draper, Ted Satci, John Holer, Michael Noonen, Catherine Ens-Hurwood, Carolyn Narononni, Naomi Rose, Brendan Kelly, Angela Bontivagna, Ron Bucholz, Holly Lake, Murray Sinclair, Elizabeth May. Directed by Nathalie Bibeau

Before we go any further, I should tell you that I’ve never understood the appeal of watching trained animals perform. I’m not really big on zoos, although I am all for interacting with animals in a safe environment for both humans and the animals themselves. I have no problem with teaching children the wonders of the animal kingdom and the importance of respecting other species different than our own. So when I have the opportunity to go to marine parks where trained dolphins and killer whales perform for a stadium full of spectators, I am not terribly enthusiastic about attending. However, I realize that a lot of people feel differently than I do on the subject.

Marineland, on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, has been showcasing performing dolphins, killer whales and other marine mammals since opening its doors in 1961. It is the largest employer in the area which has little other industry besides tourism. In 2000, they brought in walruses and trainer Phil Demers developed a special relationship with Smooshi – so named because she had a habit of smooshing up against his face – who imprinted on him, which to be honest I’m not sure whether or not that is unusual since that’s one of many avenues that the film never explores (this gets to be a theme throughout the movie and is its greatest drawback). The two were inseparable.

However, Demers was disturbed at the way the animals in general were treated at the park – a recurring litany that has dogged Marineland for decades. When a type of algae starting growing in the water that was harmful to the animals, they responded by using chlorine to kill it which in turn caused painful chemical burns that eventually no amount of drugs could soothe. When Demers discovered the tragic and torturous route Smooshi (and the other walruses that Marineland eventually added to the show) took in being purchased for the park, Demers finally resigned his job. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

He became an animal rights activist, picketing Marineland and taking on the Twitter handle WalrusWhisperer to bring the plight of the animals to the attention of the general public. He would be barred from the grounds of Marineland and later a large lawsuit was brought on by the marie park against him. In the meantime, Canada began to take up legislation to ban the keeping of certain marine mammals (but ironically, not walruses) from marine parks and aquariums. It is an uphill battle and Demers is basically a bearded David facing an unforgiving and vengeful Goliath but he soldiers on.

The movie takes a lot of its cues from Blackfish although its focus is on a specific incident even more so than Blackfish, which broadened its scope to look at animal abuse in marine parks globally. The laser-like focus here is on Marineland and its owner John Holer (who passed away during film, an event that caused mixed reactions in Demers) to the exclusion of all else. Perhaps with the wider focus of the other film, Bibeau might have felt she didn’t need to expand her view, but basically honed in on Demers’ story and while it is an admirable one, it could have used further context. The only negativity that comes in was that some of his fellow activists are frustrated with him because he refuses to embrace veganism, and what criticism is leveled at Demers is largely leveled by himself – “I sound like an asshole. I look like an asshole. I know the vein in my forehead is bulging,” he admits in a moment of self-examination.

The importance of the subject is unquestioned and the fact that in the years since Blackfish was released it appears that there hasn’t been a ton of change in the policies regarding the way marine parks treat the animals in their care is something that at least deserves mention, but it never is. Also Demers proclaims that he doesn’t want to win money out of all of this; he just wants Smooshi, but to what end? Releasing her back into the wild would be impractical at best and deadly at worst; she’s lived her entire life in captivity and doesn’t have the skills to survive in the wild. So where would Demers keep her? There doesn’t appear to be much room in his house for her, and the bill for feeding a walrus would be appalling. But whatever plans Demers has for the care of Smooshi once released from the park are never elaborated on.

And that’s really symbolic for the movie as a whole; I don’t think Bibeau had much of a plan in assembling this film. Certainly it is an important story, and certainly it means a lot to her personally (see Trivial Pursuits below) but it feels like she didn’t really want to make much effort to dot her I’s and cross her T’s and this is a film that could badly use both, even if the story is compelling.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating David vs. Goliath story. The footage of Smooshi and Demers being separated is absolutely heartbreaking.
REASONS TO AVOID: Leaves too many important questions unexplored.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some drug use and disturbing images of animal cruelty.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bibeau knew of Demers because he was her brother’s best friend growing up.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Discovery Plus, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blackfish
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Come True

Blackfish


Tilikum performing.

Tilikum performing.

(2013) Documentary (Magnolia) Tilikum, Samantha Berg, Dave Duffus, Dean Gomersall, John Hargrove, Carol Ray, Jeffrey Ventre, Kim Ashdown, Dawn Brancheau, Daniel Patrick Dukes, Ken Balcomb, Howard Garrett, Keltie Burns. Directed by Gabrielle Cowperthwaite

Children are for the most part fascinated by the animal world. Animal parks like SeaWorld and Animal Kingdom as well as traditional zoos and aquariums are well aware of it – the animals on display in these parks are siren calls to kids and their parents. Performing animals can bring oohs and aahs to kids of all ages.

However on February 24, 2010 things got serious. SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, one of the most respected and safety-conscious trainers in the business, was killed in an incident during a “Dine with Shamu” performance at SeaWorld Orlando. The incident involved Tilikum, an orca (popularly known as a killer whale) who was one of SeaWorld’s mainstays and a veteran performer.

As time went by, there began to be questions asked about SeaWorld’s policies. One of the first facts to come out was that this was the third human death that Tilikum had been involved with; one involving trainer Keltie Burns in Sealand of the Pacific where Tilikum had been brought as a young whale and then later a bizarre incident when Daniel Patrick Dukes apparently entered Tilikum’s tank illegally after hours and was found the next morning naked and draped across Tilikum’s back.

Filmmaker Cowperthwaite examines Tilikum’s story from the time he was taken from his family as a young whale until the incident with Brancheau and its aftermath. She interviews a number of former SeaWorld trainers as well as orca experts to discuss behaviors of orcas both in the wild and in captivity. She also looks at several incidents in which trainers were injured or killed, including a particularly gruesome incident at Parque Loro in the Canary Islands.

It is clear that there is an agenda here as there is with most documentary films. Cowperthwaite’s point is that the captivity of these animals is inherently wrong and inhumane and that the motivations for SeaWorld and parks like it is profit rather than the education and appreciation of those animals. While I think that there is room for argument there, there’s no doubt that SeaWorld does make plenty of profit through park admissions and merchandise sale with the visage of the orca Shamu being essentially SeaWorld’s corporate identity.

SeaWorld in fact has gone to great pains to portray themselves as good corporate citizens and it is true that they have a rehabilitation program that has helped over 22,000 injured, orphaned or abandoned animals in the wild and nursed them back to health for re-release in many cases or permanently cared for those that were deemed unfit to sustain themselves in their native habitats. They have also contributed to and encouraged contributions to conservation causes and preach respect and care for the animals that they display. These are points not brought up in the movie.

However, it is also true that SeaWorld hid from their trainers Tilikum’s dangerous past and his part in the death of Keltie Burns. It is also true that they have misrepresented the life spans of orcas in the wild vs. orcas in SeaWorld’s care (studies show they do live longer in the wild, contrary to SeaWorld’s claims). SeaWorld has an interest in maintaining their image in that the perception of cruelty or inhumanity might adversely affect their bottom line, so their willingness to go to great lengths to preserve that image is at least understandable.

In the case of Dawn Brancheau, OSHA stepped in to litigate against SeaWorld, accusing them of violations of safety standards. SeaWorld denied those allegations and defended themselves vigorously (testimony from the trial is presented in the film). OSHA did eventually win the case although it is currently being appealed. This is why if you visit any SeaWorld park, you won’t see the trainers directly in the water with the orcas; there is a barrier between them. SeaWorld’s allegations that Brancheau was dragged into the water by her ponytail wasn’t proven; it also seemed to me (although the filmmakers didn’t say so outright) that given how many cameras are stationed throughout SeaWorld that if the footage had shown without a doubt that the ponytail was the culprit, they would have brought that footage to court. Since they didn’t, we have to assume that the footage showed otherwise. Certainly the eyewitnesses to the event were clear that Tilikum had grabbed Ms. Brancheau’s arm and dragged her into the pool.

For my part, I’ve always wondered what the allure is in trained animal shows. Maybe I’m just weird but I always get more of a charge watching an animal in its native environment doing the things it does naturally. The shots of orcas swimming in waters off the coasts of Washington state peacefully and majestically was far more thrilling to me than watching one cruise around a tank waving a fluke at the audience. However it is undeniable that the audiences in the footage looked awfully thrilled at the various behaviors of the orcas here.

Cowperthwaite’s assertion that the deaths depicted here were essentially the results of psychosis largely brought about by captivity is well-presented and certainly backed up by the experts she brings in. I would have like to hear some dissenting opinions, although there was one ex-trainer who did seemingly disagree with the filmmaker’s conclusions. Still, we are told that there are no records of an orca killing a human in the wild which is misleading – there have been attacks on humans in the wild although no fatalities have been recorded which doesn’t necessarily mean that none have occurred.

The documentary is a compelling one and the love and respect for the animals is clear in both the filmmakers and the scientists and former trainers that are interviewed. There’s no doubt that the orca is a magnificent creature, graceful and gentle but capable of great power and violence. We have our own human history to refer to when discussing the adverse affects of  being taken out of one’s natural environment and placed forcibly and without permission in an alien and strange environment, separated from all that one loved. That’s not a recipe for harmony and love. While the movie may not necessarily make fans of SeaWorld think differently about the animal shows, hopefully it will give everyone pause to think about the high price that entertainment can sometimes cost.

REASONS TO GO: Communicates the trainers and filmmakers love for these animals. Some beautiful footage of orcas.

REASONS TO STAY: No rebuttal viewpoints (although SeaWorld declined to allow their executives to be interviewed for the film).

FAMILY VALUES:  Some of the subject matter and images are far too intense and disturbing for Shamu’s target audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The ending of the upcoming sequel to Finding Nemo was altered after Pixar executives viewed this film.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 83/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cove

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Baghead