Philip Demers likes the nickname, The Walrus Whisperer.
The former professional marine mammal trainer picked up the moniker during his dozen years working at Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario, where he and an 880-pound female walrus named Smooshi formed an extraordinarily unique bond.
The two became national media celebrities in 2007 and 2008, after news crews from the Canadian Broadcasting Company and other north-of-the-border media outlets began documenting Smooshi’s puppy-like attachment to Demers, following her trainer everywhere and displaying endearing separation anxiety when they were apart.
Smooshi, who in 2004 came to the Canadian animal exhibition and amusement park from a Russian facility, imprinted on Demers. Only 18 months old at the time, the walrus quickly came to view Demers as mother, boyfriend, or both. Indeed, when female trainers or reporters came too close to Demers, Smooshi would bark out a warning that seemed to say, “he’s mine, back off.”
Demers and Smooshi are no longer a couple.
Concerned for Smooshi’s well being and that of other animals at the park, Demers quit his job in May 2012, claiming that Marineland severely mistreated and neglected its zoological charges.
“I saw dolphins living in extremely poor quality water, their skin flaking off in chunks, and six out of seven harbor seals becoming blind or suffering severe eye damage,” Demers wrote in August 2012 as part of an open petition seeking help from Ontario government officials.
Overnight, Demers was catapulted from The Walrus Whisperer into a corporate whistleblower and thus began an unintentional journey that is pitting him and his girlfriend of eight years, Christine Santos – also an ex-Marineland staffer – against their former employer in a nasty legal and public relations joust.
The saga of Demers and Santos is complex, entailing allegations and counter-allegations, lawsuits and counter-lawsuits.
Last month, Marineland filed a $1.5 million civil lawsuit against Demers, which follows a $1.25 million defamation complaint that it served last October against Santos. She is countersuing and he may well do likewise.
Depending upon whose version bystanders chose to accept, Demers and Santos are either heroic informants risking their careers and fiscal solvency to defend abused marine life and other animals, or they are disgruntled ex-employees who have resorted to some bizarre behaviors and defamation as part of a campaign to discredit their one-time employer.
Wherever the truth lies, the story of Demers and Santos touches on the larger issues of animal protection laws in Ontario, Canada – as well as policy issues surrounding Canadian whistleblowers.
Demers, who turns 35 on March 21st, recently shared his version of events with Cranberry Newswire during two exclusive phone interviews. (He is not a Cranberry Newswire client, not is any other individual or organization mentioned herein.)
Demers says that he and Santos view Marineland’s actions – filing individual lawsuits against each of them– as nothing more than attempts to force their silence, a feint known in legal parlance as a SLAPP – Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation – complaint.
Many experts and politicians see SLAPP suits as thinly veiled attempts to intimidate whistleblowers and others who might have legitimate claims by ratcheting up the financial, logistical and personal-reputation stakes of speaking out.
In concept, a large corporation, such as Marineland, wanting to shut up Demers, Santos and others who might consider publicly criticizing the company, files expensive lawsuits against these individuals. Often the targets of such SLAPP actions face the stark choice of capitulating and dropping their public complaints or being buried in an onslaught of legal bills and reputation assaults.
In the U.S., many states have anti-SLAPP protections in place to prevent such legal bullying or, at the least, to allow defendants to recover legal fees and extract punitive damages if the SLAPP complaints turn out to have virtually no legal merit.
The legal and regulatory protections afforded to SLAPP defendants in Ontario appear to be limited, to the extent that they exist at all.
To help fund their defense and counterclaims, Demers and Santos have turned to the Internet and the popular crowdfunding site, Indiegogo. Their first funding campaign, which ended March 5th, attracted 875 international contributors, who collectively donated $28,185 on Demers’s and Santos’s behalf. That amount surpassed their original goal of $25,000.
Demers launched the first Indiegogo campaign prior to Marineland’s February 2013 lawsuit against him. At the time, he somewhat naively thought there might even be unused proceeds, which he pledged would be used for animal protection.
But Demers says that in light of recent legal maneuvers against him and Santos, the initial round of fundraising was only “a drop in the bucket which has already evaporated.”
Demers has now launched a second Indiegogo campaign that will run through April 30th, seeking to raise C$15,000.
“Sadly, suits of this nature can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and if we don’t raise the necessary funds, the plight of Marineland’s animals will go silent, leaving Christine and myself bankrupt,” Demers writes on Indiegogo. “This is Marineland’s intent. This is how they win.”
View the current Indiegogo campaign on behalf of Demers and Santos
Demers also turned to the Internet last August to bring pressure to bear on the government of Ontario to enact laws to specifically govern the treatment of animals housed at aquariums and zoos. His Change.org petition has thus far attracted more than 84,000 signatures from around the world.
Surprisingly, the mainstream North American news media – with the exception of The Toronto Star – have paid relatively scant attention to the Demers-Marineland fray, especially given all the attention that Demers and Smooshi received back in 2007 and 2008 when they were still media darlings.
The Star, beginning with an investigative series last August, has probed the health and safety of the animals at Marineland, as well as chronicled the legal actions launched by the zoo and tourist attraction.
Read the original August 2012 Toronto Star investigation into Marineland.
The Star reported that a total of 15 former trainers or supervisors at Marineland spoke to the paper about problems that led to sickness and death among marine and land animals at the park.
“The Star obtained photos, videos and documents that support the accounts of the former employees,” the paper noted. “Three made the difficult decision to speak out publicly, despite having signed non-disclosure agreements. Five asked that their names not be used for fear of legal consequences.”
The newspaper conducted two telephone interviews with John Holer, the park’s owner. Holer denied to the paper that the animals suffer. “We take care of the animals – better than I would take care of myself,” he told the Star.
An email from a Marineland veterinarian, Erica Gehring, cited in the Star investigation, described Demers as “THE BEST” animal trainer at the park and expressed remorse over his departure. “We really, really need Phil to stay,” Gehring wrote. “There are other places that will snatch him up if he leaves…Marineland needs him, Smooshi needs him…We all need him.”
In fact, Demers tells Cranberry Newswire, that since his departure last may, he has not been snapped up by another marine park or for that matter, by any employer.
One possible explanation is the damning public allegations that Marineland has made against him. In its $1.5 million complaint, Marineland contends that Demers and others actually plotted to walrus-nap Smooshi.
Demers counters with a single word: “absurd.”
The lawsuit also contends that Demers was part of a group of activists that interrupted a live show at Marineland’s stadium on October 7th to stage a protest on the final day of the park’s season last year. Demers told Cranberry Newswire that while he was outside the park on that day, he did not enter Marineland with the others.
Which side is telling the truth may eventually be proven in the Canadian justice system or perhaps the court of public opinion will determine it.
For now, Demers and Santos remain girded in their small second floor Ontario apartment – with no discernable space to house a kidnapped walrus – hopeful that other generous donors will support their crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo and that the global media and Canadian politicians will make a more concerted effort to probe the treatment of animals at Marineland and other such facilities.
Demers tells Cranberry Newswire that “fate has played a heavy hand” in his life, first fostering his exceptional bond with Smooshi and now casting him as the quixotic defender of the walrus and her Marineland companions.
“I was thrust into this situation,” Demers says. “I do believe, given everything that has happened, it is happening for a reason.”