BIGGER THAN BLACKFISH
The World’s Most Famous Walrus Is Being Abused, Trainers Say
Marineland says its animals are happy and healthy—but former trainers have a darker story to tell about Canada’s answer to SeaWorld.
When Smooshi saw Phil Demers, it was love at first sight.
The 200-pound Rubenesque beauty came to Marineland in 2004 as part of a shipment of walrus calves snatched from Russian waters. She was an 18-month-old orphan when she arrived at the Niagara Falls, Ontario, tourist attraction that is Canada’s answer to SeaWorld.
And she was terrified.
When the veterinarian came to draw her blood for a Marineland health assessment, Smooshi panicked and began barreling toward another baby walrus named Buttercup and her trainers, who were pricking the animal with a needle.
“They’re not tiny. They’re strong as shit,” Demers said of the calves. “We were wrestling one walrus down, and Smooshi kept trying to save her.”
Demers approached the barking Smooshi and raised his hands to her face in an attempt to steer her away from the scene. She took a deep breath and followed Demers about 15 feet away before plopping down next to him.
“Her two big nostrils opened up and she looked at me with those big eyes,” Demers said. “I remember the exact moment. It was tattooed on me.”
From that moment on, the blubbery giant and her caretaker were inseparable. Their curious bond baffled scientists and beckoned TV shows—including Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Inside Edition—to the sprawling, 1,000-acre amusement park. Demers was Smooshi’s maternal figure, “imprinting” on the walrus in a way experts couldn’t explain.
Smooshi would grow to be a 1,300-pound sea puppy, faithfully trailing behind Demers as he fed other animals or swabbed Marineland’s shit-covered decks. They rode together in his truck to the beluga pool, where she’d jump in with the whales. Her favorite game, Demers says, was barreling down a slide with her beloved keeper on her back.
“She would have the best fucking time,” said Demers, who once described himself as the Kanye West of animal trainers. “She invented games. She loved it; she thought it was the greatest thing.”
Demers could never be out of Smooshi’s sight; she’d bark for him from other rooms. “No trainer and animal on the face of the planet had a relationship like Smooshi and I did,” he said. The walrus was so protective of Demers, then in his twenties, that she’d nudge off other people, including Demers’s girlfriend. During Marineland shows, they sat in the audience together, his arm around her blubbery back.
“To say the least, this was the most remarkable experience of my life,” Demers, now 38, told The Daily Beast. “This animal believes I’m her mother, even to this day.”
In 2007, at the peak of Smooshi’s fame, The Toronto Star asked Demers what would happen to the pinniped if he departed Marineland. “If I leave, I’ll take her with me,” Demers joked. “She’s an incredible animal.”
But like all great romances, this interspecies love affair tumbled to an end. Demers was separated from Smooshi in a battle that pitted former trainers and animal welfare advocates against Marineland.
It was in September 2011 that things began to sour.
That month, Demers says he began to challenge Marineland’s hard-boiled octogenarian owner, John Holer, over the water quality and living conditions of the animals, including Smooshi, according to court papers.
The trainer left in May 2012 because, he says, he was no longer able to bear witness to the suffering of whales, walruses, and other mammals in the theme park’s care. He was the keeper of secrets, a self-described company man, who says he followed orders from the minute he was hired in March 2000, even mopping up bloodstains from the floor without asking any questions.
Three months later, the Toronto Star published its first investigative report on Marineland’s animals, which it claimed were ailing and even losing fur or going blind because of poor water quality. “I realized I was no longer part of the solution. I was part of the problem,” Demers told the Toronto Star. “I can’t train animals that are sick and compromised.”
At the time, Holer—a Slovenian-born bear trainer who built his own animal empire in Niagara Falls—denied to the Star that Marineland’s animals were suffering or that the park had a problem with unhealthy water. “We take care of the animals—better than I would take care of myself,” he claimed.
Demers became one of a dozen former employees to leave Marineland over the years and later accuse the park of grimy conditions and neglect in a series of exposés in the Star, stories that prompted lawsuits from the park.
Now the self-styled Walrus Whisperer is also fending off a legal battle from Holer, who’s accused him of trying to kidnap Smooshi.
Each morning, Smooshi’s big, lovestruck eyes searched past her cage, her flippers feeling through the bars for Phil Demers. He’d open her pen, and the walrus wouldn’t leave his side the rest of the day.
She waddled with him to the lunchroom and on chores until playtime, when Demers “encouraged her to be crazy.” The trainer would sing, “Smooshi, she’s a Smooshi,” and rock from one foot to the next and the animal “would go fucking crazy.” He’d throw her a hula-hoop and they’d wrestle. “She knew it was ‘let’s go fucking crazy’ time,” Demers says.
“You can’t even conceivably train a walrus to do that,” he added. “I could take her anywhere.”
But today, Demers’s only connection to his flippered friend is what he gleans from Marineland’s Facebook photos. “She’s the one with the big eyes, looking around. There’s always this glimmer of hope in her fucking mind that I’m going to come back. She doesn’t know where I am,” he said.
Owner John Holer banned Demers from Marineland after he quit in May 2012, then filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against the ex-trainer a year later.
Holer has accused Demers of attempting to “personally profit” from Smooshi with a series of business proposals, including a reality TV show and the signing of T-shirts after Marineland performances for a fee, according to the complaint filed in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice in 2013.
The suit alleges that after Holer turned down the business proposals, Demers launched an angry campaign against Marineland—and claims that the former trainer and a band of activists allegedly stormed Marineland’s stadium during a live show in October 2012 before an audience of children, “in order to steal Smooshi the Walrus.”
The proprietor’s lawsuit also got personal. It accused Demers of sending “threatening” and “unsolicited” emails to past and present employees “for the purpose of bullying them to support his allegations against Marineland.” It also claimed that “since his departure… Mr. Demers has publicly admitted that, unbeknownst to Marineland, he was abusing drugs and alcohol prior to his departure.”
In a counterclaim against Holer, Demers denied all the allegations against him and said Marineland had delivered a “defamatory” letter to local teachers that accused him of being a “disgruntled” employee who was wrongfully accusing Marineland of animal abuse.
For his part, Demers has denied setting foot in Marineland on the day of the October 2012 live show, despite his role as the amusement park’s most vocal critic. He said he never planned on speaking out against his boss or going on the record with the Toronto Star until he saw Smooshi’s deteriorating condition once he left. She was emaciated and lethargic, he said. “Honestly, she was dying.”
In the counterclaim against his former employer, Demers argued the theme park “has intentionally delayed moving the proceeding forward.”
The countersuit suggests Holer initially showed “excitement and keen interest” in the Smooshi-centered TV proposals in 2011. Yet “Holer subsequently declined to authorize Marineland to participate… because he was concerned that ‘they just want to know our secrets,’” Demer’s suit claims.
Demers alleges Marineland deemed him a “problem employee” for challenging “Holer’s decisions regarding the expenditure of funds on the animals and their living conditions,” court papers state.
“I could have shut up about this whole thing. I could have apologized,” Demers said of the lawsuit, which he estimates has cost him more than $100,000. The legal bills are only adding up as the case drags on.
“It’s asshole versus asshole, to be fair,” he continued. “I’m just as stubborn as the owner is, but he’s got endless amounts of money and I don’t. I have a big mouth and a refusal to shut up.”
When protests against Marineland flared in the summer and fall of 2012 following the Star’s coverage, “Holer began to believe that Demers was to blame for all the public controversy and investigations into Marineland,” the counterclaim says.
According to Demers, Holer has stopped at nothing to silence him, and even once hired a private eye to pose as an investigator with the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) to visit his home. “Since then, and at the behest of Marineland, numerous suspicious vehicles have driven by or parked outside the home… for the purpose of intimidating Demers,” the counterclaim charges, adding that Holer stalked Demers and his girlfriend to the point that they called Niagara Regional Police multiple times. (Holer has not been charged with any crime.)
But the Walrus Whisperer says he will not be deterred from his animal advocacy. While he drowns in legal bills, Demers is also pushing for Smooshi’s freedom and for federal legislation to ban whale captivity in Canada once and for all.
Demers joins two other former trainers who’ve resorted to online fundraising to fight Holer’s protracted legal wrangling against them, which has never resulted in a trial or testimony. So far, they’ve raised more than $21,000.
“It’s a war of attrition, and he’s trying to crush anyone that’s showing any type of opposition [to Marineland],” Demers said in January on sports commentator and comic Joe Rogan’s podcast.
Activists hope their annual protest—outside the park this Saturday, on Marineland’s opening day—raises awareness of the captive animals and the former trainers fighting to free them.
Demers hasn’t seen Smooshi since June 2012, yet he says everything he does is for her.
“My greatest fear is that she would just die,” Demers told The Daily Beast. “It’s been a lot of years later. People move on in life, but I haven’t. This follows me until whatever finality presents itself, whatever that will be.”
Marineland isn’t the only animal park under fire these days. The American franchise SeaWorld finally agreed this year to phase out its orca whale program after ongoing criticism from animal-welfare activists and the wildly popular documentary Blackfish.
To Demers, “SeaWorld is a day at the spa” compared to Marineland.
Marineland and SeaWorld don’t only share scrutiny; at one point they even shared animals. In a 1996 interview with NOW Toronto, Holer admitted to selling whales to SeaWorld San Diego.
But in 2011, SeaWorld sued Marineland over allegations of inferior facilities. The Orlando-based behemoth took legal action to retrieve Ikaika—a young male orca and the son of Tilikum, SeaWorld’s best-known whale. Ike was loaned as part of a breeding agreement, but SeaWorld claimed in court that it was concerned about his health while he was in Marineland’s care.
In a countersuit, Marineland accused SeaWorld of trying to snatch Ike back only after a male killer whale died at SeaWorld San Diego. “For selfish reasons, SeaWorld now is attempting to destroy Ike’s current living environment,” Marineland argued in Orlando federal court, adding that Ike and its whale Kiska were mates.
In the end, SeaWorld won the custody battle, and Ike was transported to California.
Marineland would later launch its own slew of legal battles.
The theme park has filed a $7 million libel lawsuit against the Toronto Star, as well as litigation against former trainers, including Demers’s girlfriend, former trainer Christine Santos. In 2014, Holer sued Canadian website Digital Journal, which posted a retraction and apology for a freelancer’s piece titled, “Killer whale at Marineland appears to be ailing.” The writer, Elizabeth Batt, told the Niagara Falls Review she disagreed with the “entire retraction” and would defend herself in the lawsuit. Her case is still open.
This month, Marineland also filed a $1 million claim against a 19-year-old California student who is making a film about the park’s lone orca, Kiska. The defendant, Zach Affolter, used images of the park that were “intentionally altered… to falsely create an impression that the marine mammals at Marineland are suffering from animal abuse,” the claim states.
Affolter, a marine biology major at Humboldt State University, told The Daily Beast that his film isn’t for commercial purposes and that he “simply collected footage online from anonymously named sources.”
“The biggest claim, which holds their suit together, is that my film is for commercial purposes. This is completely untrue. It is simply a passion project,” Affolter said, adding that his film is meant to be educational.
He called Marineland’s lawsuit “a scare tactic to bully me into not releasing my film and to discourage other people from speaking out.”
“I think it’s weird they would come after a 19-year-old student who’s making a film as a side project, one which he’s not even making any money off of and putting his own money into it for stock footage from websites,” Affolter added.
He said he plans to defend himself against Marineland’s claim, despite having few financial resources.
Marineland contends it has never been charged or prosecuted for the mistreatment of animals in its care.
The park’s lawyer, Andrew Burns, said Ontario’s authorities have investigated and proven false animal-rights activists’ allegations of abuse. He called their claims misleading and almost a decade old—coming from advocates who don’t understand the natural behavior of creatures in the wild.
The Daily Beast asked both Burns and Marineland multiple times to comment on the specific allegations contained in this story, but they declined.
Burns pointed out that OSPCA, as well as the self-regulating industry group Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), cleared Marineland of “abuse” over the years—an affirmation echoed in Marineland press releases. However, both organizations marked areas for improvement at Marineland, the Star reported.
After the Star’s reports, OSPCA directed Marineland to comply with six orders, including: having a veterinary specialist examine the eyes of animals; making the elk and red deer enclosures bigger; and stopping the bears from reproducing.
Around the same time, CAZA said it found “no evidence of animal abuse, that water quality in all the pools was very good, and it appeared that staffing levels were adequate.” The group, which collects dues from Marineland, did concede that the park must “thoroughly update” its water quality protocols because records revealed three pools did not meet industry standards, the Star reported.
Marineland continues to tout its record. In a July 2015 blog post, the entertainment park billed itself as “the most thoroughly inspected facility of its kind in the world.”
“The conclusion of all of these inspections—all of them—is that the marine mammals at Marineland are well taken care of and healthy, the facilities are excellent and there is no evidence of animal abuse,” Marineland stated.
Still, allegations detailed in the Star in 2012 painted a decidedly grim picture: seals going blind from dirty water; dolphins hiding at the bottom of murky green pools to avoid chemical burns, their flesh falling off in chunks and floating in the water; and the death of Skoot, a baby beluga who convulsed in the arms of trainers after he was fatally attacked by a pair of adult whales.
On his first day of work in March 2000, Phil Demers told The Daily Beast that he was ordered to scrub a dried pool of blood from Marineland’s arcade. Days before, the local paper had reported on Malik, a 3-year-old killer whale who died of a deficient immune system.
“It was her blood,” Demers said, adding that he later learned staff moved Malik’s body through the arcade before starting a necropsy.
“I remember my first breath in that environment and thought, ‘OK, this is not what I expected.’ Rusty bars. Pretty dingy. I assumed someone must know what the hell they’re doing. Who am I to criticize? I just put my head down and worked hard,” continued Demers, who was fresh out of college when he got the job.
Demers had an audio engineering degree, but with few options in the field, he applied to become a marine mammals assistant. Holer liked that Demers was scuba certified and had experience in sound systems. In an interview, Demers was asked if he had wild animal experience. He had a pet iguana, and that was enough.
Early on in his career, Demers recalled, a senior trainer was fired after complaining about Holer’s demands to scour stains from the aquarium with CLR Calcium, Lime & Rust Remover.
In order to clean the aquarium, the trainers had to reduce the water in the pool down to inches. The pungent cleaning product caused trainers headaches, as the dolphins thrashed around the nearly empty pool. Demers said he secretly called OSPCA to report on the conditions.
“The agent came, and absolutely nothing came of it,” Demers told The Daily Beast. “The owner put his arm around him and turned around and walked away. That’s when I realized something’s really wrong around here.
“This man and this industry is untouchable,” he added.
Meanwhile, the whale carcasses started to pile up. Junior the orca spent his last five years in a concrete pool inside a Marineland barn, deprived of natural light. He died alone in 1994, the Star reported. One trainer told the newspaper that staff would sometimes put dolphins in Junior’s tank and that they would “pick on him” and “bite his tail.”
Marineland did not respond to questions from The Daily Beast about Junior or the other animals in their care.
The whale’s cause of death was never released. An orca inventory provided by Zoocheck shows Junior was likely around 10 years old when he died. Male orcas typically live for 30 years in the wild but can reach up to 50 or 60 years of age, with some even making it to 100.
In 2004, two young whales died at Marineland in as many months. Hudson, a 6-year-old orca, was found dead in Marineland’s Friendship Cove in October. Neocia, a 12-year-old killer whale, died two months before, according to local reports.
Neocia’s former trainer, Dawn Parliament, told the Star she resigned “because animals like Neocia were being mistreated.” Parliament said Neocia died after being transferred from a larger aquarium to a small stadium pool—a move trainers had lobbied against. Holer said the whale died of a yeast infection, according to the Star.
Another orca, the 27-year-old Kandu—who sired Malik, Neocia, and Hudson—died in December 2005.
In a 2007 interview with Niagara This Week, Holer said his facilities are larger and more spacious than required by law, and that activists unfairly blame Marineland for animal deaths.
“You have to understand, every animal dies,” Holer told Niagara This Week. “They would die no matter where they are.”
Marineland had a similar explanation after an 11-day-old killer whale died in 1998.
“Regrettably, the mortality rate of newborn killer whales is very high,” a park spokeswoman told the Hamilton Spectator. “Despite the unfavorable odds, a number of killer whales have been born successfully over the years.”
Julie Woodyer, campaigns director for Zoocheck, told The Daily Beast that Holer likely has the biggest tanks in North America, but too many whales are crammed inside. “Hoarding really is what it is,” Woodyer said. “It’s compromised the welfare of the animals because they don’t have sufficient space.”
Marineland doesn’t appear to have commented on the alleged overcrowding. But in statements on its website, the park says it “is one of the world’s best facilities for animal and marine mammal care.” In one 2015 blog post, Marineland states its only orca, Kiska, “lives in the largest pool housing a killer whale in the world.”
Andrew Burns, a Marineland attorney, echoed this sentiment to the National Post last year, calling Marineland’s pools the largest among aquariums in the U.S. and Europe. The facilities are “comparable to the largest single pool in the world,” he told the Post.
The sizeable tanks didn’t save Skoot, a 9-month-old beluga calf who died in the arms of her trainers in May 2012.
According to the Star, Skoot was brutally attacked by two adult male belugas for two hours one evening before a Marineland guide, who was helpless to intervene and untrained for such an emergency. The park’s trainers had punched out for the day.
The male belugas bit Skoot’s head and body and slammed her violently around the pool, before smashing her head into a rock wall. Skoot’s mother tried to save the calf and pushed her toward the Marineland guide while bashing her attacker away, the Star reported.
Marineland’s vet concluded Skoot “passed away after a sudden onset of illness,” in a letter forwarded to the Star.
As with all animals at Marineland, Skoot’s body was hoisted out of the tank by a backhoe and dumped in the park’s mass graves holding more than a thousand creatures, later prompting a probe from Ontario’s Environment Ministry. In 2013, the agency ordered Marineland to halt all burials immediately and conduct environmental testing on the grounds, the Star reported.
In 2012, Jim Hammond, then Marineland’s land animal supervisor, told The Star that at least a thousand animals were buried in two gravesites alone.
At the time, the Environment Ministry said Marineland needed to apply for a permit to operate a disposal site if it wanted to continue interring its animals.
Lindsay Davidson, a spokeswoman for the Environment Ministry, told The Daily Beast the agency inspected the site and issued a January 2013 order to address dead animal disposal.
That November, Marineland was issued an “Environmental Compliance Approval” requiring the company to ensure burials are “carried out in a way that is protective of the environment and surrounding community,” Davidson said in an email.
Marineland passed its 2015 inspection, she said.
Meanwhile, at the time of Skoot’s death, Holer appeared to wave away the issue, telling the Star the calf was targeted for having bacterial meningitis. “If animals see another animal is going to die, they kill it,” Holer insisted, later adding, “You have to understand… for people and all living things, there is a time to live and a time to die.”
The Man Behind The Curtain
While he was building his Marineland empire, Holer’s name was routinely in the local press.
He’s sparred with animal lovers for decades. Brigitte Bardot penned a letter to Niagara Falls’ mayor in 1996, demanding the government “interfere forcefully” so Marineland’s “deplorable conditions” didn’t ruin the city’s image. During one 1998 protest, female activists bared their chests outside the marine park, holding signs reading, “I’d rather go topless than go to Marineland.”
In the 1990s, a reporter with 60 Minutes Australia faced Holer’s ire when she asked questions about the death of the whale Junior. In response, Holer shoved her microphone and camera in her face. “They stuck a camera in my nose,” Holer told NOW Toronto in 1996. “These gung-ho types—I’ve got no use for them.”
Holer even sued one local activist group, Niagara Action for Animals, for libel in 2003 after it sent a letter to a Chrysler dealership, asking the firm to reconsider hosting a Christmas party at Marineland. He dropped the suit three years later.
The proprietor also gained public attention when he acquired a nearby trailer park in 2009 and sent eviction notices to 47 families, who tried to fight back. One woman in her sixties, who said she had no place to go, committed suicide a year later, the Niagara Falls Review reported.
One Toronto photographer captured the mobile home court’s descent into a ghost town, where one residence’s walls aired an ominous message: “A blessing on John Holer—may you get exactly what you deserve—10 fold.”
Holer pulls no punches when it comes to protesters. In 2011, he allegedly threatened to “run over” Dylan Powell of Marineland Animal Defense after he handed out leaflets to visitors. Powell was arguing with Holer over the owner’s attempt to post a sign reading, “Protesters ahead, please do not stop,” the Star reported.
“John is intimidating,” Powell told the Star. “He utters threats and takes our protests on a very personal level.”
Julie Woodyer of Zoocheck agreed. “He’s a bully. He jammed a camera in my face when I was filming,” Woodyer told The Daily Beast, adding, “He gets away with everything though.”
Leslie Bittman, an officer with the Niagara Regional Police Service, told The Daily Beast that protesters often accuse cops of siding with Holer during animal rights demonstrations.
“I’ve had protesters treat me as if I’m an extension of him, which I’m not,” Bittman said. “Unfortunately… people think we’re supporting him and that’s not the case at all. We are there as peace keepers.”
Bittman said hundreds of reports have been filed regarding Holer, including alleged threats by protesters against him. No one has been charged, she said.
“I have heard that [Holer] is sometimes present [at protests] and he’s not the most pleasant man to deal with, but I can assure you that if something of a criminal nature occurred, it would be investigated by the police,” Bittman said.
Holer has largely avoided personal interviews since Marineland opened in 1961. However, glimpses of his life were revealed in the the Toronto Star. Born Ivan Holerjem in Maribor, Slovenia, he studied wine chemistry and was ready to work at his father’s vineyard until the industry fell to communist control after World War II. So Holer migrated to Austria, where he trained bears and sea lions for a circus.
The mysterious animal collector read about Niagara Falls, where tourists had little to see but the waterfalls themselves, and decided to try his hand there, according to the Star. Holer opened a circus, charging a quarter to see a trio of sea lions.
Controversy surrounding Holer appeared to multiply as quickly as his menagerie.
In 1977, U.S. Customs seized Holer’s chartered plane containing eight bottlenose dolphins after bad weather forced the aircraft, en route from Mexico to Canada, to land in Texas. Despite the Canadian’s pleas, authorities dumped all but two dolphins into the Gulf of Mexico—their fates unknown. The species was, and is, federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Holer threatened the U.S. with a lawsuit, accusing it of “air piracy,” but lost his $1.35 million claim. At the time, a Texas wildlife official told the Beaumont Enterprise that Holer’s concerns over the dolphins’ safety were valid. The official said he spoke to the people who released the animals and “none of them came up after they were dropped in the water.”
Among Holer’s early imported whales was Keiko, the orca who starred in the film Free Willy, and who was captured in Iceland. It was 1982, and Holer said Keiko came unannounced with another order of whales. He didn’t have room for the orca, so three years later he sold him to a Mexico City aquarium, the Star reported.
The Mexican tank, intended for dolphins, wasn’t big enough either. The park tried unsuccessfully to sell Keiko to SeaWorld or find him another home. In 1993, a vet told the Toronto Star Keiko had developed a skin disease, possibly during his two-year sojourn at Marineland, an allegation Holer denied.
Keiko was moved to an Oregon aquarium before being airlifted to Iceland in 1998 to prepare him for life in the wild. But when rehabilitators released him four years later, he swam straight for Norway in what NBC News said “seemed to be a search for human companionship,” as he appeared near a village and let people pet and play with him. He died a year later of pneumonia.
In 1998, Zoocheck criticized Marineland for, among other things, letting bears fight for marshmallows dropped by tourists from above. Some bears had ripped ears and nostrils from fighting each other, the animal protection charity said. (As recently as 2014, tourists were feeding the bears ice cream cones filled with Corn Pops, YouTube footage shows.)
Marineland’s deer, kept in concrete enclosures without grass or much shade, didn’t fare any better. One deer had a baseball-size growth on its eye, Zoocheck claimed.
In response, Holer told the Toronto Star, “There’s no one that takes care of the animals as much as I do. I treat those animals the same way I would treat my own children.” Of the marshmallow meals, he declared, “it is not their main diet” but that they’re “good for humans and good for bears. It’s like a dessert.”
Then there was Dee, a young whale captured off the Russian coast, who died suddenly in the summer of 2000 before hundreds of shocked spectators. Demers said he remembers radioing Holer after Dee flipped over on her back and floated to the surface. “Move her tail. Make her look alive,” Holer allegedly ordered his staff.
The animals seemed disposable, according to former trainers. Marineland workers would often arrive to work to discover a new set of animals, unaware that another shipment of dolphins or walruses was coming in. If one animal succumbed to an untimely death, another would be shipped over. One young walrus, Buddy, was so scared of his new environs that “anytime you even approached him he looked like he was going to have a damn heart attack,” Demers said. “He clearly suffered some type of injury or [something happened] in transport.
“When he came in, he never stood a chance,” Demers fumed.
“He was so traumatized,” Demers added of Buddy, who allegedly survived only a week at Marineland around 2004.
Demers told The Daily Beast he was so heartbroken over Buddy’s death that he quit, only to return the next day because Niagara jobs are hard to come by. Then, worried he betrayed his team, Demers volunteered to do the unthinkable: He chiseled open Buddy’s brain for a sample to send to the lab.
At one point, Marineland didn’t even have veterinarians on site, Demers claimed.
Demers said trainers would call a vet for advice and administer medicine to the animals themselves. “We were doing things on our own. We were inventing procedures as we went,” Demers told The Daily Beast. “Managing the facility, trying to keep animals away from other species. We always flew by the seat of our pants.”
In 2005, a killer whale named Kandu died and was buried in Marineland’s mass graves after a necropsy, according to the Star, which reported that two weeks later, a vet requested Demers exhume the orca’s body because Marineland had failed to obtain a brain tissue sample.
Demers dove into the grave with another handler and sawed open Kandu’s head in the rain and snow, the Star reported. “I had my elbow deep in his brain cavity,” Demers told The Daily Beast, adding that he jumped out to repeatedly vomit.
“Marineland likes to say they bury them with dignity,” Demers added. “We had a backhoe with a pit. You dump your sea lion or walrus and thousands of deer in there.”
Holer “seems to thrive in contention or chaos,” Demers said. “We’re kindred in that sense. I’d like to think it’s good versus evil, but I know it’s asshole versus asshole.”
Adding to the intrigue was Holer’s dark banter. “He didn’t really have a sense of humor unless he said, ‘Oh, I have a bullet with your name on it. See this bullet. It’s got your name on it. Heh, heh, heh.’
“That was his go-to,” Demers recalled.
During one summer 2013 encounter, Holer was heard on video growling about stabbing and burying an activist who was leafleting outside. He muttered something to the protester, Mike Garrett, who said aloud, “I’m lucky you don’t have a knife? So you would stab me if you had a knife?”
“That’s right. I’d bury you right here,” Holer is heard telling Garrett, against whom he later filed a $1.5 million lawsuit to stop protests.
“Oh, you’d kill me right here?” Garrett said, and Holer clarified, “No, I’d bury you right here.”
Moments later, the proprietor furiously raised his arms toward Garrett and hollered, “You’re nothing but an idiot. You’re an idiot!” Then, he added, the protester should be happy he didn’t “have police here.”
Holer was also something of a hoarder, according to Demers, who said the Marineland owner never threw anything away. As a result, a warehouse on the property contained everything from a corroded set of animatronic polar bears to grimy sea lion cages and even a massive, coal-powered train that Holer dreamed would one day cut across the park. “When he wasn’t going off the deep end, he was an interesting guy,” Demers told The Daily Beast.
“He’s built an entire world of his own,” Demers added. “He doesn’t contract people to do building projects; he’s got a whole mechanic shop. A carpenter shop. It’s a world unto itself.”
Holer patrols the grounds in his truck, from which he fires a gun out the window to cull his own herds of elk, bison, and deer, according to Jim Hammond, one former supervisor who spoke to the Star. Hammond resigned after Holer ordered him to kill a deer with a dull knife. The animal, which had to be euthanized over a badly broken leg, had survived a gunshot from Holer and was gasping for breath. The former staffer told the Star he was so traumatized by the ordeal that he quit.
The former land animal supervisor told the Toronto Star he also witnessed Holer fatally shoot his neighbor’s labrador retrievers when the dogs wandered onto Marineland property.
“Do you want to call the Humane Society?” Hammond asked Holer at the time, according to the Star. “And he said, ‘No, we don’t want to call them. I’ll look after it’ and he drove off.” Hammond said he heard gunshots soon after.
When the Toronto Star called Holer about the dog-shooting allegations, he hung up or stayed on the line, just breathing. A Marineland attorney later told the Star the pooch-killing allegations were “false” and “part of an unfair public vendetta… by animal rights activists who seek to shut all zoos and aquariums in Ontario.”
Freedom for Smooshi?
Zeus the walrus looked forlorn in his tiny waterless cage, peering through the bars and pushing his whiskers to the metal. His life inside Marineland’s warehouse was captured in a 2012 Toronto Star report, and in a video posted by Demers. A former trainer, Angela Bentivegna, said Zeus crumbled into a shell of his former self.
Bentivegna told the Star that Marineland’s walruses—which are highly social and congregate in large numbers in the wild—were left in their dark pens for days, with no stimulation other than meals. Many of them suffered from vomiting and weight loss, she said.
Zeus had regurgitation issues aggravated by the alleged bad water, and he often lay unattended in his own excrement because there weren’t enough trainers to go around, the Star reported. Demers has posted images of Zeus, appearing severely underweight, on Twitter.
It’s unclear what’s become of Zeus now. Marineland posted a March 2016 Facebook photo with Smooshi and her walrus buddy Buttercup. While the caption indicated the pinnipeds were playing with Zeus, he wasn’t pictured.
In July 2014, the park posted a picture of Zeus in the aquarium next to a Marineland trainer.
“The whole reason for even having [the walruses] is for a 10-second bit at the end of the [whale and dolphin] show,” Demers said, adding that Zeus would wave goodbye to the audience before returning to his cage.
Demers fears Smooshi will suffer a similar fate to Zeus.
There was a time when the former trainer wanted improved conditions for the animals; now he’s fighting for a complete ban on marine mammal captivity.
As a result of the Star’s reporting and concerns over the welfare of animals at Marineland, the Canadian government has taken steps to improve animal life in captivity—or eventually ban it altogether.
Last June, Nova Scotia senator Wilfred Moore introduced a bill in the Canadian parliament to phase out captivity of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. The legislation would target the Vancouver Aquarium and Marineland, the only venues containing such creatures, and has the backing of advocacy groups including the Jane Goodall Institute and Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, CBC News reported.
Marineland released a statement suggesting the proposal would kill Ontario tourism and slammed Moore’s suggestion that people could see whales and dolphins in the wild, from a boat, as unaffordable for the average family.
“As we all know, there are no guarantees you will see anything whale watching from a boat and may only learn what it is like to be seasick,” Marineland stated, adding that “whale watching is far more stressful for any whale than visiting them at Marineland.”
One month before, Ontario became the first province to ban the buying, selling, or breeding of orca whales. The law didn’t go far enough, some advocates say, because Marineland’s 40-year-old orca Kiska was exempt from the ordinance. She’s been Marineland’s only orca since Ike returned to SeaWorld in 2011 and unless Holer releases her, she may be condemned to die alone. “She may spend the rest of her life in isolation,” Cary Nice of Ontario Captive Animal Watch told the Star.
Beluga whales, Nice added, weren’t included in the ban. And neither was Kiska, despite pleas from 91-year-old animal activist and The Price is Right emcee Bob Barker, the Star reported.
Community Safety Minister Yasir Naqvi said Kiska is exempt from the new law because she “is owned by Marineland. She is their possession and they have the right to decide what to do,” according to the Star.
The orca ban followed Ontario’s massive overhaul of standards of care for captive marine mammals based on 125-page report by team of scientists led by Dr. David Rosen at University of British Columbia, the Star reported.
The report, commissioned by the Ontario government in 2013 and released a year later, made recommendations for marine facilities, including the creation of an Animal Welfare Committee and management plan “that provides justification for all marine mammals housed in the facility,” among other proposed regulations.
The study concluded that current “standards of care that apply to marine mammals in public display facilities are insufficient.”
Rosen is now evaluating factors such as pool size and design, social groupings and interaction, training, water quality, and food in order to make recommendations for the standards of care, Niagara This Week reported. The results are expected in July of this year.
As for Demers, Niagara’s economic slump has him on seasonal construction gigs or working as a pallbearer for hire, all while advocating for Smooshi’s freedom on Twitter and the airwaves, including traveling to Toronto for a recent interview with Canadian radio host Todd Shapiro.
Marineland’s lawsuit against Demers has idled. Attorneys haven’t begun the process to collect evidence in preparation for trial since it was filed three years ago, Demers said. “I refuse to live in a world where someone can leverage a lawsuit and create a bullshit story about you and then have you chase them at all costs to put an end to this thing,” he told The Daily Beast.
There isn’t a single day the walrus wizard doesn’t think of Smooshi, despite last seeing her four years ago. Demers believes Smooshi doesn’t perform much besides greeting spectators and waving a flipper for photo-ops.
The dream, he said, is for his faithful pinniped, whom he considers a child, to be moved to a different marine facility. There’s “an almost zero percent chance” Smooshi, who no longer has her tusks, would survive if released into the wild, in a herd of thousands of fellow walruses, he said.
“I’d love to see her at a beachside, a controlled environment, but full on reintroduction into the wild…” Demers trailed off.
Demers told The Daily Beast he’s willing to put Smooshi’s future happiness ahead of maintaining a close relationship. It doesn’t matter where she moves, he’d hop on a plane to be with her in an instant.
“I have a romantic idea that [she could live in] a zoo in Quebec,” he said. “If she were there, at least she’d be outdoors, spared of nasty fumes and could see the sun. Beyond that, if it takes me 10 hours to get there, I can be there at least.”
Demers never moved away from Niagara Falls, yet he’s banned from Marineland. He can see the park’s 450-foot-high ride, the Sky Screamer, from his patio. “It’s a third of a mile,” he said. “I’m so close but so far away. I’m years and eternities away.”
But he won’t give up on Smooshi.
“Some things don’t change,” Demers said. “I give a shit about this animal. I want her to see me again. I’m not going to steal her.”