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(CA) Marineland: Heartache for Smooshi the walrus as top trainer quits

August 15, 2012

Phil Demers and Smooshi

SUPPLIED Phil Demers, a former animal trainer at Marineland, is shown with female walrus Smooshi several years ago. Demers left Marineland in May after 12 years, worn down by his inability to help animals in his care.

By Linda DiebelNational Affairs Writer

NIAGARA FALLS--For Phil Demers, leaving Marineland felt like the biggest betrayal of his life.

It had little to do with the place where he worked for 12 years or even the colleagues he loves. Rather, he left Smooshi, the walrus that 'adopted' him when she arrived in 2004 at 18 months.

It kills Demers, 34, that she doesn't understand why he's gone.

More Inside Marineland: Marineland animals suffering, former staffers say

His departure means he won't be able to see the goofy girl that followed him everywhere. Walrus and trainer became minor celebrities after a slew of media reports on their relationship in 2008.

Marine mammal specialists can't explain why Smooshi 'imprinted' on Demers. Videos show them together, Smooshi obviously feeling safe while he stroked her big, whiskery mug.

Sometime after 2008, Smooshi was moved from Marineland's barn to the Aquarium, where Demers said she deteriorated because of problems with the water. Demers lobbied successfully to move her back to the barn. At first, she improved but problems eventually returned.

More Inside Marineland: Log details reveal water quality issues

Smooshi stopped eating and would play with a fish for hours. He worked hard, developing a 'jello program,' coaxing her to eat fish with gelatin cube kickers.

'In the wild, they spend all their time in the water chasing fish and eating them,' explains Demers. 'Then they come here and we feed them buckets of fish. And then we have no time for them. Take away their need to survive and they have nothing to do.'

Demers began to write memos seeking better conditions and more trainers. 'Walruses require at least five hours of attention per animal per day. . . Regurgitation, poor mental health and weight loss is noted already,' says a 2010 memo that asks for five trainers on walruses alone.

Photos: Meet the animals of Marineland

By spring of 2012, Demers, who was in charge of the stadium show, had lost the authority to hire and train employees. That meant: 'I couldn't train people enough to properly care for the animals and I didn't have time to keep them eating.'

In April, he made the difficult decision to resign. His last day was May 10.

Colleagues urged him to stay at Marineland.

'He is, in my opinion, one of the best trainers (actually, he is THE BEST) with respect to skills and understanding,' Marineland vet Erica Gehring emailed to administrator Tracy Stewart. 'He knows the animals and understands how to get them to do things that make it easier for all of us.

'We really, really need Phil to stay . . . there are other places that will snatch him up if he leaves . . . Marineland needs him, Smooshi needs him . . . We all need him.'

Demers thought he'd be able to do see Smooshi through contract or volunteer work. Instead, his decision to resign has meant no access.

Other trainers assure Demers she's put on weight and she's in the stadium show.

But Demers is afraid her separation anxiety will worsen and feeding issues will become entrenched.

Moreover, he says he made her a promise. He wants her away from Marineland's dank, concrete pens.

His dream is to get Smooshi into a facility that 'can offer her proper care and where I can be involved in her life in some way, shape or form.'

By speaking out about Marineland, he knows he hasn't made it easy.

Linda Diebel

Former trainer blasts conditions at Marineland


AUGUST 15, 2012

Phil Demers with Smooshi

NIAGARA FALLS, Ont. -- Leaving Marineland broke Phil Demers' heart. But he had to do it.

The 34-year-old animal trainer left the amusement park after 12 years, and has gone public with allegations of deplorable water conditions and mistreatment of animals by his former employer.

Demers said he made the decision to leave in May and then go public because the park's owner, John Holer, wasn't making changes he thought were necessary.

"All of my efforts in-house proved futile," Demers said Wednesday. "I could yell and scream, but at the end of the day, I didn't get the support that I hoped I'd get from management to correct what was a really bad problem."

The biggest issue, he said, was poor water quality that was making the marine animals, such as sea lions, whales, walruses and seals, sick.

Demers said when he quit his job as trainer on May 4, he used his exit interview with Holer to try to get a message through to him that the water needed to be dealt with.

"I thought the only chance I had to save the animals was to make a stink when I left," he said. "So I slammed my fist, and everything else, and he finally dumped the water."

Marineland typically doesn't respond to criticism or protests, and Holer wouldn't comment personally Wednesday, but park officials allowed Nic Hayne, the supervisor of marine mammal training, and director of veterinarian services June Mergl to address the allegations.

Both said all of the park's animals are well taken care of.

"The care and condition of our animals is our utmost priority," Hayne said. "Any change in their condition is immediately responded to by the training staff, veterinarians, and dealt with in a prompt and efficient manner.

"We're proud of our record and we constantly strive to provide the best care for these guys."

Demers said he's not entirely against amusement parks with animals on display but said there needs to be more regulation in place.

"I'd like to see a really powerful Big Brother over (Holer's) shoulders so he can still continue to be a successful operation but that he allocates his money where it needs to go and that he helps the animals to make certain they stay healthy." Demers said.

Mergl defended the park, saying many of the animals Demers talked about were simply suffering from the effects of old age.

"They were some of our elderly sea lions and seals, and they have conditions that are extremely common in aquariums and zoos across the world," Mergl said. "We're not immune to those situations. But because we have a full-time staff that assist me, they're dealt with and taken care of and we make sure they have no pain and are treated immediately."

Hayne agreed, and said the water in the park is clean.

"Our water-quality people monitor it three times a day, and those numbers are looked at and reported to upper management," he said. "Some of our treatment systems exceed other oceanariums around the world."

In addition to sea mammals, Marineland also has deer and bears on display.

Demers, who hasn't worked since leaving Marineland, said he's concerned about Holer suing him for his comments but said he felt it was necessary.

"He's going to destroy me, but who else is going to do it? It's destiny and it was put on my shoulders," Demers said. "He can take every penny I have. I don't care. Those are my animals. They're all of our animals. Anyone in my position should do this."

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Twitter: @dandakinreview

NIAGARA FALLS, ONT. -- The Ontario Society for the Prevention of
Cruelty to Animals will conduct an on-site inspection with sea mammal
experts at Marineland after eight former employees told of animal
suffering caused by recurring water problems, as well as staffing

"We've got to do what's best for the animals' welfare," said Connie
Mallory, chief licensing inspector for the Ontario SPCA.

"As soon as the concerns came forward we started to move the wheels"
to address them, she said Thursday.

Ontario Community Service Minister Madeleine Meilleur, who oversees
the OSPCA, said she was "very concerned" by reports on conditions at
the Niagara Falls attraction.

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