- Nadine Yusuf
- BBC from Toronto
After a 10-year battle, a former animal trainer has managed to get a beloved walrus out of Canada’s most popular aquatic zoo, which has faced allegations of animal cruelty. Now, Smooshi is starting a new life more than 11,000 kilometers (6,800 miles) away.
Late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel called it “a heartwarming story.” Newsmagazine Inside Edition called it “love at first sight.”
They describe a unique bond between a Canadian and a walrus named Smooshi.
Phil Demers met Smooshi in 2004, when she was an 18-month-old calf arriving in Canada from Russia.
She’s one of several new walruses to be acquired by Sea World, one of Canada’s most famous aquatic zoos — thanks in part to the catchy “Everybody Loves Sea World” ad that once dominated national airwaves.
Established in 1961, Marineland is where Keiko, the orca star of the film Free Willy, began her public acting career in the early 1980s.
The zoo has been controversial for years, dating back to 1977 when the U.S. Department of Fisheries seized six bottlenose dolphins illegally captured by its founders in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the Toronto Star.
It has become the site of frequent protests by animal rights activists and has been the subject of multiple investigations by local police, American government and Animal Welfare Services of Ontario, the latter two of which are ongoing.
But Mr. Demers wasn’t worried when he first worked as an animal trainer at the park, when he was not yet 22.
“When I first started, I was like everyone else,” Mr Demers told the BBC. “I wanted to impress my superiors that they seemed to know what they were doing.”
Soon, however, he said he saw flaws in the way Marineland treated animals. He also begins to form an unusually strong bond with Smooshi.
While she was undergoing the medical procedure, Mr Demers said Smooshi was “imprinted” on him as he tried to calm her down. He said the walrus started thinking he was its mother and started following him around the park wherever he went.
The two became inseparable and the young trainer said he got to know the walrus on a personal level.
“She had a great sense of humor,” he said, sometimes jokingly engaging in inappropriate behavior to elicit his reaction.
“She was very knowledgeable about everyone and her surroundings. You had to keep an eye out for her jokes and shenanigans because she was always keeping us on our toes.”
Meanwhile, Mr Demers said he could not stand Marineland’s neglect of the animals and he feared for Smooshi’s safety.
He resigned in 2012 and began a quest to rescue Smooshi.
The BBC has contacted Marineland several times for comment on the matter but has not heard back.
Marineland has consistently denied any wrongdoing in keeping and treating the animals and has called on groups of “radical animal activists” to make false allegations against the zoo.
They also argued that they showed the sea animals for educational purposes.
Shortly after Mr. Demers left, SeaWorld sued Mr. Demers, banned him from the park, and claimed he trespassed and conspired to steal the 363kg (800lb) walrus – which he categorically denies this allegation. He sued the water zoo for defamation.
But after 10 years and C$250,000 ($185,500; £158,150) in legal costs, Mr Demers’ dream of freeing Smooshi became a reality.
Last year, Marineland agreed to drop the lawsuit and relocate Smooshi and her calf, Kayuk, saying in a statement it was “in the best interests of the walruses.”
Mr Demers remains barred from Marineland, but as part of the settlement, the zoo allowed him to have an emotional reunion with Smooshi, despite the pair being separated by a rope and a guardrail.
“She started climbing up (the railing) to get to me and I was trying to get to her and they brought her back immediately,” Mr Demers said.
Both the Smooshi and Kayuk have been shipped to SeaWorld Park in the Arabian Gulf – a brand new facility in Abu Dhabi due to open on May 23.
Mr. Demers, now a postman and animal rights activist, said he remains against keeping animals in captivity.
But he said he’s glad the walruses are finally leaving SeaWorld, even if it means Smooshi is now more than 11,000 kilometers away.
Dr. Noami Rose, a marine mammal biologist, is also opposed to captive walruses, but says she also believes the new SeaWorld facility in Abu Dhabi will provide a better home for Smooshi and her calf.
“The problem with Marineland is that it’s so outdated, so they’re limited in what they can offer the animals in terms of things like enrichment,” said Dr. Ross, who works at the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C. .
Listed as a threatened species, walruses are usually found near the North Pole and around the Arctic Ocean.
The average temperature in Abu Dhabi’s hottest month is 35.5 degrees Celsius (96 degrees Fahrenheit), so Smooshi is likely to be housed in a climate-controlled indoor environment year-round, she said.
Dr. Shawn Noren, a marine mammal researcher, said optimal conditions for walruses in captivity include ensuring they are provided with adequate nutrition and veterinary care, as well as training and enrichment classes.
“They give the animal something novel, like a toy, or a new learning task, so their brain is engaged, which is really important for social animals like walruses,” she said.
In a statement to the BBC, SeaWorld said the walruses from several zoos and aquariums around the world had “arrived safely” in Abu Dhabi and had “comfortably settled into their new home”.
Smooshi will live with other walruses in a new habitat “designed specifically for this species,” they added.
As Smooshi adjusts to her new life, Mr Demers is considering when to visit her. He said a recent video of her from SeaWorld brought him to tears.
“I don’t want to disturb anything, I just want to go out there and see her get some fresh air,” he said, though he added that he wouldn’t mind a quick hug before flying back to Canada.