For many, a trip to the walrus show at Marineland in Ontario, Canada, is a fun family day outing. However, rather than seeing an exciting performance, one crowd there watched in horror as what appeared to be a neglected walrus seemed to struggle to even hold himself up outside the pool.
Not far from Niagara Falls, Marineland first opened its doors in 1961. Founder John Holer started the attraction with only a few sea lions and a couple of human swimmers but soon expanded his attraction park to include a variety of marine and land animals – including dolphins, orcas, beluga whales and black bears.
Sadly, the park has been plagued by controversy for much of its history. In 1977, for example, the U.S. government reclaimed six bottlenose dolphins from Holer after learning that he had illegally caught the animals in the Gulf of Mexico.
What’s more, a 2012 report by the Toronto Star alleged that several of Marineland’s animals were miserable due to mistreatment. That same year, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment launched its own investigation into several illegal mass animal graves said to be at the park.
It’s fair to say, then, that Marineland has had its share of critics. And one of them is former employee Philip Demers, who worked with the park’s walruses for 12 years.
Since leaving in 2012, Demers has been very vocal about the park’s treatment of animals. The same year he left, moreover, he spearheaded a campaign to tighten government oversight of animal parks and implement strong animal protection laws – ones that could very well result in a forced closure of Marineland.
Not surprisingly, then, it was Demers who first highlighted the plight of Zeus, a walrus at Marineland who he says is often kept behind the scenes. In August 2016 the former employee took to YouTube with a video of what he described as an “emaciated” Zeus.
“His skin drapes his bones. No muscle tone. No blubber or fat visible. His air sac below his neck, protruding. His belly, virtually nonexistent. His lack of energy and attention. Zeus is very sick,” Demers, who is not a biologist, wrote in the video’s summary.
The footage shows Zeus looking sluggish compared to his companions, as he waddles a bit around the pool before flopping to the ground. What’s more, his back displays a noticeably strange hump. According to Demers, the video marks a rare appearance from Zeus as the park “keeps him largely out of the public eye.”
But while Zeus doesn’t seem to enjoy being pool-side as much as his other walrus friends, the interactions among them are touching. When one of the other walruses bumps noses with Zeus, for example, it looks like team support. “They were both wild caught as pups together in Russia,” Demers told The Dodo.
And while it might be easy to think that maybe Zeus is suffering from simple old age, he is only 13 years old. Considering that walruses can live for up to 40 years in the wild, then, Zeus is actually pretty young.
Furthermore, a male walrus should normally weigh in at anywhere from 1,764 to 3,748 pounds, according to a report by SeaWorld. But Demers told the website that he’d “be shocked if [Zeus] weighed 1,000 [pounds].”
And although Demers campaigns on behalf of all of the animals at Marineland, he is particularly focused on Zeus and another walrus named Smooshi. Indeed, Demers has claimed that it was his concern for Zeus’ welfare that eventually prompted him to resign from his job. “I’ve seen him collapse many times,” he told The Dodo. “He would delay shows. He has a chronic regurgitation issue.”
Just after he quit, Demers began his public campaign against the park. In 2012 he launched his petition; two years later, moreover, he shared a clip of Zeus lying in filth in a cramped cage, reporting that this was a common occurrence for the neglected walrus.
However, Marineland has fiercely defended itself against Demers’ claims. “Anyone can take an unflattering photo of someone to make them look unwell or unhappy,” a park spokesperson told The Dodo.
Indeed, on Facebook and through other media outlets, the park has assured the public that Zeus receives regular veterinary care, is in fine shape and that his summer weight is of course normally lighter than his winter weight. Still, it has cautioned that “activists will continue to post misleading information and photos of all of our animals. We will continue to provide accurate information and care for all of our animals.”
In the meantime, the park has taken Demers to court for attempting to steal Smooshi, the other walrus Demers has expressed particular interest in saving. “I’m also asking Marineland owner John Holer to allow me to visit Smooshi the walrus who depends on me for care,” Demers wrote in a campaign letter on Change.org.
Plus, Demers has suggested that he and Smooshi share an emotional bond. “She needs me as much as I need her. Her vulnerability humbles me, and she makes me a better human being. She has offered me so many amazing experiences and opportunities, and I value her life as I do the lives of my very own family,” he wrote in a blog in 2012.
So far, then, Demers’ four-year campaign against the park has received much attention, and his petition on Change.org to “save Marineland’s animals” is now fewer than 5,000 signatures away from its 150,000 target. His outspoken criticism may have even influenced Ontario’s 2015 ban on breeding orcas in captive or obtaining new orcas from the wild for show: Marineland’s Kiska will now be the province’s last remaining orca in captivity.
Still, Demers continues to push for even stronger animal protection laws and higher standards of care required from zoos and aquariums. Indeed, as his petition states, “Without those laws, no one will be able to save the animals of Marineland.”