On Aug. 15, Philip Demers, a former marine mammal trainer at Marineland Canada in Niagara Falls, and now an outspoken critic against the park, posted a video to YouTube. It shows Zeus, a 13-year-old Marineland walrus, shuffling around and ducking his head before eventually lying down, while music thuds away in the background.
"As you can see, Zeus is very emaciated," Demers wrote in a video description, which he told me was provided by an anonymous source who filmed it that same day. "His skin drapes his bones. No muscle tone. No blubber or fat visible. His air sac is below his neck, protruding. His belly, virtually nonexistent." According to him, "Zeus is very sick."
The video claiming to show Zeus at Marineland. Video: Phil Demers/YouTube
Marineland disagrees. They say the walrus is healthy, and two days after Demers' video was posted, they published their own video showing Zeus chowing on fish:
Zeus - August 17, 2016. Video: Marineland CA/YouTube
Marineland has faced its share of bad press. In 2012, it became the focus of a major Toronto Star investigation, which included interviews with former employees like Demers. Things got dark fast: Alongside allegations of sick, suffering animals came revelations the park had been burying dead animals on its grounds. (Marineland was later issued a permit for the burials).
The park has reportedly launched nine lawsuits in the past four years, including against The Star and its former trainers, and most recently against a California filmmaker who included footage of Kiska, its resident orca, in an upcoming film called Black Water.
As for Zeus, he's "healthy and eating well," Marineland said to Motherboard in an emailed statement. All the park walruses, including Zeus, get regular checkups from the "onsite medical care team," and have been seen by independent veterinarians, it said.
"Just as with people, walruses come in all shapes and sizes and he has always been a very long and lean animal," the statement continues.
Marineland, which gets regular, unannounced drop-ins from the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, provided its own photos of Zeus:
No one would suggest Demers is impartial. The former trainer, who has an educational background in music and is not a biologist, has been accused of essentially plotting to kidnap another Marineland walrus, named Smooshi, who he bonded with back when he was employed there. Demers was in court defending himself on Thursday, before speaking with Motherboard.
I inquired about what qualified him for the job at Marineland, where he began working in 2000. "I was young and had a SCUBA license," he told me. (He worked there for 12 years, starting out "scrubbing buckets" and eventually choreographing entire shows, he said.)
"When I say these animals are like family, they are," he continued. As for Zeus, Demers is concerned about his "size and lack of energy. He's regressing."
Demers' video has put Marineland on the defensive. In a statement to The Dodo, the park compared the YouTube video to a gossip rag: "As you have probably seen from many of the tabloid magazines, you see in grocery store lineups, anyone can take an unflattering photo of someone to make them look unwell or unhappy," a spokesperson reportedly said. (No word on whether Zeus was just having a bad hair day.)
Meanwhile, Demers' petition to shut down the park has collected over 135,000 signatures, and is being circulated alongside the walrus video.
The treatment of captive marine mammals has been under scrutiny, as lawmakers and facilities re-evaluate whether these animals should live in zoos and aquariums—and whether the paying public still actually wants to see them paraded around.
SeaWorld recently put an end to its captive orca breeding program, and in 2015, Ontario introduced new regulations banning the acquisition or breeding of orcas, leaving Marineland's Kiska as the last one in captivity in the province.
There's also a long-simmering debate around whether walruses should live in zoos and aquariums, where they struggle to reproduce. It's sprung up again after the unusual births of two baby walruses at an aquarium in Quebec earlier this year.
Marineland, which continues to stage marine mammal shows featuring dolphins, beluga whales, sea lions, and walruses, doesn't appear to see a problem with it.