What drives you? My simple answer is Smooshi the walrus. Back in 2004 the 200lb, 18-month-old wild caught Pacific walrus came to Marineland in a tiny wooden box after a long journey from Russia in very poor health. This wasn't my first experience of having "green" animals come to us in such shape, only this time I wasn't throwing a fit or even quitting (as I had historically).
This time I was going to invest any and all of my energies into nursing this animal back to health. This commitment proved arduous to say the least. I invested many long days and weeks and in return grew an anomaly of a relationship that would change both our lives for evermore.
I had imprinted (as scientists, and Twilight fans alike would put it) on Smooshi the walrus. I prefer to say she came to see me as a trusted and loving family member. I had become a maternal figure, if you will (insert jokes here). She would follow me to the ends of the earth, without any coaxing of added stimulus or training.
I walked her throughout the park at will, and she never left my side. She was also very protective of me. If you physically got between she and I, she'd move you. Furthermore, she would not let me out of her sight and would invariably call for me, day and night. Most importantly, however, this relationship proved invaluable in the continued care of Smooshi, as her health was always sensitive, and as a benefit to her trusting ways, she allowed us to accomplish treatments that would otherwise not be possible -- and likely cause her to die.
Over time paychecks became my new norm and Marineland was now a second home rather than a simple place of employment. In 2008, news of our relationship rippled through the media, and we were the focus of many headlines (and even a most notable late night comedy monologue).
Fast forward many years, and here we are making noise once again, only the circumstances of which are less "cute."
In May of 2012, I made the difficult and desperate decision to leave Marineland, and come forth with the stories and experiences that have most recently made the rounds in the news (re: #starinvestigation). This would prove to be my last desperate act to save the animals from the suffering that they were enduring (most notably in the last eight months of my tenure at Marineland, after a mechanical breakdown in the water disinfection units).
Many failed efforts by myself, and other current and (consequently) former employees to enlist the help of authorities, and/or have the problems resolved properly in-house proved futile. Many of the animals were aversely affected by the negligent use of chlorine added to the water, and Smooshi was no exception. I could no longer bear witness to the suffering, and could ill afford to waste any more time. I simply didn't have a choice anymore.
In leaving Marineland I did score a series of mini-victories. On the very last day of my employment, the water was dumped and refreshed (in a sudden haste) causing the park's scheduled opening date to be delayed. The subsequent news of an OSPCA/CAZA investigation caused Marineland to also vigorously clean up the park, dump more water, and even remove a fence in the Friendship Cove pool used to isolate some sickly belugas (which had caused many facial lacerations as they tried to escape treatment by running directly into the gate).
All of these temporary fixes have surely eased some of the suffering, however with my intimate knowledge of the state of the facility, Marine Mammal Department and the sensitive nature of the health of these animals, time is not on their side.
I'm now actively advocating for new animal protection laws in Ontario. An online petition has been created and the Premier has heard and acknowledged the pleas and cries from thousands of concerned Ontarians.
Additionally, I'd also like to see a licensing program, and of course a reputable regulatory body to oversee and ensure that zoos and aquariums adhere to a greater standard of operation. Why this isn't already the case is anybody's guess.
Lastly I need to be reunited with Smooshi the walrus. Her health concerns me, and the quality of her life is greatly negotiated in my absence. 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.
I too prove to be very protective of my family members (a trait she may well have inherited from me). As such I have a promise to fulfill, to her and all the animals at Marineland. I will not stop this fight until I can rest knowing the animals will never have to endure that degree of suffering again.
On a side note, pack your bags Smooshi -- I'm coming back for you.
Follow Philip Demers on Twitter: www.twitter.com/walruswhisperer