TORONTO — Growing up near Niagara Falls, Ont., Nathalie Bibeau was well familiar with the splashy spectacle of its zoo and amusement park Marineland.
The director and producer from Welland, Ont., has photos of herself with her family petting animals at the popular tourist attraction, known for its aquarium shows and catchy theme-song chorus, "Everyone loves Marineland."
Her younger brother's friend, Phil Demers, began working there as an animal trainer in March 2000 and made international headlines for his strong bond with a walrus named Smooshi.
When Demers left about 12 years later and became an outspoken critic of the company, Bibeau wanted to explore the complexities of our relationship with animals.
The result is the new documentary "The Walrus and the Whistleblower," available on the CBC Gem streaming service after its debut on the public broadcaster last week. It's also in the now-running online version of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.
"What attracted me the most about this story was the human story behind it," Bibeau said, "the characters inside of it, the emotional component of what it must be like to be in this kind of battle on all sides.
"Not just the activist side, but even inside Marineland — what does it feel like to have the paradigm shift on you? ... I wanted to pierce the veneer of this public debate in a way that was different and nuanced and really looks at the humanity behind it."
That debate is marine mammal captivity, which Demers has been publicly opposed to since he left Marineland in 2012.
The film follows his activism and fame as a so-called "walrus whisperer," his battle to fight a lawsuit launched against him by Marineland, and his journey to gain "custody" of Smooshi. Demers says litigation continues on the suit, which alleged that he trespassed on Marineland's property and schemed to steal Smooshi. Demers has denied the allegations.
The doc also looks at the history of Marineland, which was founded by the late John Holer nearly 60 years ago. He moved to Canada from Slovenia where he used to train circus animals.
In the film, Demers and several other former Marineland workers describe a family atmosphere for the most part, but say they grew concerned about the welfare of some animals.
In a statement provided to The Canadian Press, Marineland said they have not seen the film, but they did visit its website and watched the trailer.
"Like all Canadians, Mr. Demers is entitled to express his opinions on whatever topics he chooses, even when those opinions may be inaccurate or unfair and despite the fact he resigned his employment at Marineland in 2012 and has not been in the park in 8.5 years," the company said.
"Regarding comments on any allegations levelled at Marineland in the documentary, we invite you to review your archives from 2012 and 2013 when they were originally shown to be false."
The 2012/2013 time period was when Demers and other whistleblowers started levelling allegations of mistreatment of animals at Marineland.
The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals did not lay charges at the time but issued several orders, which Marineland complied with.
Years later Marineland was charged with 11 counts of animal cruelty following an investigation by the OSPCA, but all of them were dropped by the Crown in 2017.
In response, the theme park sued the OSPCA, alleging the organization targeted the theme park to boost fundraising and appease animal activists. In its statement of defence, the OSPCA denied Marineland's claims. The lawsuit is ongoing.
Marineland has always denied all allegations against the park.
The Montreal-based Bibeau started shooting the doc in 2018 and said she "tried very hard" to get a representative of Marineland on camera "to understand their own human story."
"I've written more than nine letters to Marineland over the last 18 months trying to get their participation in the film," said Bibeau, who added she didn't know Demers well or have a background in animal issues before this film.
"I didn't just want an interview; I actually wanted to get into a discussion with them about participation in a really meaningful way so that they could inform my own point of view as I was developing this story. But they never agreed."
The film comes amid similar debate raised by the popular Netflix series "Tiger King," which looks at big-cat conservationists and collectors in the United States.
Bibeau said she's only seen a few episodes of that series but, like her doc, feels it shows the complexities of the human-animal bond.
Bibeau pointed to a scientist she spoke with for a digital short film she's made to accompany "The Walrus and the Whistleblower" online.
"She said to me, 'At the end of the day, we all love animals,'" Bibeau said of the scientist, who works at an aquarium.
"People who work with animals — whether it is in a captivity setting, whether it's just somebody who has a cat or a dog, anyone who is involved in that world — wherever you stand on the captivity debate, her opinion was that we all love animals, we just have a different way of expressing it."
Bibeau said she thinks the stars of "Tiger King" love tigers.
"They just express it differently than somebody on the opposite side would," she said. "That kind of questioning is really important.
"And it does reduce some of the polarization.... It was something I was trying to do in this film, is actually soften the edges of the battle a little bit and try to show that we actually have more things in common as humans than we have differences."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2020
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press