All About Smooshi

A little over a year ago the Toronto Star started running a series of blistering exposes about Niagara Falls’ Marineland.

Here’s the story so far:

At the heart of these exposes is the relationship between former Marineland trainer Phil Demers and a walrus called Smooshi. For Demers, perhaps the single most difficult aspect of his departure from Marineland, and all that followed, has been his inability to take care of, or even see, Smooshi, who has eating and regurgitation problems along with other chronic health issues. Smooshi also had an incredible attachment to Demers, always seeking him out, or following him around Marineland.

While Demers was at Marineland he was able to try and tend to her needs. Since he has been gone from the park, and can’t set foot anywhere near Smooshi, all he can do is wonder, each and every day, how Smooshi is doing and whether she is even alive. The only way he can really get any answers is through occasional sightings of Smooshi that pop up on video.

A few weeks ago a video of the show at Marineland was posted to YouTube. In it, Smooshi makes an appearance. I asked Demers to analyze what he sees.

Here’s the video:

And here’s Demers’ analysis:

Smooshi and my relationship is a true anomaly that few people are capable of understanding. She is still waiting and always searching for me – it’s heartbreaking. 

There are few situations where we can possibly ever be re-united, but those are the situations I’m hoping for.

Here’s the vid breakdown – 

@ 2:52 Smooshi emerges from the barn. She is playing with fish or sucking the floor – the trainer doesn’t have her attention.

@ 2:55 Smooshi immediately looks around the stage (away from her primary trainer). Historically when I was training other trainers to work with Smooshi I would be elsewhere on the stage, but she would always find me (she has an amazingly keen sense of hearing and smell), so eventually I would have to hide away altogether). She is looking for me – always. 

@ 2:59 The trainer tries to get Smooshi’s attention by giving her a little tap on the shoulder area – it’s proves futile. The trainer waves (which is intended to get Smooshi to wave, but she doesn’t). Smooshi continues to ignore the trainer and look about the stage. 

From this moment till about 3:13, Smooshi can be seen surveying the stage for me while bobbing her head up and down. She is simultaneously regurgitating whatever fish she has brought from backstage. This beats the hell out of me – she is searching for me and regurgitating due to her anxiety.

The trainer continues to try to “work” her, but Smooshi is not interested. A few hand signals go ignored until finally she rolls over. This is done reluctantly as well, as her criteria for this behaviour is just horrible. The trainer is clearly frustrated and tries to play it off as laughable. There’s nothing funny about watching an animal pine for what she believes is her mother. 

Up until 3:50, the trainer continues to try to get Smooshi to perform – Smooshi continues to search, paying little to no attention to the trainer’s repeated requests. 

@ 3:52, Smooshi once again places her head on the stage to regurgitate. The trainer then opts to walk away from Smooshi to try to ger her attention. This is a subtle threat of punishment, as Smooshi knows that if she is left alone on stage (which makes her nervous as she’s a very social animal), she will also not be fed any more fish. The other trainers take this cue and leave stage. 

Smooshi continues to search for me. 

Finally at 4:10 Smooshi begins to perform a wave, then is cut off by the trainer asking for a “no” behaviour. The trainer insists on asking for multiple behaviours in the hopes that Smooshi will perform 1, which will hopefully get her attention back. The “no” works. 

Finally at 4:15 Smooshi performs a “wave”.

The trainer then asks Smooshi for another behaviour (which is ignored) prompting the trainer to once again threaten Smooshi with the “I’m leaving you and taking my bucket” threat. The camera then pans away. The trainer makes good with the threat, as she’s seen grabbing the bucket and walking away.

This video breaks my heart. Watching it makes me feel ill. All Smooshi ever thinks about is me – that’s the sad nature of our relationship. Always has been, always will be – until we meet again. 

I don’t wanna watch this video again.

It’s a great reminder that all the lawsuits, and all the hue and cry, is about the well-being of the animals in captivity at Marineland–thinking, feeling, unique, animals, one of which has a unique bond with a human being that hopes he can somehow win her a better life.

Demers and the other Marineland whistleblowers have gone through a lot this past year, too. And the only way they can somehow make it all worth it is if they endure, and then win, the legal assault they are under from Marineland (you can help them here). Because that could lead to change for the animals, and maybe a better life for Smooshi.

Can The Orca/Marine Mammal Rights Community Take Action?

Sometimes people ask me why efforts to change or end the use of marine mammals in entertainment shows hasn’t gained more traction. I don’t really know how to answer, but I do know from other work that I have done that any grassroots movement occasionally needs to focus and act, especially when there is an opportunity to achieve something concrete.

I thought of this when I saw Phil Demers’ latest plea for help in the legal battle he and other whistleblowers are fighting against Marineland. Marineland has been suing former employees left and right, in an effort to drain their bank accounts and force them to retract their devastating allegations regarding the way Marineland treats its marine mammals.

Demers and his fellow whistleblowers desperately need help paying their legal bills, and if they can continue to mount a legal defense pressure will grow on Marineland because the cases will get to a discovery phase, which could force Marineland to cough up documents and information about its operations. And, as it happens, there is easy money out there, courtesy of the BiLLe Celeb Challenge–if the community of people who care about marine mammals in captivity can mobilize and take action.

Here’s Demers’ plea:

Urgent call to action re: Marineland.

Dearest Petitioners,

Marineland’s whistleblowers urgently need your help.

Les Stroud of the famed television show “Survivorman”, in conjunction with Orca Conservancy has generously sponsored us in the BiLLe Celeb Challenge.

We are currently in 2nd place with only a week to go and URGENTLY need your daily vote to ensure us the victory award of 25 000$ towards our legal defense.

Voting is easy and FREE!

Simply register at http://celebcharitychallenge.org/ and vote for LES STROUD daily.

Marineland’s animals are counting on us, and we’re counting on you.

We are also accepting monetary contributions at http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/legal-defense-fund/x/1197869 to help us continue in both our crucial legal battles and our Ontario captive animal advocacy.

Thank you for your continued support and please STAY TUNED!

Phil Demers.

That’s pretty simple. But it will be an interesting test of whether a community that clearly cares about this issue can rally and achieve something concrete and meaningful. If it can’t that will help answer the question of why more hasn’t been achieved.

Video Smackdown (Cont.): Marineland Pushback

Yesterday I posted two videos with contrasting takes on marine mammal captivity.

Today, there is a third to add: “The Real Truth About Marineland,” which acidly spoofs Marineland’s “Truth About Marineland” video. Maybe tomorrow we’ll see “The Real, Real Truth About Marineland”?

Another great example of the marine mammal video wars. Posted without comment (though it definitely gets points for humor).

Video Smackdown: Marineland vs. Taiji

Video is a powerful medium for trying to shape opinion and emotion, a point that is made by two videos which I came across this morning.

One, from Marineland Canada, aims to convince the public that allegations of animal cruelty at Marineland are false.

The other, from a group of citizens dedicated to trying to end the Taiji dolphin hunts, aims to mobilize public opinion against captivity and Taiji.

It’s interesting to see them both together. What strikes me is that the anti-captivity side has more powerful material to make their case.

Here’s Marineland’s argument in favor of captivity and the way Marineland does business:

And here’s the argument against captivity, and the way in which the Taiji dolphin hunt is connected:

Marineland In Eleven Minutes

Very nice mini-doc on Marineland, and the grassroots movement on behalf of its animals that was launched when Phil Demers and other trainers started speaking out about Kiska, and the conditions for the other animals there.

Marineland is taking to the courts to try to go on the offensive. I’m betting on the whistleblowers, and it will be interesting to see how far SeaWorld, and its files on killer whale care at Marineland (which needed a court to help it get its orca Ikaika out of Marineland), gets dragged into this fight.

Marineland? Keep Moving, Nothing To See Here

No, that’s not my opinion. That’s what the Canadian Association Of  Zoos And Aquariums concluded after inspecting Marineland following revelations from former trainers about poor water quality, suffering animals, and a bleeding killer whale:

A national agency that oversees the care of animals in captivity says Marineland’s lone killer whale is in good health.

The Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) conducted an unannounced inspection at the Niagara Falls theme park on Nov. 27 to assess several areas in the park, including the health of Kiska.

The female killer whale has been alone in a tank since November 2011 after Marineland was forced to return its male orca Ikaika to SeaWorld.

Former Marineland trainer Christine Santos told Toronto media in October that Kiska was bleeding sporadically from her tail and had been for some time.

In a CAZA accreditation report completed on Nov. 29 and obtained by The Review, the agency’s business manager Greg Tarry said he reviewed copies of Kiska’s medical records for November and was also given copies of the daily observation sheets completed by staff.

“This animal appears to be in good health and is eating a full ration,” Tarry wrote, adding he did not see any signs of bleeding or injury. “It is my opinion that there is no cause for concern on the part of the (CAZA) commission regarding the health of the animal at this time.”

According to the report, Marineland staff and management were “open and candid in their comments and provided any and all information and assistance requested” during the inspection.

“There were no concerns identified during the inspection that the commission need react to at this time,” Tarry wrote.

The inspection also included an assessment of the water quality.

“All of the water was clear and clean, there were no problems with color or odour of the water in any of the areas,” the report states.

“In addition, none of the animals in the water appeared to be experiencing any discomfort as a result of being in the pools. “

Hmm. That’s a pretty different story than that told by former trainers.  But who are you going to believe: the people who devoted their lives to caring for the animals or the industry group dedicated to promoting business and profits?

File it under another totally predictable outcome. I guess we’ll have to wait and see whether Ontario’s government decides to take any action, or not. You now what my prediction would be. Hope I’m wrong..

Nightly Reader: November 1, 2012

1) If Only: I’m always wary of stories that turn on the phrase “according to a recent study.” But when the study suggests that vegetarians and vegans live an average of eight years longer than the meat-eating general population, I am happy to propagate it without too much scrutiny. Plus, of course, you have these folks. Even meat-eaters who don’t care about animal suffering or the environment can get behind living longer.

2) Beluga Basics: A(nother) deep dive into the arguments, politics, and economics of the Georgia Aquarium’s proposed import of 18 wild Russian belugas. I don’t expect it, but it will be an amazing reversal if NOAA denies the permit.

3) A Man And A Walrus: Former Marineland trainer Phil Demers tells the story of his relationship with Smooshi, and how concern for her well-being drove him to speak out against the conditions she lives in.

BONUS VIDEO: Here’s Smooshi in action.

The Life Of Kiska

I’m developing an iron law of marine park reporting, which is: the more detail you know the worse marine parks sound. Rarely do additional facts make you feel better about marine parks.

This law just received serious reinforcement by a devastating report in Canada’s The Star newspaper about the life of Kiska, the lone remaining killer whale at Marineland in Ontario.

Marineland has been in the news recently, over animal abuse allegations by former staffers. This new report does nothing to change the dismal picture of Marineland they painted.

Here’s what The Star reports on Kiska:

Kiska, the killer whale, swims alone in her pool at Marineland, often followed by a trail of her own blood.

Her tail has been bleeding off and on since July but has been getting progressively worse, according to Christine Santos, who has been one of Kiska’s primary trainers. She described the bleeding as “gushing” last week….

[snip]…

The Star obtained recent video of Kiska showing a blood trail from cuts in her tail. Once one of Marineland’s best show animals, Santos said she now spends her days swimming listlessly and scratching parts of her body against the sides and sharp fibreglass grates that run the circumference of her Friendship Cove pool.

Treating her is difficult because Kiska, about 37, has refused to go into the medical pool for the past month. Her behaviour has been “breaking down for some time,” said Santos. She won’t even present her tail for blood samples.

Santos believes there aren’t enough trainers to give Kiska and 39 beluga whales enough attention at Friendship and Arctic Coves.

Santos was fired Wednesday. She said she was asked to sign a document that included a statement she’d never seen animal abuse at Marineland. She didn’t sign because “it didn’t feel right.”

Marineland called Santos’ allegations inaccurate and false. Here’s a photo of Kiska, trailing blood, published by The Star (click image for full size).

The Star story also has some pretty gruesome details about a beluga transfer that went wrong:

Other whales have been bloodied at the Niagara Falls tourist park. On Apr. 11, 2012, after female beluga Charmin was left on a trailer when a crane jammed during a move to another pool, photos show the area soaked with blood…

[snip]…

Last April, staffers moved two belugas, Tofino, a male, and Charmin from Friendship Cove to the performing stadium pool. At the end of Charmin’s move, the crane set to lift her in a sling over to the pool jammed, and she was stuck on the flatbed, her tail thrashing against the metal slats and edges of the trailer, according to former senior trainer Phil Demers.

“It was one of the worst days of my life,” says Demers, who helped in the move. “It went on for at least an hour. . . . There was blood on Charmin, on the ground, on the side of the pool, on the pads — it was sprayed all over. The worst, though, was that she lay there all that time with the pressure of her heavy weight (about 1,350 kilograms) on her internal organs — so bad.”

Here’s a photo of Charmin’s bloody transfer (full set is here). Is it something that  NOAA and the rest of us should keep in mind when considering what sort of stresses could be involved in Georgia Aquarium’s proposed transfer of 18 belugas from northern Russia to Atlanta, and then on to SeaWorld, Shedd Aquarium, and Mystic Aquarium?

Beluga Charmin

All the staffer accounts that have been leaking out of Marineland this summer certainly paint Marineland as a poorly managed park where animals suffer daily (video here).

It’s possible that Marineland is, in fact, the worst park in North America. But who knows for sure? How much do we really know about all the other marine parks? It is not until insiders step forward and put the facts out in the light, or the parks open up to real scrutiny, that we can really know the reality.

(h/t to JF for alerting me to this story)

9/17/2012 Tumblr Rumbler

Over on Tumblr today, we got into:

–Interspcies amour, featuring a lonely dolphin and a reluctant scuba diver. There’s quite a video.

–the Arctic Ocean’s effort to defend itself against the initiation of oil drilling by Shell.

–and a trainer mutiny at Marineland Ontario, over the terrible treatment of the animals.

Let me know what you think of the Tumblr site, and whether you find it easy to read and use.

And if you are a Facebooker, please like Tim Zimmermann, Writer. I’m experimenting with using that as a place to share ideas, information, and debate.