Smooshi the walrus smitten with trainer
Published Wednesday, February 21, 2007 2:36PM EST
She weighs over 800 pounds, has facial hair and fish breath, and she's fallen in love with Phil Demers. But he doesn't mind. He is after all her trainer and the "she" in question is a walrus at Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ont.
Five-year-old Smooshi the walrus has developed an inexplicable bond with 28-year-old Demers, and her attachment is baffling marine biologists and animal behaviour experts.
Demers wasn't the first trainer Smooshi worked with after arriving at Marineland from Russia about four years ago. Nor was she a newborn who had confused Demers with her mother. So why she has attached herself to him remains a mystery.
"There is something called imprinting in animals when baby animals bond to humans and it's conceivable she thinks of Phil as her mother," Dr. Michael Noonan, a professor of animal behaviour at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., told Canada AM. "But the thing is she bonded with Phil when she was already 18 months old so that's a tough explanation for me.
"But maybe that's it. She certainly loves Phil and Phil loves Smooshi. And maybe it's Phil's beard that reminds Smooshi of her mother in the Arctic."
Smooshi follows Demers everywhere, jealously pushing away anyone who gets close to him, and "cries" in her walrus way whenever he is out of her sight.
"If she hears my voice, she emits a bark and starts calling me over, you know 'Mommy, come get me out of my house.' She wants to spend the day with me," Demers says.
"She will not leave my side. She's very protective of me. It's a really unique relationship. It's something I've never seen before in all my years of training and it's something really special. I like it."
Demers says he doesn't know why Smooshi loves him and "smooshes" herself against him (hence her name). He insists he didn't train Smooshi this way, nor did the feeding of fish have anything to do with it. In fact, he says, he makes sure the other trainers feed her so she takes notice of them too.
The best he can figure is that Smooshi grew attached to him during one of her early days at Marineland when she was undergoing routine blood work. Smooshi became frightened by the procedure and Demers calmed her down and led her away from the scene.
Ever since, she hasn't been able to get enough of him.
"In the earlier days when she was young, she was so particular to me that she wouldn't take fish from other trainers. So I did have to step in for a while and work seven days-plus a week. But, you know what? I didn't think twice about it. It was never a bother. It was not something I was hesitant to do."
Demers adds that other than this particular quirk, Smooshi is a normal walrus in every way.
"She interacts great with the rest of the walruses; she thrives among the rest of the walrus community here. So I don't think she thinks I'm a walrus. And if she does, I'm a pretty ugly walrus."
Noonan has been studying Smooshi's love and says he simply can't explain it.
"I have more questions than answers about this. This is really a phenomenon," he says. "I have personally never seen it. It's something I'd like to look into a little bit more in the future."