Marineland is one of the biggest tourist destinations in Niagara Falls, boasting the world's largest viewing habitat for killer whales, a record-breaking 41 belugas, and elaborate shows of sea lions, walruses, and bottlenose dolphins. But an extensive investigation by the Toronto Star, including interviews with eight former employees, has revealed horrific neglect behind the family-friendly fun.
"I was witness to things that people would never imagine a place like Marineland to be capable of," Phil Demers, a trainer for 12 years, told the Star. He quit the park in May, in large part, he said, because he could not longer cope with the horrendous conditions. Cleaning chemicals made the water toxic for the animals, he claims, and video footage obtained by the Star provides gruesome visual testimony.
The dolphins skin flaked, and the skin floated in the water. A walrus named Paula sat all day, sucking her flipper. Two sea lions, Sandy and Baker, writhed in pain, and kept their eyes clenched shut. When they finally managed to open the animals' eyes, Demers says, "it was just grotesque."
One day, Baker's eye ball lens fell from his socket and landed on the floor, leaving strings of blood, Demer adds. Today, Baker apparently just swims in circles with his eyes shut.
John Holer, who started Marineland 51 years ago, and remains its owner, denied that neglect was responsible. "We take care of the animals -- better than I would take care of myself," Holer told the Star.
In response to the fact that four of the park's killer whales have died since 2004, Holer said, "You have to understand... for people and all living things, there is a time to live and a time to die."
But issues with water quality are echoed in a Marineland supervisor's log, obtained by the Star. The employee, who isn't named, records between May 2011 and May 2012 repeated chlorine and ozone leaks, and the water turning green and going cloudy. The supervisor mentions several meetings with Holer, as well as several occasions when Holer didn't turn up.
In May, the supervisor quit.
The death of a baby beluga later that month raised further questions about the health of Marineland's mammals, as well as staff shortages. 9-month-old Skoot died in the arms of a trainer on May 28, after two male belugas violently assaulted the baby for hours.
Only a Marineland guide was standing by, untrained to intervene, and it took two hours for two trainers to answer his radio calls, at which point Skoot was "floating helplessly," according to the guide.
Holer claimed the baby was dying of meningitis, and that when animals see another animal about to die, they kill it.
But Demers had expressed the need for more trainers at Marineland back in 2010. "Walruses require at least five hours of attention per animal per day... Regurgitation, poor mental health and weight loss is already noted," he wrote in a memo that asks for five more trainers to care exclusively for the walruses.
The Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums first licensed Marineland in 2007, and then renewed that license for five years after an on-site inspection a year ago. Bill Peters, the national director of CAZA, told AOL Jobs that he was surprised when he read the Star's investigation, because their post-inspection report contain no mention of any of these issues, and there have been no complaints from employees or the public.
But CAZA will investigate these allegations, he said. If there's any truth behind them, CAZA could direct Maritime to introduce corrective measures, and even revoke its accreditation entirely.
But CAZA accreditation is not compulsory in Ontario. So Marineland could stay open, even if its license is thrown out. "We don't regulate or license them," Niagra falls Mayor Jim Diodati told the Canadian press agency QMI on Wednesday. "We're not involved in monitoring them, that's another body. We make sure the property taxes are paid and that there are no other bylaw infringements taking place."
CAZA tried three years to get the government to adopt CAZA's standards, or make CAZA accreditation mandatory, but failed. "That is a situation that is unfortunate," Peters said.
While the Canadian government does not regulate sea mammal captivity, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has police powers to enforce animal cruelty laws. Peters expects that it will be conducting an investigation as well.
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