There’s only one fitting conclusion to the investigations currently being conducted into the shocking conditions at the Canadian marine zoo Marineland, following the revelations by the Toronto Star: The facility needs to be closed down. Anything short of that will be a travesty.
But don’t hold your breath; a travesty is most likely exactly what we can expect.
These “official” investigations are being conducted by the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), which is the trade association for the captivity industry in Canada, and by the Ontario SPCA, which is not a charity but rather an agency under the auspices of local government with all manner of political strings attached. (And since Marineland is a tourist attraction for people coming to Niagara Falls, the OSPCA has an automatic conflict of interest.)
Marineland already seems to think it’s in the clear. Last Thursday, it announced that investigators had found “no major issues.” On Friday, though, both CAZA and the OSPCA said they wouldn’t be releasing any conclusions until the end of this week.
But any conclusions short of condemnation will inevitably be suspicious. The investigators gave the zoo plenty of time to clean the place up. And the water that had been poisoning the staff as well as its “collection” of animals had finally been changed by the time the investigation began. So this was anything but the kind of unannounced visit that would make any discoveries.
Meanwhile, the revelations continue – largely again from Toronto Star.
One of them is the sad story of Junior, an orca who spent the last five years of his life in a sordid concrete pool, mostly in solitary confinement. Moviemaker Cara Sands was just out of school in 1990 when she began filming Junior, visiting him until he died four years later. She tells The Star:
“When I first saw him, he was a young whale, curious, spirited and following me around the pool.
“Near the end, he was lethargic, very beat up and just floating. He faced the wall away from me and didn’t move his dorsal fin. He just rolled over and opened his mouth. This whale was completely broken, his spirit was gone.”
Junior, we learn, came from the same extended family as Keiko of Free Willy fame.
Many remember Keiko, of Free Willy fame, who came from Junior’s pod off Iceland and is believed to have been related. After keeping him for 11 years, [Marineland owner John] Holer sold Keiko to a Mexican amusement park, where the publicity began that eventually saw his gradual release into Icelandic waters.
One trainer said Junior was a “sad story,” adding that sometimes dolphins would be put in his tank. “They got along with him but would also pick on him, they would bite his tail and by the time he turned around, they were behind him biting his tail again. Dolphins were so much more agile than him in that tiny pool.”
A video of Cara Sands showing her visits to Marineland is here. It is depressing, and it shows Junior in isolation with no contact with others of his kind. Orcas are highly social animals living in large, extended families. A male orca never leaves his mother as long as she lives. Females are closely bonded as they share in the work of raising their young. To live the life that Junior had in a dark Marineland tank is nothing less than total sensory deprivation.
To live the life that Junior had in a dark Marineland tank is nothing less than total sensory deprivation.
Today, another orca, Kiska, is being held in solitary by Marineland. Eleven years ago, Marineland made a deal with SeaWorld to set up a mutual breeding program, and SeaWorld flew one of their captive orcas, Ikaika, to Niagara Falls on a long-term loan in exchange for three belugas and two sea lions. (The basics of the sordid story are here.) Ikaika didn’t do well at Marineland, and SeaWorld ended up successfully suing its former partner for the return of Ikaika. Which left Kiska alone once again.
The solitary conditions in which Kiska lives (and contact with human trainers is no substitute for a life with her own family) should, even if there were no other issues at Marineland, be grounds for immediate action by the OSPCA and CAZA.
Marineland owner John Holer continues to insist that “all our facilities are legal” – as if that makes it OK to treat captive animals in ways that are manifestly abusive as long as the laws are so weak that he can get away with it.
The conclusions that are reached by CAZA, the captivity industry’s trade association, will be geared to ensuring that its other member zoos and marine circuses are not harmed by the revelations concerning one of their own. And the OSPCA, for its part, has little credibility with animal protection organizations in Canada. Zoocheck Canada had already tried to get the OSPCA to look into the treatment of animals at Marineland. When Zoocheck first reported on conditions at Marineland, in 1998, the OSPCA wouldn’t even present the Zoocheck findings to the board of the OSPCA, but rather, according to The Star, did a brief investigation itself and concluded that there were no problems.
Knowing what we already know, the main purpose of any credible investigation would be to compile the known history of animal abuse at Marineland, confirm the reports of the staff members who tried to care for the animals, and compare them with the lame excuses of Marineland executives like owner Holer and Director of Veterinary Services Dr. June Mergl. The conclusions will be obvious, and there can only be one objective conclusion: that Marineland should be closed down.
But I wouldn’t bet on that as an outcome.