“The seal was writhing in pain … blood coming from his eye … The dolphin’s skin was flaking off … The water had gotten so bad it was green … it made the people ill as well … It was just grotesque … his eyeball had projected from his eye socket and landed on the floor.”
That’s just a sampling of what one of the trainers at Canada’s most well-known marine circus, Marineland, has told the Toronto Star in a major investigative report.
The worst water was at the Aquarium, a dank, foul-smelling place with an underwater viewing area for sea lions and seals, and the barn and connecting stadium pools, according to the supervisor and former trainers. Off limits to the public, the barn is a converted factory made of concrete with pens and small pools for walruses, sea lions and seals and a dolphin pool. A small skylight provides the only natural light and photos show rusting on pools with crumbling, grime-encased sides. Dolphins that depend most critically on sonar live in a concrete world.
Phil Demers resigned from Marineland, Ontario in May after 12 years as a senior trainer. He described a pattern of neglect that resulted, over and over, in serious animal suffering.
“The chemicals we were using to try to maintain the water were really harming the animals,” Demers told The Star.
Two of the sea lions, Baker and Sandy, had damage to their eyes that was “so extensive … it was just grotesque. … Baker (right)was writhing in pain, constantly shaking erratically, clutching his eyes shut.”
When the two were taken out of the water and placed in a kind of dry dock, things only got worse. Baker would constantly put his head into a bucket of fresh water.
“He actually barked and his eyeball lens had projected from his eye socket and landed on the floor. Streams of blood was coming from his eye.”
Sandy died a few weeks ago.
In an interview with the Toronto Star, John Holer, the owner of Marineland, said that “All our facilities are legal.” But that simply means they’ve passed regular inspections by the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a self-regulating trade association.
In another recent catastrophe at Marineland, a baby beluga called Skoot died in May after being attacked for two hours one evening by two adult male belugas. The attack took place in front of a guide, Jamie Charron, who didn’t know what to do.
According to Charron’s report, Skoot gradually became unresponsive until she was just “floating helplessly.”
Skoot’s mother in vain tried to save her calf, pushing her towards Charron and trying to keep her there, bashing Orion away and looking at the human as if, in his view, she was counting on him to help her.
Skoot was bitten on her head and body, spun around by the tail, and bashed into a rock wall to which she remained stuck. When two trainers finally arrived and pulled her out of the pool, she convulsed and died in their arms.
Marineland’s Holer offered, by way of an explanation, that “if animals see another animal is going to die, they kill it.” (In fact, in the wild, the entire family will gather around a sick baby to try to help them recover.)
Walruses, who crave human company in captivity, were left alone for days at a time in dark barn pens. Another former trainer, Angela Bentivegna, said that the final straw for her was seeing Zeus, a big alpha male walrus, reduced to a shell of himself.
Recent videos and photos show him sitting behind bars in a waterless space barely big enough to turn around in and looking broken-down and miserable. He was being treated for regurgitation issues — exacerbated by bad water — and the lack of trainers meant he often lay unattended in his own excrement.
Demers’ criticisms have been corroborated by seven other former Marineland staffers, who describe the poisonous nature of the water at the facility:
Former trainers say ozone leaks and subsequent exposure are problems that date back years at the park. Exposure to ozone can lead to respiratory problems and even death. Employees recall having to work in masks around the pools and wear tags that were supposed to turn white when ozone levels rose. Problems with the ozone filtration system also mean that water in which animals swim is being less adequately purified.
“I didn’t want to leave the animals,” said Megan Cook, a trainer for six years until 2006, when she had to quit because her doctor couldn’t clear up the rash that covered her body. “I had to stay out of the water. I had no choice.”
They say it was routine to find the dead skin of dolphins at the bottom of the pools:
Five female dolphins — Sonar, Lida, Marina, Echo and Tsu — swam almost continuously in bad water in a concrete pool in a facility called the barn. Former employees say they lay at the bottom in murky green water or breeched and thrashed wildly, their reactions changing with the chemicals. Their skin fell off in chunks, their color darkened and they refused to eat. This lasted intermittently for eight months, from October 2011 until just before show season began in May 2012 when their water was changed.
Last year, Marineland found itself in a custody battle with SeaWorld in the United States. SeaWorld was concerned over the care of one of its breeding male orcas, Ikaika, who was on loan from its marine circus in Orlando. Marineland lost the case.
Zoocheck Canada has called on the federal and provincial governments to step in and shut down Marineland.
“We’ve been monitoring Marineland for some 25 years and bringing these issues to various government agencies and there has been no political will to deal with it. We’ve raised the issue numerous times via the media.”
Phil Demers discusses life at Marineland in an interview on Global Toronto. And there are three TV interviews on CTV: Demers explains why Marineland is facing animal cruelty accusations; Julie Woodyer from Zoocheck Canada explains why she believes Ontario needs to step up and put proper regulations in place for zoos and aquariums; and Marineland’s Director of Veterinary Services Dr. June Mergl tries to respond to the allegations of animal suffering at the amusement park.