A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Marineland on the Ropes

  • Ontario SPCA orders Marineland to clean up its act
  • Ministry of the Environment tells Marineland to stop burying animals on zoo property
  • Marineland sues one of its former staffers, a whistleblower
  • Another whistleblower writes to us about his own experience

In a secret message from Canada’s largest humane organization to the country’s most disgraced zoo and sea circus, the Ontario SPCA has ordered Marineland to clean up its water and take better care of the animals held captive there.

Canadians are pleased to hear this, but are wondering: Why was the order delivered in secret?

The answer lies in the strange hybrid nature of the OSPCA, a private charity that also carries out government responsibilities, receives some government funds, and is limited in what it can do. For example, it’s prohibited from inspecting animals who Marineland says are under veterinary care. These are, of course, the animals who most need to be inspected, which totally ties the hands of the OSPCA.

In its message, which was made public by an anonymous staffer, the OSPCA ordered Marineland to build shelters for the deer, protect baby bears from angry adult male bears, bring in an eye specialist to care for the many sea mammals suffering from eye diseases, and bring in an expert to clean up the water that was so disgusting that staff members had been getting rashes just from touching it.

This is just the latest in a series of revelations from the Star that began in August 2012.

The OSPCA is not the only agency charged with keeping watch over Marineland. As the scandal unfolded, the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums conducted its own investigation and, not surprisingly since it is simply the trade association for the zoos and is paid for by the zoos, gave Marineland enough time to do a complete change of all the water in its pools and then gave it a clean bill of health. Marineland had been secretly burying more than 1,000 dead animals, including killer whales, bears and deer, around the zoo.

Another revelation from the Star showed that Marineland had been secretly burying dead animals, including killer whales, bears and deer, in various convenient locations on the grounds of the zoo. In the wake of this discovery, the Ministry of the Environment directed Marineland to stop doing this. One of the grave areas contains more than 1,000 corpses.

For its part, Marineland has launched legal suits against one of the whistle-blowing staffers. Former trainer Christine Santos has been served with a $1.25 million lawsuit for telling the Star about the zoo’s sole orca, Kiska, whom, she said, she repeatedly saw bleeding (at one point “gushing” blood) from her tail. Santos had worked at Marineland for 12 years but refused to sign a document stating she’d never witnessed abuse at the park.

Orcas are highly social animals, and Kiska has been alone since SeaWorld won a legal case to retake possession of an orca, Ikaika, whom it had loaned to Marineland, saying it was worried about Marineland’s care of the orcas.

Another whistle-blower, Brendan Kelly, recently wrote to Earth in Transition about his own experience at Marineland:

I’m one of the 15 “Whistleblowers” from Marineland up here.

I had no animal experience at all [when] I was hired back in 2006 to work with the sound in the dolphin, sea lion and walrus show. It was during this time that a high turnover rate began at Marineland amongst the training staff that seemingly has never ended. I was brought in to perform and announce the dolphin show and suddenly 10 months later I was working male sea lions and swimming with dolphins.

brendan-kelly-022013I couldn’t help but develop a relationship with the animals I was working directly with, but it was through this connection that I could see that this was not a great environment for these absolutely amazing animals.

After watching animals suffer and die in seemingly preventable situations I made the decision to move on back in 2008 never to return again.

During my absence the [staff] turnover continued. It got to the point where Marineland actually asked me to return in 2011. So I returned, but I was appalled but what I saw when I got back. The facilities had decayed and the problems with the water had gotten worse. The owner was reluctant to do anything that cost him money. I was seeing even more needless suffering, especially to the five young sea lions who were relatively new to the park. There were walruses regurgitating due to lack of attention, and experienced staff and the dolphin aggression had reached dangerous levels in the stadium pool.

If I can take anything from the Marineland experience it certainly is an appreciation for these amazing animals. It’s really sad that [Marineland owner] John Holer views them as a commodity to make money by their exploitation and it causes undue suffering. But it’s even more sad that he will not even make an attempt to provide the best facility possible for them.

Marineland is currently closed for the winter, but can expect a bumpy ride from animal protection groups, media and the public when it reopens in the spring.

Note: This post was corrected on Jan 23rd. The original version said that Christine Santos had quit Marineland in disgust. In fact, she refused to sign a document stating that she’d never witnessed abuse at the park. Thanks to Phil Demers for the correction.