Newsworthy Animal Stories of 2012 – Part 4: Whales, Walruses & Whistleblowers
This is the fourth in a 5 part series on animals that made the Toronto news in 2012. While these stories are local, the issues they present are global, each one asking us to scrutinize and reassess our relationship with captive wild animals.
Not Everyone Loves Marineland
On August 15, 2012 a shocking story broke on the front pages of the Toronto Star. Eight former trainers and supervisors from Marineland, led by 12-year veteran, Phil Demers, had blown the whistle on the appalling conditions and treatment of animals inside Canada’s famous Niagara Falls tourist attraction.
The situation was particularly acute for the five dolphins, which, unlike sea lions, seals and walruses, are unable to pull themselves from the water. The supervisor recalls many times when the dolphins were so dark and the water so green, they were barely visible. Photos show dolphins with eyes squeezed shut. (Toronto Star, Dec 26, 2012)
This led to a Star investigation and full expose’ on the treatment of animals at Marineland. The former employees reported that lack of corporate support had resulted in extensive animal suffering. The aquarium, they said, was plagued by ozone leaks, dangerously toxic water, and understaffing that, despite the staff’s best efforts, resulted in animal neglect.
The effects on the animals were extreme. Video, photos, staff accounts, and Marineland records revealed a sorry tale of animals with their eyes and skin blistered and burned by toxic water, animals being held for long periods in pens and barns with no stimulation; and the horrific death of baby beluga Skoot after a brutal two-hour assault by two adult male belugas.
Bentivegna says the final straw was seeing Zeus, a powerhouse walrus who knew his own strength, disintegrate into the shell of a once intimidating creature. 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. (Toronto Star, Dec 26, 2012)
In addition to the health problems highlighted by the staff, Marineland’s lone orca, Kiska, is of specific concern. Since the male orca, Ikaika, was returned to SeaWorld in November 2011, Kiska has been the lone orca at Marineland. Orcas are social creatures that require companions of their own species in order to thrive emotionally. The Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums disapproves of keeping orcas alone and the practice is banned in the U.S.
Marineland has had 26 killer whales over roughly three decades, according to the animal welfare group, Zoocheck Canada. Of these, 16 died at Marineland. Three are still alive: Kiska and two elsewhere. Six died in other parks after being transferred while one died en route from Marineland to Japan. Junior, a killer whale born like Kiska near Iceland, spent the last four years of his life indoors in a small concrete pool in a converted factory made of concrete, with little natural light. Kiska is the last of [Marineland’s] killer whales; her five calves all died. (Toronto Star, Nov 2012)
In November CAZA announced that Marineland is trying to acquire another orca to keep Kiska company.
Since the whistle was blown, the OSPCA, the Niagara Falls Humane Society, the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the The Environmental Ministry have become involved in the case. Even famed, Ric O’Barry, founder of The Dolphin Project and star of the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove about dolphin killing in Japan, weighed in.
“Canadian legislation is far behind Third World countries,” said O’Barry. “Way behind.” Before leaving for Niagara Falls, he told a press conference: “For a country as advanced as Canada not to have offered any protection whatsoever (to marine mammals) is shocking.” (Toronto Star, Oct 5, 2012)
As well, the public has been vocal. Right after the news broke, some 400 protesters staged a demonstration across from the main park entrance to demand an end to all live animal performances and displays inside the park. Suzie McNeil, the singer who recorded Marineland’s famous jingle, asked that her voice be pulled from the commercials.
Zoocheck Canada and Phil Demers launched a petition on change.org asking for stronger animal welfare laws. The petition quickly garnered more than 82,000 signatures. In October, a larger demonstration was organized at the park, led, in part by Demers –
The demonstration began shortly before noon, with speakers including Demers, NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo and activist Ric O’Barry. In the midst of the organized demonstration, some people stormed the gates, saying they were following Marineland owner John Holer inside. They chanted as they ran and carried placards with messages including “Every dolphin haaaaates Marineland.”(Toronto Star, Oct 2012)
Since then, more stories about Marineland have surfaced – Just last month, mass animal graves were discovered on the Marineland property. These allegedly hold thousands of animals are being inspected by the provincial Environment Ministry. While it is not unusual for animals in a zoo to die and be buried, the ministry says it had no record of the graves because the park has no permits.
And there is backlash as Marineland sues former trainer Christine Santos for $1.25 million for statements she made to the Toronto Star about Kiska. Santos appears in the long-running “Everyone loves Marineland” commercial kissing a beluga whale.
Which brings us to — The Two Faces of Marineland:
For the full account of the Marineland story, see the Toronto Star’s continuing coverage.