Over the course of my reporting about marine parks, I have been impressed by how rare it is for marine park trainers to speak openly and in detail about their work. They are the ones who know the most about what happens behind the scenes, and what is going on with the animals, so when trainers do decide to speak up you learn a lot.
My work mostly involved SeaWorld and Loro Parque. But staffers at Marineland Ontario, one of the old school marine parks in North America recently stepped forward to blow the whistle on abuse of animals at Marineland. It’s not pretty:
In extensive interviews with the Star, eight former Marineland staffers describe a pattern of neglect that has repeatedly resulted in animal suffering.
More Inside Marineland: Heartache for Smooshi the walrus as top trainer quits
What the public doesn’t see is the deterioration of marine mammals that become sick, suffer fur loss, skin damage and even blindness because of recurring water problems, they say.
They also point to chronic staffing shortages that leave trainers unable to provide a minimum standard of care for animals to do well in captivity.
John Holer, owner of the Niagara institution for 51 years, denies there are problems with water quality at the park and that unhealthy water has harmed marine mammals. He says there is more than sufficient staff to look after the animals. “All our facilities are legal,” he said….[snip]
Among several troubling incidents at the park between last fall and this spring:
Sea lions Baker and Sandy had to be pulled repeatedly from the water and confined in dry cages, in one case for more than two months, to limit further harm to their already damaged eyes. Videos shot in 2011 and 2012 shows them writhing in pain or plunging their heads into a single bucket of clean water. Sandy often sits like a statue, dry as a bone. There’s no lens in Baker’s left eye. When a trainer put him back in the water in April, he barked and it flew out.
On May 28, baby beluga Skoot died after a two-hour assault by two adult male belugas in an incident former trainers say points to understaffing at the park. The evening attack unfolded in front of a guide untrained and helpless to intervene. The males bit Skoot’s head and body, spun her around by the tail and bashed her into a rock wall where she stuck. After two trainers finally arrived to pull Skoot out of the pool, she convulsed and died in their arms.
Holer says Skoot was attacked because she had contracted bacterial meningitis, explaining: “If animals see another animal is going to die, they kill it.”
The revelations may ultimately lead to action to protect animals at Marineland, which would be encouraging. Just as important, it is one more crack in the wall of silence, which is what it will take for the ticket-buying public to eventually understand the reality of life for marine mammals in confinement.
And when the public stops buying tickets, the marine parks will stop featuring animals in the shows. It’s that simple.
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