On Friday, Canadian amusement and theme park Marineland was formally charged with five counts of animal cruelty. Following an investigation by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA), Marineland was charged with several counts of failing to comply with the prescribed standards of care, provide adequate, appropriate food and water, and one count of permitting an animal to be in distress. Other charges are pending.
Marineland instantly rebuked these charges, implying there was no merit since the complaint was registered by a “former animal care worker who was fired for poor performance and inappropriate behavior.” The OSPCA said it could not divulge information about the complainant, but said they were given full access to the park for their investigation. No animals were removed, but if convicted, the park could face penalties that include a $60,000 fine, two years of jail time, and a lifetime ban on animal ownership according to OSPCA media spokesperson Alison Cross. It remains unclear who would serve jail time should the park be found guilty.
First opening its doors in 1963, Marineland’s owner John Holer started shows with just a few sea lions in a small pool on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. Since then, it has grown into a major tourist attraction, with killer whales, dozens of beluga whales, dolphins, walruses, and land animals such as deer, bears, birds, and various species of fish. Friday’s charges were regarding a peacock with an eye infection, inadequate space of guinea hens and inadequate standard of care for their American black bears.
This isn’t the first time Marineland has come under fire either.
Back in 2012, the Toronto Star ran and published an expose sparked by 15 former employees who came forward regarding the mistreatment of animals, including: Junior, a killer whale who spent the last four years of his life indoors, alone, in a small concrete pool with almost no natural light; another killer whale that bled from its tail over and over again for months; Baker, a sea lion who was kept in a waterless pen before his left eye fell out, and many more. Although the OSPCA did not charge Marineland after this initial investigation, it did issue orders for changes that the park complied with.
Phil Demers, one of the former trainers at Marineland involved in raising those allegations in 2012, told Global News Friday that he welcomed the announcement of charges. “The story is the fact that the OSPCA did something about it, or appears to be doing something,” he said, “I don’t like to hear that animals are being neglected of course, but we’re getting some validation here.”
He’s got a point- at least they’re trying to do something. Steve Toy, an OSPCA senior inspector, was quoted in the official release with the following statement:
“Reports of animal cruelty are taken very seriously. When we receive reports of cruelty that involve wildlife or exotic animals, we will utilize our experts as well as industry experts to assist us with our investigation.”
Too bad the experts have already spoken. Ric O’Barry, former dolphin trainer for the TV show Flipper now turned animal activist, called Marineland the worst park in a progressive country. “For a country as advanced as Canada to not have offered any protection whatsoever is just shocking,” O’Barry said. Countries like Guatemala, Brazil, and Haiti are ahead of Canada regarding protection laws for marine mammals. Legislation was passed last year banning the sale or breeding of killer whales, but it’s still too vague to be useful in helping animals already in captivity. Predictably enough, Marineland made promotional videos singing their own praises about ending orca purchases, breeding, and performances, as though they were concerned about animal welfare and not just meeting legal requirements.
“My personal opinion of Marineland is that it is one of the worst facilities in the world for treatment of its animals,” said Naomi Rose, marine mammal specialist for the Animal Welfare Institute. A nonprofit focused on addressing animal abuse, Rose has visited Marineland multiple times and was extremely bothered by the conditions of the animals. “Just the fact that they have 46 belugas in three enclosures is outrageous,” Rose said to Vice, “Your head explodes when you first hear that if you have any understanding of these animals in captivity or their needs and welfare.”
I don’t think you need a deep understanding to realize just how disturbing Marineland is. At the beginning of this year, Last Chance for Animals (LCA) released horrifying footage of conditions at the park and launched a petition to try and ban whale captivity in Canada. Adam Wilson, director of investigations at LCA, was quoted: “They’ve never faced enforcement, they never really had to, so there’s no desire to actually make a difference in the quality of [the animals] lives.”
Despite their campy theme song, people are starting to prove they don’t love Marineland anymore. The attraction has reportedly been hard-hit by previous media attention about its treatment of animals. Although the private company doesn’t disclose its attendance figures, the general public perception has shifted due to raised awareness about the dangers of captive orcas, animals- and people are answering with their wallets.
I couldn’t be happier. It seems Wilson could be wrong. Maybe Marineland will start to pay for their actions, just like the Bowmanville Zoo earlier this year. After a video of a trainer cracking his whip numerous times to train a Siberian tiger went viral, a dramatic drop in attendance forced the zoo to close its doors earlier this year.
There will always be those who make the argument for job creation and tourist dollars provided by these facilities. Yes, I acknowledge that it is sad to lose a handful of jobs when a long-standing community business closes, but the practice of keeping wild animals in captivity is such an archaic practice that I can’t bring myself to be that upset about the lost jobs.
Remember when Africans and Native Americans were kept in cages and displayed in zoos? It’s a sore spot in our history. It’s uncomfortable to think about, and appalling to discuss. Yet aquariums, zoos, and other attractions involving animals are defended by zealous advocates. They claim the rehabilitation efforts and research are beneficial overall to animals. I’m a big supporter of this research, but the animals involved in these parks are rarely able to survive in the wild, in what is considered their natural habitat. How can you make the claim that you are helping these animals when they can only live in the artificial environment of the zoo? Keeping wild animals in captivity perpetuates the notion that wild animals are simply here for our entertainment and amusement. The Captive Animals Protection Society (CAPS) perfectly articulates the argument against zoos as education centers as well, arguing that presenting these animals as living exhibits teaches children that animals can be manipulated to fulfill our curiosity about them. The Scientific American tells us that being a “zoo-ed” animal involves losing all freedom- the freedom to make choices about how these animals live, what they would eat, when they would sleep, when they go to the bathroom, where they roam, and if and when they’re allowed to breed.
The charges laid Friday are relatively small issues, as Marineland itself has argued against in the media. Only one peacock out of thousands had an eye infection and had received some care from a vet. The guinea hens needed more space, which the park promises to provide. And for the bears’ food issues- having some paper labels on the fruit and vegetables provided to them- isn’t the end of the world. But I think the time when people supported these kinds of practices is rapidly ending, and I think the OSPCA is finally stepping up to help Marineland realize this. The park needs to make changes if it wants to survive. Continuing to hold these animals and forcing them to perform tricks for our amusement is cruel and unjust. If they were honestly concerned about conservation and education, there are better ways to fulfill that mission. The long-term impact these charges will have is unknown for now, but ultimately phasing out captive animals and their performances would be the best course of action for Marineland.