August 15, 2012. NIAGARA FALLS, ONT.—Larry lies behind bars in a pen, his eyes red and swollen. The harbour seal with “an amazing little personality” who arrived at Marineland about eight years ago is now a shadow of his former self. After repeated exposure to unhealthy water, he has gone blind.
Larry isn’t the only sea mammal living in distress at Marineland, the sprawling attraction in Niagara Falls. In extensive interviews with the Star, eight former Marineland staffers describe a pattern of neglect that has repeatedly resulted in animal suffering.
What the public doesn’t see, they say, is the deterioration of marine mammals that become sick, suffer fur loss, skin damage and even blindness because of recurring water problems.
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.
There are no government regulations for sea mammal captivity in Canada.
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.”
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 colour 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.
There are other problems at the facility. Walruses, which crave attention in captivity, are confined sporadically in cramped, waterless pens.
Six of the park’s seven seals are blind, have impaired vision or have had serious eye problems because of exposure to unhealthy water, former trainers say.
Poor conditions drove some of the eight former employees to leave and were a major factor in the departure of others.
Former employee Phil Demers resigned this past spring after 12 years as a senior trainer, worn down and frustrated by his inability to help the animals in his care. “I realized I was no longer part of the solution. I was part of the problem,” he said. “I can’t train animals that are sick and compromised.”
All the animals in the pools suffered over the course of the winter and spring, Demers and the supervisor say.
The Star obtained photos, videos and documents that support the accounts of the former employees. Three made the difficult decision to speak out publicly, despite having signed non-disclosure agreements. Five asked that their names not be used for fear of legal consequences.
Record books from one former supervisor log a history of problems with the various pools from March 2011 to March 2012. He described the water as stagnant and flat in the barn, stadium and Aquarium pools. Although water periodically improved, he and Holer were never able to find a permanent solution to the problems. The effect on the animals, he said, was devastating.
“It got so that I didn’t even have to test the water when I arrived in the morning. I could tell just by looking at how sick the animals were,” the former supervisor said. “If you don’t look at them, there’s no problem. What hurt me most is those animals in those pools. They can’t go anywhere. They can’t get out. They’re stuck.”
Larry, about 10 years old, was pulled from the water for days or weeks at a time and kept in either a waterless pen or a metal box on wheels.
Aging animals may suffer from cataracts, trainers said. But their eyes “are not red, swollen, bulbous and inflamed from age. That is from water quality,” one trainer said.
Records show the barn and stadium pools deteriorated after an ozone generator breakdown on Sept. 4, 2011. The supervisor says the water turned green and serious water problems persisted intermittently over the coming months.
After the first day of green water, “the animals were in hell,” including walruses, Demers said. Smooshi had a wildly inflamed flipper, which a veterinarian said was a “chemical burn,” and Sonja’s ulcerated eye worsened. “All the animals showed signs of damage. This was one of the worst states I’ve ever seen them in.”
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.
In a 2010 memo, Demers blamed poor water quality for ill health among walruses, as well as sea lions and seals. “Health issues arise in every instance, ranging from eye damage, fur loss, weight loss, stress, skin lesions (and more).” A few days after Demers left, Holer changed the water in the barn and stadium pools. The May 10 opening was delayed five days to do it. Water was not changed at the Aquarium.
Former employees say that a shortage of trainers means the animals don’t get the attention they need to do well in captivity. Walruses in captivity crave human attention and yet former trainer Bentivegna says they were left days at a time in their dark barn pens with no stimulation apart from feeding. Walrus vomiting and weight loss is a recurring problem at Marineland.
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.
Baker is a big guy, the only male sea lion swimming mindless laps during the Star’s two recent visits to the Aquarium. He used to be the clown, the funny fellow with the clear eyes, still featured in “Attractions Niagara.” Now his body is scarred and itchy with patches of missing fur. Every time he passes he rubs his head hard against the side, trying to scratch himself over and over. His eyes are squeezed so tightly shut it looks like he doesn’t have any. For all intents and purposes, he doesn’t.
—From a report “Marineland animals suffering, former staffers say,” By Linda Diebel.