by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
The Travesty of Zoo Accreditation in Canada
The mayor of the incorrigibly kitschy community of Niagara Falls, Ontario, thinks Marineland, a combination aquarium, zoo and amusement park, takes good care of its animals.
And the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) just gave it a clean bill of health — yep, no problem here. And it just took a day's inspection for CAZA to deal with all that nonsense about lousy food, water and animal husbandry.
(Note: Although after the media reported that CAZA had confirmed Marineland accreditation, CAZA later claimed no, the investigation is still ongoing.)
The Ontario SPCA and local Humane Society investigation is ongoing as I type. On the main entrance to the Humane Society headquarters, which opened in 1981, there's a plaque thanking Marineland owner John Holer for his generosity in making the society’s new headquarters possible by buying the property, while the old OSPCA, in exchange, was donated to Marineland. I hope this cozy relationship is not the same today.
John Holer has run Marineland for some 50 years. For years the animal protection movement has tried to rescue the animals in Marineland's care by exposing (PDF) the horrific conditions there, all to no avail. Holer has cultivated strong political alliances in a jurisdiction served by totally inadequate animal protection legislation.
But while I wouldn't count on it, the tide may have, if not turned, at least reached a crescendo that is increasingly hard to ignore. It began mid-August when the Toronto Star published the sad story by Linda Diebel about Smooshi, the walrus who so adored her trainer, Phil Demers. Demers could no longer abide the abuse of animals he was witness to as a top marine mammal trainer at Marineland. Demers had fought to help the make the walrus regain her health, had outlined water quality problems that were, among other things, making some marine mammals go blind, all to no avail, and in the end could no longer be part of the problem.
For a while these stories focused on the horrific plight of Marineland's marine mammals, including the facility's large number of beluga whales so prominent in the endlessly repeated Marineland TV commercials featuring the endless refrain "Everyone loves Marineland" in a ditty sung by an anonymous, but talented, singer. Its various iterations show laughing tots being kissed by smiling whales and dolphins. Parents tell me their tykes often sing the words by rote and go there expecting to shake the flipper of a cetacean.
But then the article went on to discuss the terrestrial mammals. "At Marineland, 15 black bears are held in a cramped enclosure with four dens, two feeding stations, a moat with filthy water and a tourist booth that sells corn pops in sugar cones. Tourists lean over a barrier above and toss the sugar pops down to the bears, a practice animal behaviouralists (sic) have criticized."
One expert, Else Poulson, who has been a zoo consultant in Canada and the United States, is quoted as saying: “Bears are sentient creatures, highly intelligent and complex with daily routines (apart from winter denning) in the wild. ... The bears are apparently there only so humans can feed them corn pops."
And Jim Hammond, former land animal care supervisor for Marinland, said that it was tough "to hear newborn cubs squealing in the spring, knowing they would end up dead, devoured by adult males.” There was no enclosure for birthing mothers and no way to keep the young protected. Hammond said you’d hear them and then “one week you’d go in to clean and there would be only silence.”
It was the death of a little red deer in the summer of 2010 that was the final straw for Hammond at Marineland. Here's how the Star article describes it:
"The deer’s foreleg was badly broken, with the bone sticking out, and it had to be killed. Hammond accepted that, but it was how the deer died he’ll never forget.
"Hammond, an 11-year veteran at the sprawling facility, begged owner John Holer to bring in a vet to euthanize the animal. He says Holer refused, instead taking out his 12-gauge shotgun, shooting the deer and then driving off. But the wounded animal didn’t die.
“ 'He was twitching quite a bit and his head would flop up and down,' Hammond recalled. The deer had been shot through the windpipe and was gasping for air.
"He called Holer at home to say the deer was still alive and asked if he could call the vet to 'do it right' or would Holer come back. According to Hammond, Holer refused, telling him: 'I just got back to the house and got sitting down. ... You’ve got a knife in the back of the wagon.'
"He acted reluctantly.
" 'I don’t want to dramatize it, but when you do that to an animal, you remember it,' said Hammond, a big guy who clasped his hands and stared bleakly at the floor. 'And it was a dull knife. ... If you take a dull knife across hair, it’s very hard to cut. It was like trying to cut into concrete. And you’re there not for a few seconds, it’s a few minutes.' ”
Of course, Marineland refused comment.
The fact that CAZA has nevertheless accredited Marineland makes a mockery of the CAZA accreditation standards. That is why I examined them and discovered that they were, to all intents, meaningless. I wrote a critique of the first half of the standards, and I will talk about that in a future blog. Meanwhile, Ontario's premier has grudgingly admitted what we have said for many, many years, that Ontario is in desperate need of some sort of legal protection for zoo animals. That's one tiny, toddling step in the right direction.
Oh, and that ditty singer with the great voice is no longer anonymous. Her name is Suzie McNeil and she would now like the tagline to be "Everyone Hates Marineland." Everyone should!