Marineland allegations prompt owner John Holer to post message defending treatment of animals

Former staff at Ontario's Marineland amusement park say some of the animals live in horrible conditions.Marineland owner John Holer has posted a message on the popular tourist attraction's web site defending its treatment of marine mammals following allegations many were sick and neglected.

"I have dedicated my life to developing one of the world's best facilities for animal and marine mammal care, where guests can learn about animals through an exciting mix of entertainment and education," Holer says in the message posted on Marineland's general information page.

"Marineland staff members and I consider each Marineland animal resident a member of the family. I will spare no expense when it comes to the health and well being of the animals in my care."

The statement follows a Toronto Star report, based on interviews with former Marineland staff and an examination of documents, that seals, sea lions and whales were suffering from being forced to swim in murky or chemically imbalanced water and kept in isolation. Some had painful skin problems and others were suffering from blindness.

[ Related: Marine mammals at Marineland sick and neglected, Toronto Star alleges ]

One former trainer at the Niagara Falls, Ont., tourist attraction told CBC News Thursday that many animals had ulcerated eyes and that all the animals were getting antibiotics and valium, among other drugs.

Holer, speaking to the Star, emphatically denied the animals at the amusement park he's owned for 50 years were mistreated or neglected.

Marineland veterinarian June Mergel also defended its approach.

"It would break my heart to think we would ever mistreat [the animals]. We love them dearly," Mergel told CBC News.

"We've been here for 50 years, so we have a lot of ex-employees that cycle through the area, and I can find you as many employees — ex-employees — that will say good things about Marineland."

Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati also came to Marineland's defence.

"Our family loves animals and we've been there with my kids on their end-of-the year trips," he told the Niagara Falls Review. "I've never seen any evidence of neglect.

"My first thought is there are two sides to every story and I think in fairness, to get to the bottom of any matter, you need to talk to both sides before you make any kind of decision."

Diodati added that any problems would have been flagged by the regulatory body that monitors the facility.

There is no government oversight of places like Marineland. It's reviewed by the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a self-regulating industry body that inspected Marineland last year and gave it a pass. National director Bill Peters told CBC News it has not received any complaints since then.

But he conceded no one is responsible for monitoring.

"It is a real concern," said Peters.

The Star's initial report Wednesday triggered a wave of reaction and comment. The paper reported the story was heavily shared on Facebook and #marineland was trending on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the Star on Thursday expanded on allegations that Marineland had no experts on hand when two beluga whales attacked and killed a baby beluga.

The nine-month-old calf, named Skoot, died in the arms of trainers following the two-hour assault, the Star reported.

The only person present at the pool where the attack began around 6:30 p.m. last May was an untrained Marineland guide, the Star reported. At the time, nine trainers were responsible for the facility where the attack took place but none arrived for two hours, despite the guide's radioed appeals for help, the Star claimed.

Two trainers finally arrived and went into the pool to help Skoot from the water around 8:15 p.m., the Star said.

Mergl, Marineland's vet, said Skoot "passed away after a sudden onset of illness."

Holer told the Star that Skoot died from bacterial meningitis, based on a necropsy performed at Marineland and samples analyzed at the Universite de Montreal.

He acknowledged the attack occurred but that it was over quickly.

"If animals see another animal is going to die, they kill it," he told the paper. "You have to understand . . . for people and all living things, there is a time to live and a time to die."

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