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'Shut this torture chamber down': Marineland faces intense public backlash after dolphin and beluga death

Canadian animal activists decry Ontario's weak animal welfare enforcement after deaths of two more mammals at Marineland

NIAGARA FALLS, ON - MAY 18: Over 800 protesters gathered Saturday, May 18, 2013, in front of Niagara Fall's Marineland amusement park to protest the captivity and care of the animals inside. New this year to Marineland is a fence that runs the length of the front property. (Tara Walton/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Ontario's animal welfare regulations are under scrutiny in the wake of reports surfacing earlier this week that Sonar, the dolphin and Kodiak, a beluga whale, died last week at Ontario's Marineland.

This marks the third death of marine animals at the facility in two months after Kiska, dubbed 'the world's loneliest orca' died during March earlier this year.

“It’s deeply disturbing to hear reports that a beluga whale and dolphin are the latest animals to die at Marineland,” said Michèle Hamers, World Animal Protection’s Wildlife Campaign Manager.

Ontario offers weakest animal welfare enforcement in Canada

As Marineland prepares to open for the season on May 20, many are questioning how the facility is allowed to remain operational given the long history of concerns being raised over the wellbeing and treatment of animals held captive there.

World Animal Protection, an international non-profit animal rights organization has long sounded the alarm over the activities at this under-regulated facility, and the lack of regulations in Ontario.

What we see in Ontario is a culture of non-compliance, and despite the legislation that exists to protect these animals, it is not being upheld. She says it is an ongoing frustration to see animals being held in miserable circumstances and standing by helplessly as these organizations continue being allowed to operate.Michèle Hamers, World Animal Protection’s Wildlife Campaign Manager

In 2009, the Ontario government took initiative that provided a framework to regulate the standards of care that animals in captivity across the province were kept in, but since then, no updates have been made, said Hamers.

Ontario’s Animal Welfare Services team of anti-cruelty officers have been engaged in an active inspection of Marineland for the past three years, however Ministry of the Solicitor General spokesperson Brent Ross told media that "due to the ongoing inspection by Animal Welfare Services, the ministry cannot provide further details."

Hamers says that the findings of this investigation should be made public as people have a right to know as well as providing transparency on what is happening at this facility.

Marineland, like so many other under-regulated facilities in Ontario, continues to dodge accountability as the province offers the weakest animal welfare enforcement in the country.

In late 2021, Marineland was also charged criminally after complaints were filed alleging dolphins were being forced to perform for entertainment despite a national ban. The charges were stayed due to a backlog of Ontario's criminal justice system.

Hamers says her organization is calling on Ontario’s Solicitor General Michael Kerzner to urgently implement stronger regulations and enforcement to protect the health and welfare of the remaining animals at Marineland and in other under-regulated zoos and facilities across Ontario before more animals suffer and someone gets hurt.

"The Ontario government should also look to other provinces in our country, who have regulated this quite well, and use them as an example and take the same actions here," said Hamers.

Ministry spokesperson Brent Ross said in an email that Marineland advised Animal Welfare Services (AWS) that necropsies of both animals were conducted by professionals.

Who runs Marineland?

Opening its doors for the first time in 1961 under the name 'Marine Wonderland' by entrepreneur John Holer, the park was developed with the hopes of operating as a secondary attraction for the hordes of tourists flocking to Niagara Falls.

Over the years and several name changes later, it grew to what it is today — a combination of a zoo, aquarium and theme park spread over 1,000 acres. The attraction draws over 250,000 tourists annually and boosts the village of Niagara's economy by providing 55 per cent of summer hotel bookings in the area.

Recently, as attitudes towards keeping animals in captivity shifted, the site became a target for animal-rights activists and in January of 2023, Marineland registered to lobby with the Ontario government with the intention of selling the business.

Strong social reaction: 'Mind-boggled that this place is allowed to operate'

The passing of the marine mammals has also sparked a strong reaction on social media.

"SHUT THIS TORTURE CHAMBER DOWN!!!’" Tweeted one user.

Many expressed frustration over Marineland's ability to utilize a "grandfather clause" which allows them to bypass the "Free Willy" bill, which passed through Canadian parliament during 2019 and explicitly prohibits whale and dolphin captivity across Canada.

It is fair to assume based off of public response that not many are taking the side of Marineland.

Many users also expressed a feeling of helplessness of not being able to save the animals being held at the facility.

As Marineland opens its doors again, Hamers says it is her wish that people stop supporting these kinds of facilities.

"I really encourage people to research the conditions animals at Marineland and other facilities across the province are kept in," said Hamers. "There is no reason for animals like the ones held in captivity at Marineland to be kept in this country for entertainment purposes."