At Marineland, the Ontario theme park subject to a lengthy animal welfare investigation, 14 whales and one dolphin have died since 2019, The Canadian Press has learned.
Details about the deaths at the Niagara Falls tourist attraction are contained in a list created by the Attorney General’s Office following freedom of information requests.
All but two of those 15 marine mammal deaths occurred among the park’s beluga whales.
Twelve of the beluga deaths occurred within a two-year period: documents show a beluga named Ikora died on October 24, 2019, followed by 10 others and a beluga named Bull who died on November 23, 2021. The Ministry confirmed three more deaths. this year: Kiska, the only orca in the park, a dolphin and another beluga.
During that time, provincial authorities expressed concern about the park’s water quality, declaring all marine mammals endangered.
The province told the park in May 2021 to fix its water, an order Marineland appealed, saying its animals were not in danger.
Marineland denied any link between the deaths of the beluga whales and the conditions of the water in which they lived.
Marineland also says on its website that it has a “strong track record” in the welfare of its animals and “will continue to prioritize their health and well-being.”
The Ministry of the Attorney General, when asked why 15 marine mammals have died at Marineland since 2019 and what the province has done to help the animals there, cited the province’s ongoing investigation, saying that “questions about the cause of death for marine mammals in Marineland should be addressed to Marineland.”
The provincial investigation began in January 2020. Animal Welfare Service inspectors have been to the park at least 160 times.
Marineland did not respond to questions about the health of its animals, but evicted a journalist from The Canadian Press who visited the park from its property.
The reporter and a CP photographer each paid $52.95, plus tax, to enter Marineland on a rainy Friday in June. During the visit, The Canadian Press noted several changes compared to previous activities in the park.
The belugas can no longer be fed by the public and the dolphin and sea lion shows have been cut short.
Previously, the park held elaborate displays of its dolphins (they had five until their recent death) in which the mammals performed a wide variety of tricks.
Now, they have 15-minute “coach talks” at King Waldorf Stadium with two sea lions and four dolphins. Trainers discuss the lives of animals both at Marineland and in the wild and the need for conservation efforts. The dolphins perform a few tricks, such as spinning while half out of the water, and are rewarded with fish.
There are 37 belugas in the park, staff say. Nine male belugas swim at Friendship Cove, while 28 female belugas live at Arctic Cove.
Four years ago, there were 54 belugas in the park, the most in captivity in the world, according to an affidavit filed by Marineland President Marie Holer with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The affidavit was part of the US import process when Marineland sold five belugas to the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut.
Those five belugas moved in 2021. Since then, two have died, prompting an ongoing US government investigation.
‘The time has come to reuse Marineland’
Holer assumed ownership of Marineland after her husband and founder, John Holer, died in 2018. The park announced it was up for sale earlier this year.
Wayne Gates, the New Democrat provincial representative for Niagara Falls, who has long championed the park, said he believes the time has come for Marineland to make changes, suggesting it get out of the animal business and focus on its attractions and other entertainment.
“The time has come to repurpose Marineland for new opportunities,” he said.
Marineland is a major employer in the region, Gates said, with about 100 full-time employees and more than 700 seasonal workers when it’s open from May to October. Gates said a revitalized attraction would boost tourism in the region.
Animal protection advocates say one factor complicating efforts to understand the circumstances at Marineland is the lack of information released by the provincial investigative body.
Animal Welfare Services has not issued a single press release on any of its cases since taking over law enforcement duties previously held by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The paucity of data on taxpayer-funded research is a problem, some observers say, particularly as the government has argued that the creation of Animal Welfare Services would make enforcement of animal cruelty laws more transparent.
“The public has a right to know,” said Kendra Coulter, a professor at Western University’s Huron University College and an expert on animal welfare organizations.
“We can’t be engaged citizens talking to our provincial parliament members if we don’t even know what the issues are.”
The attorney general’s office said in response to questions in July that it was reviewing its communication practices.
“The Attorney General’s Office is currently reviewing how AWS information related to law enforcement activities is released to the public,” Hunter Kell, a spokesman for Attorney General Michael Kerzner, said in an email.
“We are committed to providing timely and accurate information about AWS cases; however, informational disclosures must be balanced with the need to preserve the integrity of ongoing legal proceedings and investigations.”
The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals previously enforced animal cruelty laws for a century. In 2019, he received $5.75 million a year from the province, but said the 15,000 cruelty cases he had to handle annually became too burdensome.
Animal Welfare Services took over the following year and have an annual budget of about $21 million.
The Canadian press filed freedom of information requests requesting copies of inspection reports, orders issued to Marineland and a 65-page ministerial report on the state of the water in the park, as well as a list of animals that have died there.
The requests were denied, and a freedom of information official said the information could “interfere with a law enforcement matter” and “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
The Canadian press appealed. The process entered mediation, resulting in the approval of one request: a one-page list of whale deaths and necropsy reports received.
Ontarians deserve more information, said Camille Labchuk, executive director of advocacy group Animal Justice. She said the provincial agency should follow the example of police forces, which issue press releases and hold news conferences even when investigations are active.
“When the enforcement of animal protection laws in particular is so opaque and secret, the public cannot have any degree of confidence in what Animal Welfare Services may or may not be doing, at Marineland or anywhere else.” said.