Liam Casey, The Canadian Press
At Marineland, the Ontario theme park subject to a long-running animal welfare investigation, 14 whales and one dolphin have died since 2019, The Canadian Press has learned.
Details about the deaths at the tourist attraction in Niagara Falls, Ont., are contained in a list created by the Ministry of the Solicitor General following freedom of information requests.
All but two of those 15 marine mammal deaths were among the park’s beluga whales.
Twelve of the beluga deaths occurred within a two-year window – documents show a beluga named Ikora dying on Oct. 24, 2019, followed by 10 others and a beluga named Bull dying on Nov. 23, 2021. The ministry confirmed three more deaths this year: Kiska, the park’s lone killer whale, a dolphin and another beluga.
During that time, provincial authorities raised concerns about the park’s water quality and declared all of the marine mammals were in distress.
The province told the park in May 2021 to fix its water, an order Marineland appealed, saying its animals were not in distress. Marineland denied any link between beluga whale deaths and the condition of the water they lived in.
Marineland also says on its website that it has a “strong record” of providing for the welfare of its animals and will “continue to prioritize their health and wellbeing.”
The Ministry of the Solicitor General, when asked why 15 marine mammals have died at Marineland since 2019 and what the province has done to assist the animals there, cited the province’s ongoing investigation and said, “questions regarding the cause of death of the marine mammals at Marineland should be directed to Marineland.”
The provincial investigation began in January 2020. Animal Welfare Services inspectors have been to the park at least 160 times.
Marineland did not respond to questions about the health of its animals, but banned from its property a reporter from The Canadian Press who visited the park.
The reporter and a Canadian Press photographer paid $52.95 each, plus tax, to enter Marineland on a wet Friday in June. During the visit, The Canadian Press observed several changes compared to previous activities at the park.
The belugas can no longer be fed by the public and the dolphin and sea lion shows have been shortened.
Previously, the park put on elaborate demonstrations by its dolphins – they had five until the recent death – that saw the mammals doing a wide variety of tricks.
Now, they have 15-minute “trainer talks” in the King Waldorf stadium featuring two sea lions and four dolphins. Trainers discuss life for the animals both at Marineland and in the wild and the need for conservation efforts. The dolphins perform a few tricks, like spinning around while half out of the water, and are rewarded with fish.
There are 37 belugas at the park, staff say. Nine male belugas swim in Friendship Cove while 28 female belugas live in Arctic Cove.
Four years ago, there were 54 belugas at the park, the most in captivity in the world, according to an affidavit filed by Marineland’s president, Marie Holer, with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The affidavit was part of the U.S. import process when Marineland sold five belugas to Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut.
Those five belugas moved in 2021. Two have since died, which prompted an investigation by the U.S. government that is ongoing.
Holer took over Marineland’s ownership after her husband, and founder, John Holer, died in 2018. The park announced it was for sale earlier this year.
Wayne Gates, the New Democrat provincial representative for Niagara Falls who has long defended 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 rides and other entertainment.
“The time has come to repurpose Marineland for new opportunities,” he said.
Marineland is an important employer in the region, Gates said, with about 100 full-time staff and upwards of 700 seasonal workers when it’s open from May until October. Gates said a reinvigorated 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 news release about any of its cases since it took over enforcement duties previously carried out by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The dearth of information on taxpayer-funded investigations is a problem, some observers say, particularly because the government argued that creating Animal Welfare Services would make the enforcement of animal cruelty laws more transparent.
“The public has the right to know,” said Kendra Coulter, a professor at Huron University College at Western University who is an expert on animal protection organizations.
“We can’t be engaged citizens who are speaking to our members of provincial parliament if we don’t even know what the issues are.”
The office of the Solicitor General said in response to questions in July that it was looking at its communication practices.
“The Ministry of the Solicitor General is currently reviewing how AWS information relating to enforcement activities is released to the public,” Hunter Kell, a spokesman for Solicitor 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 against the need to preserve the integrity of ongoing legal processes and investigations.”
The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals previously enforced animal cruelty laws for a century. By 2019, it was receiving $5.75 million annually from the province but said the 15,000 cruelty cases it had to handle yearly became too burdensome. Animal Welfare Services took over the next year and has an annual budget of about $21 million.
The Canadian Press filed freedom-of-information requests seeking copies of inspection reports, orders issued to Marineland and a 65-page ministry report about the state of water at the park, plus a list of animals that have died there.
The requests were denied, with a freedom-of-information officer saying the information could “interfere with a law enforcement matter” and “constitute an unjustified invasion of personal privacy.”
The Canadian Press appealed. The process entered mediation, which has resulted in one request being approved: a one-page list of whale deaths and necropsy reports received.
Ontarians deserve more information, said Camille Labchuk, the executive director of the advocacy group Animal Justice. She said the provincial agency should follow the lead of police forces, which issue news releases and hold press conferences even when investigations are active.
“When enforcement of animal protection laws, in particular, is this opaque and this secretive, the public can’t have any degree of confidence in what Animal Welfare Services may or may not be doing – at Marineland or anywhere else,” she said.
banner image: The Canadian Press