|A killer whale at Marineland, Niagara Falls. (Shutterstock)
NIAGARA FALLS, ONT. - Allegations of deplorable conditions at Marineland have some calling for the 51-year-old facility to be shut down, but an association that inspects the amusement park gave it a passing grade.
Phillip Demers, a trainer at Marineland who quit in May after 12 years at the park, went public with allegations of deteriorating health conditions of the animals, poor water conditions and staffing shortages.
Demers is a well-respected mammal trainer who made headlines across North America in 2007 because of his relationship with a walrus at Marineland named Smooshi.
Demers told a Toronto newspaper that the poor conditions and the lack of response from park owner John Holer prompted him to quit — and subsequently break a non-disclosure agreement by going public.
The public reaction to the report has been significant, with Marineland trending on Twitter. Many called for the city to shut down the park, but Mayor Jim Diodati said City Hall doesn't have jurisdiction.
“We don't regulate or license them,” Diodati said. “We're not involved in monitoring them, that's another body. We make sure the property taxes are paid and that there are no other bylaw infringements taking place.”
The mayor defended the amusement park, saying he's been going to Marineland since he was a youth and has never seen any signs of animal mistreatment.
“Our family loves animals and we've been there with my kids on their end-of-the-year trips. I've never seen any evidence of neglect,” he said. “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.
“There's a regulatory body that checks them over and if they saw signs, I'm sure they would have taken action,” Diodati said.
The closest thing to a national regulatory body is the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which gives accreditation to animal parks across the country. The association's accreditation is mandatory to operate a similar facility in British Columbia, but not in Ontario, executive director Bill Peters said Wednesday.
He said Marineland has held CAZA accreditation “going back a couple of decades.” Accreditation lasts for five years, and a team of inspectors visits the park and prepares a report in order for a renewal to be granted.
“Marineland was last accredited last year. They applied, there was an inspection and a hearing before the accreditation commission,” he said.
Three CAZA inspectors, including a veterinarian, visited Marineland from Aug. 30 to Sept. 1, 2011, to assess the conditions.
“It's a very thorough inspection. They will have looked at all of the facilities, talked to the owners, managers, staff and prepared a very detailed report on their findings,” Peters said.
The accreditation commission granted Marineland's renewal, and it went into effect Jan. 1 and is valid until Dec. 31, 2016.
Peters couldn't comment on whether the accreditation commission would look into the new allegations at Marineland, but said it can request a re-inspection.
“If there's something that has been brought to our attention, we are able to look into it immediately,” he said, adding there were no complaints lodged against Marineland through CAZA during the park's 2006-2011 accreditation period.
Also in charge of making sure privately owned animals are properly cared for is the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"We did a formal inspection two years ago on the facility and found no grounds for concern at that time," said Alison Cross, the OSPCA's senior manager of marketing and communications.
Cross said they won't investigate an amusement park based on news reports, but said if there are concerns over animal cruelty anywhere in Ontario, the public can contact either the OSPCA or the local police department, which can also investigate animal abuse cases.]
"We're complaint-driven, so we have to receive the proper information in order for us to investigate. It has to be something tangible that can be upheld in court," she said.
Rob Laidlaw, the executive director of Zoocheck Canada, a national animal protection charity, said he's not surprised to hear the report of Marineland's conditions.
“We've had all kinds of people express concern for many years both from within Marineland and from members of the public,” Laidlaw said. “Our hope is that this time, because the platform is a much higher profile, there's some serious discussion that takes place and action that results from it.”
He called for a “serious investigation” by an independent organization.