Water parks, zoos, “sanctuaries”. All places where animals are kept in artificial habitats so that the public can see them, for “educational” – or more likely, entertainment – purposes. Most adults have heard the stories of neglect and mistreatment in facilities across the world, but still, parents pay millions of dollars per year, however uncomfortably, to expose their families to rapidly dwindling wildlife.
Those same families probably recoiled in horror this week as accusations of severe neglect and animal suffering at Ontario Aquatic Park Marineland surfaced. The park, home to orcas, dolphins, seals and “the largest collection of beluga whales in the world”, is now facing increasing scrutiny after the Toronto Star published several articles detailing not only accounts of understaffing and inadequate hygiene conditions at the park, but specific incidents of animal suffering. Animals going blind – literally losing eyes – or losing chunks of skin because the water they live in is filthy. Unhealthy overcrowding in some tanks; lonely isolation in others. And understaffing so dire, they couldn’t save a baby whale in need.
The Star recounted the story of one employee who watched two adult Beluga whales attack a baby Beluga. Untrained to enter the water, the employee radioed for trainers to come put a stop to the violent attack. He waited two hours for assistance to arrive as he watched the attack. He stood helpless as the baby’s mother tried to shield her calf, pushing her towards the employee as if asking him to help save her. By the time trainers showed up, all they could do was hold the baby whale as she convulsed and died in their arms. (Park owner John Holer later played down the incident, stating that the baby whale had meningitis, and that if a whale is sick the other whales will simply kill it.)
Tales like these are common from former employees, reports the Star. But Marineland denies any mistreatment, stating they take care of the animals “better than they would take care of [themselves].”
Public reaction, however, has been swift and decisive and not in Marineland’s favour. Even the singer whose voice is on the ubiquitous jingle “Everyone Loves Marineland” wants her voice removed from the ads, suggesting they replace the tagline with “all the whales haaaaate… Marineland!”
Horrifyingly, there are no government regulations for sea mammal captivity in Canada. An industry association, The Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums, is self-regulated and licensed Marineland in 2007 and 2011, with apparently no questions asked.
Will these accusations lead the government to create laws around animal welfare in Canada, or are our animals in captivity going to be left to the mercy of capitalist zoo owners?
Photo Credit Craig Bullard on Flickr.