Marineland owner John Holer has died at 83

June 24, 2018

John Holer, the founder of the Niagara Falls amusement park Marineland, which over the years attracted both revellers and protesters, died on Saturday.

He was 83.

Holer, who had been ill in recent months, was a “visionary” and “leader in the tourism industry,” said Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati.

“He was a pillar, and he was a pioneer,” said Diodati. “He created a lot of opportunity for a lot of people and (his death) is a loss to the community.”

He credited Holer with creating thousands of jobs, helping folks put food on the table and countless kids pay for college and university tuition.

Diodati said Holer’s legendary marketing prowess — as evident in the commercial jingle “Everyone Loves Marineland” — brought millions of visitors to Niagara Falls, filling hotel rooms.

But in reality, not everyone loves Marineland, which has for years been embroiled in controversy, including the alleged mistreatment of animals.

Marineland has always maintained its animals are well-treated and allegations of abuse are not true.

Still, animal welfare activists have fought for years to shut it down, at times protesting outside the park’s main entrance.

Diodati believes Marineland, a family-owned company, is now at a “crossroads.” It can continue as is or, given its size of about 1,000 acres, it can be sold to housing developers, currently buying up land in the region. Or it can be sold to, or transformed into, an amusement park without animals.

Over the years, some of the world’s biggest amusement companies have tried to buy it, but Holer refused to sell because the park was his life, said Diodati.

“I would love to see it continue as an amusement park without the animals,” he said.

“I think it would be wildly successful, it would be welcome and it would help to feed into the critical mass of tourist attractions.”

On Sunday, the Star was unable to reach Holer’s widow, Marie, or son Peter. Another son, John Mark Jr., died in 2013. A company spokesperson couldn’t be reached.

Holer was born in 1935 in Slovenia, then part of Yugoslavia. He immigrated to Canada and landed in the Niagara region in the late 1950s and started a circus.

“A vast number of visitors were coming to Niagara Falls, and there was very little for them to do besides the actual falls,” Holer recalled in a 1983 interview.

Sensing an opportunity, he opened Marineland in 1963, with a few sea lions doing shows in a small pool. Over the years, he bought more land — this too was controversial because on one occasion it involved the eviction of 47 families from a trailer park he had acquired — and the park grew into a massive tourist attraction that included a killer whale, beluga whales, dolphins and land animals, such as deer and bears.

Although society’s attitudes about keeping animals in captivity have changed over the years, Holer’s did not. Yet he did love those animals, said Diodati, noting, “The animals were his family, they were most important to him.”

Tim Parker, Marineland’s operations manager from 1994 to 1999, described Holer as a hard worker, who was first to arrive in the morning and last to leave, overseeing all aspects so visitors got the best possible experience.

“He was very devoted to what he did at the park,” said Parker. “There was nothing he wouldn’t do for me, or any other employee. He was always there with his hand out, helping.”

And Holer’s kindness extended beyond the park’s gates, said Parker.

“When I built my house, he was there with his construction equipment. He was saying, ‘You need a house. Let’s build it.’ ”

Since the park’s opening, it garnered headlines.

A bear cub once escaped for a few days, a bison wandered out onto a nearby highway, and four bears mauled a fifth to death in front of visitors.

In 1977, the U.S. government seized six bottlenose dolphins Holer had caught in the Gulf of Mexico, and following the death of a beluga whale in 1999, arson threats were made against him.

In 2012, the Star wrote extensively about whistleblowers from Marineland alleging mistreatment of animals, including a killer whale that spent its final four years indoors, often alone in a small pool with little natural light; dolphin skin floating in the water; and a sea lion that suffered eye damage because of filth in the water.

Following the Star investigation, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) did not charge Marineland, but ordered it to make changes, which the park complied with.

In late 2016 and early 2017, the OSPCA laid a total of 11 animal cruelty charges against Marineland, but all were withdrawn in court last summer.

Parker said Holer was always determined to clear his name.

“Holer was a very strong man. He had been dealing with it (controversy) since opening the park,” said Parker.

“He fought for what he thought was right for the park and for his customers.”

Source: The


Marineland ‘the author of its own misfortune,’ OSPCA says in response to suit

January 5, 2018

Ontario’s animal welfare agency says a lawsuit by Marineland alleging the organization targeted the theme park to boost fundraising and appease animal activists is an abuse of process and should be dismissed.

In its statement of defence, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which had laid animal cruelty charges against the Niagara Falls, Ont., amusement park, denies Marineland’s claims of malicious prosecution.

The OSPCA says any damages or losses suffered by Marineland due to the criminal charges “are entirely the result of its own misconduct and that (Marineland) is the author of its own misfortune.”

In October, Marineland filed the lawsuit against the OSPCA alleging the agency launched a criminal investigation with the intention of harming the company’s reputation. It also claimed the probe was part of a broader push to ban commercial zoos and aquariums.

The OSPCA investigation led to 11 animal cruelty charges against Marineland that were withdrawn in court last summer.

Marineland says in its statement of claim that the charges had “a direct and seriously negative impact” on its business and operations, and is seeking $21 million in damages on grounds of malicious prosecution, negligent investigation, injurious falsehood, and abuse of power and process.

“The OSPCA’s purpose in initiating the prosecution was not the enforcement of the law,” says the statement of claim filed in late October. “It was motivated by a series of improper objectives, including a desire to accomplish its own policy agenda, to mollify the animal activist community, to please its donors, and to effectively destroy Marineland.”

The OSPCA denies each of those allegations in its statement of defence filed in late November.

The agency has said it launched the investigation in November 2016 after receiving a complaint from the California-based animal rights group, Last Chance for Animals, that contained allegations of animal abuse along with photographs and videos from a former Marineland employee.

The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the complaint and some of the stories it reported are cited in the lawsuit. Marineland said at the time that the complaint was part of a smear campaign by a former employee who had been fired for poor performance and inappropriate behaviour. It also argued the images and videos may be doctored.

The former employee, who requested anonymity for fear of being sued, told The Canadian Press at the time that he quit on good terms and was not an animal activist and didn’t want the park to close.

Marineland was initially charged with five counts of animal cruelty in late 2016 in relation to the treatment of peacocks, guinea hens and black bears. In January 2017, the OSPCA laid six more animal cruelty charges against the park relating to elk, red deer and fallow deer.

The charges were withdrawn in August after prosecutors found they had no chance of conviction on most counts.

The Crown said at the time it could have proceeded on three of the charges — which related to failing to comply with standards of care for a peacock, guinea hens and a red deer — but did not believe it was in the public interest to do so, citing potential court costs and a weak case.

Marineland could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday.

Since it opened in 1963, Marineland has grown into a large amusement park with rides and about 4,000 animals including one killer whale, dozens of beluga whales, dolphins, walruses, seals, sea lions and other animals such as deer, bears, birds and fish.


‘Free Willy’ bill jumps to Senate for approval

October 26, 2017

It’s still swimming.

A bill that would ban whale and dolphin captivity in Canada cleared the Senate’s Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans this morning by a vote of 9-5.

The sponsor of Bill S-203, Independent Sen. Murray Sinclair introduced several amendments, all of which were supported by the same margin.

The report will now be tabled for consideration at the next sitting of the Senate and then move to the report stage. Senators will have an opportunity to debate what’s been proposed and vote on it. If the report is adopted, it will move on to third reading.

“I’m looking forward to it going back to the Senate for full deliberation and third reading,” Sinclair said. “I think that the fight is not over yet. I think there will still be opposition raised to the passage of the bill.”

In a previous interview with iPolitics, he’d spoken out against backroom antics by Conservative senators to quietly kill the bill.

“Nobody is doing anything improper — and I don’t want to suggest that,” he said today. “But from the perspective of Independent senators who are not here carrying the banner of a political party, either on the government side or opposition side, our concern is that, as senators we feel we have an obligation to deal with the legislation that is before us. Any delay in our consideration and our ability to vote on a bill is a matter that causes us great concern.”

“We need to ensure that we expedite the movement of the bill through the chamber so it gets to the House in order to be considered by members there. It’s been a long time to get to this point, but we still have a long way to go.”

This bill was first tabled in June of 2015 by Liberal Sen. Wilfred Moore with the goal of phasing out the keeping of whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity in Canada, with an exception for rescues and rehabilitation. When he reached the mandatory retirement age in January, Sinclair took over for him.

“At the time I said that in order for it to pass, both from my own consideration and my support of it, as well as the support of others, we needed to change this bill to make it better and I think we’ve done that,” Sinclair said of his amendments.

The purpose of the bill is to criminalize the captivity of whales and dolphins in Canada. One amendment put forward today would make it an offence punishable by summary conviction instead of an indictable offence, also subject to a fine of up to $200,000.

It has a grandfather clause for those animals that are already in captivity and permits legitimate research, as well as the rescue of animals in distress.

“There is nothing here that is going to criminalize the conduct of researchers,” Sinclair said.

He also introduced a clause to recognize Indigenous treaty rights and s.35 of the Constitution.

“This is to ensure that Indigenous people in Canada know this is not intended to derogate rights that are protected under s. 35,” he said.

That addresses an issue raised at committee in the spring: the need for aboriginal consultations. One section of the bill would amend the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act to prohibit imports and exports of cetaceans to and from Canada. Andrew Burns, a lawyer for Marineland in Ontario, appeared before the committee in mid-May and argued the bill intrudes into issues of constitutionally protected Inuit rights, specifically around the sale of narwhal tusks and harvesting wildlife.

He said the park’s position is that the legal ‘duty to consult’ with the Inuit had not been fulfilled.

At a June 8 meeting of the committee, Conservative Sen. Don Plett picked up where Marineland had left off and raised the issue of aboriginal consultations again.

This morning, five Indigenous senators were present and voted in favour of all amendments — and moving the bill along.

“I will not tell you (their presence) was deliberate. I will not tell you it wasn’t deliberate,” Sinclair said with a smile. “I can only tell you that’s the way it happened. I can assure you though that all Indigenous senators were consulted about the clause and they all expressed concern when the issue first came to light. I indicated that in my view there was a way to deal with it and this was the best way.”

The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies supported Sen. Moore out of the gate and today CEO Barbara Cartwright said she’s confident the bill will pass the Senate. It’s the House of Commons that will be the challenge.

“Certainly the continued antics of Don Plett and the Conservatives around an ‘un-understandable’ defence of Marineland, almost as if they’re lobbying on behalf of Marineland, seems to me to highlight an issue or a problem with the way the process is happening,” she said.

“I’m just thrilled that the nine senators who voted positively each time didn’t allow that to move forward or influence their decision about how important it is to ban the captivity of marine mammals in Canada. I’m hoping the amendments don’t allow for the movement of sperm and embryos to allow captive breeding to continue. That’s going to be their next move if they can’t bring wild animals in.”

Sinclair is under no illusions about an easy swim from here.

“Not all independent senators are in support of the legislation. They still need to understand it. I think senators in the other caucuses need to understand what this bill is all about.”

They also need to grasp the public support for the bill that’s out there, he said.

“Each of us on the committee have probably received a few thousand emails, generally in support of the bill. There are quite a lot of Canadians out there who want this to pass. I recognize the importance of it.”

Camille Labchuk, executive director of Animal Justice, said while the aquarium industry has many senators on its side and seems to be doing a good job of lobbying them, “the power of the millions of Canadians who want to see this bill passed, who want to reasonable protections in place for whales and dolphins, will far outweigh the two businesses (Marineland and the Vancouver Aquarium) that confine cetaceans.”

She said around the world, the captivity of cetaceans and other large animals is on its way out.

“Canada has an opportunity to be a world leader in protecting these animals. We should seize that opportunity. We don’t have a very strong record internationally on animal protection, in fact we have one of the worst. With Bill s-203, Canada has a clear and easy opportunity to take a big leap and become a world leader.”

Still with Marineland, earlier this week it filed a lawsuit against the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, alleging the organization maliciously targeted the theme park in order to curry favour with animal rights activists and boost fundraising.

The lawsuit alleges the OSPCA launched a criminal investigation against Marineland last year for “improper purposes” and with the intention of harming the Niagara Falls, Ont., amusement park’s reputation.

The investigation culminated with the laying of 11 animal cruelty charges against Marineland, which were then withdrawn this summer.


Animal cruelty charges dropped against Marineland

August 10, 2017

Animal cruelty charges that had been laid against Marineland were dropped Thursday after prosecutors said there was no reasonable chance of conviction on most of the 11 counts faced by the Ontario tourist attraction.

During a brief hearing in a Niagara Falls, Ont., courtroom, the Crown said it could have proceeded on three of the charges — which related to failing to comply with standards of care for a peacock, guinea hens and a red deer — but did not believe it was in the public interest to do so, citing potential court costs and a weak case.

Crown attorney Stephen Galbraith said prosecutors had instead come up with an alternative solution that included ongoing monitoring of the amusement park and zoo.

“The Crown’s case is more circumstantial than direct evidence,” Galbraith told the court. “The photographs and video provided preserves observations, but there was no independent examination of the animals. The veterinarian’s report was not able to determine the cause of issues related to the animals.”

The justice of the peace hearing the case accepted the Crown’s submission and withdrew the charges.

The 11 charges against Marineland were the result of an investigation by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that was launched last November after the animal welfare agency received a complaint.

Marineland was initially charged with five counts of animal cruelty late last year in connection with the treatment of peacocks, guinea hens and black bears. In January, the OSPCA laid six more animal cruelty charges against Marineland relating to elk, red deer and fallow deer.

In a statement issued after Thursday’s court hearing, Marineland said it had suffered “reputational damage” as a result of the charges that were withdrawn.

“The Crown conducted its own independent review of the OSPCA charges and has effectively agreed with Marineland by determining all the charges ought to be withdrawn,” the company said.

The OSPCA said it was surprised the charges were withdrawn.

“We are extremely disappointed in this outcome and feel that this matter is of public interest as all animals rely on humans for appropriate care for their general welfare and the public demands this,” said OSPCA chief inspector Connie Mallory.

“If anyone has any concerns for the welfare of the animals at Marineland, we encourage the public to contact 310-SPCA to report the new information.”

The 35-page complaint that prompted the OSPCA investigation in November was filed by a California-based animal rights group called Last Chance for Animals. It contained allegations of animal abuse along with photographs and videos from a former Marineland employee.

The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the group’s complaint, as well as copies of the photos and videos from the former employee with metadata indicating they were taken on Marineland property last summer.

Marineland said at the time that the complaint was part of a smear campaign by a former employee who had been fired for poor performance and inappropriate behaviour. It also argued the images and videos may be doctored.

The former employee, who requested anonymity for fear of being sued, told The Canadian Press he quit on good terms and is not an animal activist and doesn’t want the park to close.

Last Chance for Animals, meanwhile, has said its goal is not to shut down Marineland, though it does believe “wild animals should be left in the wild.”

“The Crown’s decision to drop all charges despite having sufficient evidence to move forward on at least three counts is shameful,” the organization said in a statement. “It is the government’s responsibility to hold Marineland accountable and enforce existing animal welfare laws.”

On Thursday, Marineland reiterated its previous position that the OSPCA laid the charges to appease animal rights groups that have criticized it for not doing enough to protect animals.

“The OSPCA literally prepared the first of these charges on site, after spending a single afternoon executing a search warrant and viewing more than 4,000 animals across more than three hundred acres at our park,” Marineland said. “The OSPCA did not remove or isolate any of the 4,000 animals, despite laying multiple charges.”

Source: CTV

Marineland files lawsuit against teen filmmaker

Thursday, May 12, 2016 4:16:32 EDT PM

Marineland has launched a $1 million lawsuit against the producer of a film it claims uses unauthorized images taken on park property. Black Water was made a 19-year-old university student in California. PHOTO: Mike DiBattista / Niagara Falls Review

Marineland is suing a 19-year-old California filmmaker for $1 million for a movie it alleges uses its intellectual property.

The suit, filed May 10 at the Superior Court of Justice in St. Catharines, claims the upcoming film Black Water, produced and directed by Humboldt State University student Zach Affolter, uses video and images “illegally taken” inside the park by someone hired as a seasonal employee.

The film, according to its Facebook page, “tells the sad story of Kiska, a captive orca at Marineland, Ontario. She struggles to overcome her pain and despair as they rip her apart.”

Through his company Rising Sun Productions, Affolter has released a series of short films on YouTube about other killer whales in captivity like SeaWorld’s Tilikum and the Miami Seaquarium’s Lolita. The film’s Facebook Page says it will be released online May 20. Two teaser trailers released last year contained voice overs accompanying images of Kiska, with statements like “I wish you could understand this cold, empty feeling that continues to destroy me” and “I don’t even have the spirit to kill myself. It feels like I am drowning, in black water.”

Marineland’s statement of claim said the park has been cleared of all allegations of animal abuse, and Affolter produced the film “for the purpose of causing damage to Marineland for commercial gain.”

According to the Statement of Claim, the images provided to Affolte by an unknown defendant breach the park’s 2015 Seasonal Team Member Employment Agreement, which forbids “any photograph, prints or other digital media” on park property without written consent.

Likewise, under Terms & Conditions on its website, Marineland states photographs and videos taken at the park “may not be used for commercial purpose.”

Earlier this year, hidden-camera footage shot inside the park by a summer employee last year sparked an angry response from Marineland. The footage, focussing mainly on the park’s beluga whales, was used by the L.A.-based non-profit group Last Chance for Animals to highlight the “insufficient care” of Marineland’s 46 beluga whales.

Marineland called the video a “hate-filled rant,” and said the group’s allegations are “completely and knowingly false.”

Marineland believes Black Water, with a title alluding to the hugely successful documentary Blackfish, will “secure income for animal activist organizations and, as such, is for a commercial purpose.”

When reached Thursday, Affolter said Marineland is never directly mentioned in the film, and the faces of all visitors and employees have been blurred out. He rejects the park’s claim it is a commercial venture.

“Black Water is meant as an educational, non-commercial film that dives into the moral question behind keeping cetaceans (dolphins and other whales) in captivity,” he said via e-mail. “The film is a narrative set in Kiska’s perspective that explores what these sentient, social creatures might feel when placed in a captive environment.”

The film will no longer be released May 20, but Affolter still intends to release it “at the right time.”

He intends to defend himself against the lawsuit, though he can’t “afford legal protection.”

“It’s sad that we live in a world where people are bullied and pushed around just for speaking their mind.”

It marks the ninth lawsuit Marineland has launched in the past four years.

Niagara Falls animal activist Mike Garrett, who is being sued by the park for $1.5 million, calls it “disgusting” the park would use Ontario’s court system to sue a teenaged marine biology student bringing attention to Kiska, Canada’s only captive killer whale.

“What’s next, will they sue an eight-year-old girl who writes a poem about captive belugas?,” he says. “I think this is part of a wider legal strategy Marineland is attempting to employ where they are trying to keep any video or photos taken inside the park under their copyright control, and prevent the public from seeing anything that could damage their brand.”

In 2013, the park sued Garrett for $1 million in general damages and $500,000 in punitive damages after a series of protests. It is still unresolved.

When contacted Thursday, Marineland issued a statement saying Kiska is “healthy and extremely well cared for,” and was recently inspected by independent investigators.

While the park “encourages our guests to take as many personal photos as they wish,” it resents its intellectual property being used for a “propaganda film.”

“Like every private person or business in Canada, Marineland objects to the unlicensed and illegal theft of its images to make money.

“Marineland does not object to the fair expression of opinion by anyone and fully supports free speech. Marineland does not support illegal and/or defamatory conduct.”

Marineland opens for its 55th season on May 21.