News Index > Sortable News 10/06 - now > August 2012
Former Marineland staff 'sickened' by park's explanations
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August 20, 2012
Former Marineland employee Glen Owen is speaking out. He tells reporter Linda Diebel about some of what he witnessed during his time at the water park. Video by Rick Madonik.
By Linda Diebel - National Affairs Writer
Brendan Kelly left after his shift last week as MC of the stadium show at Marineland, and hasn't gone back. The grinning guy in the bright red shirt who invited children to feed the dolphins couldn't take it anymore.
"I can't go back now. I just can't face being that happy person, knowing what happens to the animals," said Kelly.
Kelly's last shift was last Tuesday. In a Star report on Wednesday, eight former Marineland employees told of recurring water problems at the park that left animals sick and suffering fur loss, skin conditions and eye problems, including blindness. The trainers blamed short-staffing for the death of Skoot, a baby beluga who died after an attack by adult male belugas over two hours on May 28, 2012.
In an interview, Kelly recounted incidents over six years (some of his time seasonal) as a marine mammal trainer, including a bad time with dolphins in October 2011. He was powerless, he said, to help five dolphins swimming in green water in the barn. After watching them breeching, chuffing (loudly exhaling) and "struggling to breathe," he went to his supervisor, only to be told nothing could be done.
VIDEO: Inside Marineland
Kelly said problems with Marineland animals continue behind the scenes. He said short-staffing means that Baker, a sea lion with severely damaged eye tissue, has forgotten the training that enabled him to open his eyes for drops to ease his pain.
"I tried to feed him in the aquarium and he knew I was there. He was looking for me and trying to find me but he couldn't," he said, of an episode this summer with the big sea lion. "He'd forgotten his training and was so disoriented; he couldn't go to his ‘station' for feeding.
"I threw the rules out the window and went to him, held out fish to him and let him take it. It's so sad."
Kelly said on his last day, there were two full-time trainers and "about seven relatively inexperienced seasonal staff" for 35 walruses, sea lions, seals and belugas in the barn, stadium and aquarium pools. That means the animals spend long hours unattended in pens and staffers barely have time to feed them, let alone provide attention, Kelly said.
Animals in the show are kept hungry to help them perform, he said.
The final straw in Kelly's decision to quit, he said, was hearing Marineland veterinarian June Mergl defend the treatment of animals at the facility. Mergl told Newstalk 1010 there are three veterinarians and a roster of international and national consultants at Marineland.
"I was sickened by the defence that came out of that park," Kelly said.
Kelly said that in his experience, Mergl works at the park only one day a week.
"Her comments about the sea lions simply being ‘elderly' also offend me," he said. "They may have been elderly but it's quite evident, especially with Baker, that they have suffered severe eye damage with relation to the water."
Former trainers say Marineland has only one full-time veterinarian.
The park did not respond to the Star's questions about veterinary staffing levels yesterday. "Rather than addressing your questions, our veterinary staff are focused on the care and well-being of our animals," marketing manager Ann Marie Rondinelli said in an email.
Mergl has not responded to repeated requests for an interview.
Veterinarians are not required to hold a special license to work with marine mammals. Mergl trained as a general vet in Virginia.
Rondinelli said the facility looks forward to the upcoming on-site inspection by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums and "welcome the opportunity to demonstrate the exemplary care our animals receive."
CAZA is a self-regulating industry organization. The Niagara Falls Humane Society, also part of the inspection, hasn't returned calls about a complaint about Marineland by Phil Demers, a trainer with 12 years' experience who left in May 2012.
Glen Owen, a marine mammal trainer from 2000-2007 (including seasonal), said understaffing and water problems go back years. He remembers getting sick during a period when trainers wore ozone detection tags, adding that effects were visible on animals who "just weren't themselves. You could tell they were suffering."
He said problems included eye and skin irritation and some animals lost the will to live. "I just reached a point where I couldn't do it anymore. It was taking more than I could give," he said.
According to several former trainers, harbour seal Larry, whose eyes were healthy when he arrived in 2004, eventually went blind after repeated exposure to unhealthy water. Mergl said the seal is not blind, but allergic to chlorine.
After the Star series last week, journalists were invited into Marineland to see Larry in his pen, as well as a couple of walruses.
The day before, said Kelly, Larry was, as usual, locked up in "dry dock"
in a pen without water access. So was walrus Zeus, who trainers say suffers
from regurgitation, exacerbated by the dual problems of unhealthy water and