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Practical Issues > Animals Used for Entertainment > Zoos - Index

SLAPP-HAPPY ZOO MASTERS?
By John Sorenson*

Do you care about freedom of speech? Are you disturbed by animal suffering?

If you answered "yes" to either question, recent events in Niagara Falls should be of concern to you.

Marineland, the "theme park" that displays captive marine mammals in Niagara Falls, is attempting to silence criticism of their operations by suing Niagara Action For Animals, a small, non-profit, grass-roots animal protection group.  On July 27, 2003 Marineland's high-priced legal team slammed NAFA with notice of a libel suit claiming $250,000 in punitive damages and seeking an injunction that would stop NAFA from publishing any of the statements made against Marineland.  The case is based on a letter sent by NAFA to a Niagara Falls car dealership, Autoland Chrysler, politely requesting a meeting so that NAFA could explain their case against the dealership's plan to stage a Christmas party at Marineland.  NAFA's position is that no libel was committed since the statements made about conditions at the amusement park are true and Marineland suffered no economic loss since Autoland went ahead with its party.

NAFA sees Marineland's legal action as an attempt to use the courts to limit freedom of speech. In the St. Catharines Standard  and the Niagara Falls Review (May 27, 2004) John Law of the Osprey News Network quotes NAFA spokesperson Dan Wilson: "We all believe in standing up and speaking out for the animals. NAFA has done just that and now a big corporation is trying to silence us through bankruptcy." This is a tactic that has been widely used by large corporate polluters against environmentalist groups.

These tactics have become so prevalent that two professors at the University of Colorado, George Pring and Penelope Canan have coined a term for them: Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP).  They suggest that SLAPPs are not usually intended to reach the courts (where they typically lose) but are designed to silence criticism through legal intimidation.  The goal is to limit public debate and to allow corporations to continue their activities without restriction.  In his book Green Backlash, Andrew Rowell notes that corporations have launched thousands of SLAPPs, targeting people for attending meetings, signing petitions, reporting violations of pollution laws, writing letters to local newspapers, testifying in public hearings or supporting boycotts.  These tactics obviously pose a serious danger to democratic freedoms that we all value, such as the right to express our opinions and to speak out against injustices.

SLAPPs have come to Canada, too. For example, in 1990 Ogden Martin company threatened to sue for defamation 52 doctors who expressed concern over the impact of a waste incinerator in Orillia; the Ontario Medical Association passed a resolution defending the doctors for speaking out on behalf of public health and Ogden Martin did not proceed with the charges.  Since the majority of SLAPPs are clearly frivolous and obviously designed to intimidate critics rather than to address any real legal issues, activists and their lawyers have started to strike back and the courts seem to be supporting them. In 1991, one activist in Missouri was awarded an $86.5 million judgment against an incinerator company that had wrongfully launched a SLAPP against her.  Shell Oil had to pay out $5.2 million for wrongfully suing Raymond Leonardini who had questioned carcinogenity of plastic pipes used by the corporation.  The most famous case, of course, is the McLibel Trial in which McDonald's fast food corporation sued a postal worker and a gardener in London (Helen Steel and Dave Morris). The two and a half year case became the longest trial in England. In 1997, the judge ruled that McDonald's 'exploit children' with 'misleading' advertising, are 'culpably responsible' for cruelty to animals, are 'antipathetic' to unionization and pay their workers low wages. Although the judge ruled that the two activists had not proved all their points and should pay damages, they refused to do so and, reeling from the negative publicity, McDonald's did not pursue it. In 1999 the Court of Appeal made further rulings against McDonald's concerning heart disease and employment.  Due to the publicity surrounding the court case, the Anti-McDonald's campaign became an international movement, resulting in books and a documentary film.  Steel and Morris continued their campaign and have taken the British Government to the European Court of Human Rights to defend the public's right to criticize multinationals, claiming British libel laws are unfair. Those who make valid criticisms of powerful corporations should not have to fear retaliation in court.  This is one reason why Marineland's efforts to silence NAFA should be of concern to all Canadians, even those who are not distressed about mistreatment of animals.

Of course, here the question arises: do the claims made by NAFA have validity?

In general, the practices of capturing and displaying marine mammals have been extensively criticized.  Dolphins and whales are intelligent, sensitive animals that live within complex societies.  Methods of capture are often violent and many animals are accidentally killed in the process or die in transport.  Removing individuals from their families and social groups is stressful for the captured individuals as well as for those who manage to escape.  Captivity has a radical effect on these animals. In their natural environment they dive deeply and travel vast distances. No tank in an amusement park can duplicate these conditions.  As well, these animals navigate their natural world through echolocation, the use of sound waves.  In a small tank, this would be maddening. Writing for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society in the U.K.,Vanessa Williams compares this to what a human being would experience if confined to a lifetime in a hall of mirrors.  Removed from their rich ecosystem and complex social world, captive dolphins and whales are imprisoned in a miniscule alien environment, bombarded with strange sounds, fed an artificial diet, forced to perform unnatural activities and subjected to the stressful proximity of hordes of tourists.  Most live drastically shortened lives. It is impossible to imagine anything remotely attractive or entertaining in all of this.

In particular, Marineland has been widely criticized by international animal protection groups. Established in the 1960s, Marineland seems like a relic from a more distant past, with its sad displays of imprisoned animals.  Safety and health conditions have been widely criticized and many simply don't survive their captivity. As NAFA stated in their letter to Autoland Chrysler, 23 dolphins and 10 orcas have died at Marineland.

Zoocheck Canada's comprehensive 1998 report Distorted Nature: Exposing the Myth of Marineland outlines many of the problems with Marineland.  Based on investigations carried out by 13 scientific experts in a variety of disciplines such as aquarium animal husbandry, biology, conservation, ethology, marine mammal science, veterinary science, wildlife rehabilitation and zoology, the report expressed grave concerns about the welfare of animals held at Marineland, substandard public health and safety measures, the negative educational role played by the amusement park and the absence of any valid conservation activities. Zoocheck and other groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare also have criticized Marineland's importation of Russian beluga whales and bottlenose dolphins, after the Canadian government prohibited them from capturing these animals in Canadian waters.  Commenting on this in the Whales Alive newsletter in 2000, William Rossiter, President of the Cetacean Society International noted that "many people in the Canadian zoo/aquarium industry and government feel Marineland is an embarrassment" Speaking in the House of Commons on April 2, 2001, MP Libby Davis stated that Canada's lack of policy and regulation on capturing marine mammals had allowed unscrupulous operators to bypass stricter regulations in their own countries and that there was "no question" that Marineland had played a role in this, helping to undermine international protection.

Many parents and schools send children to Marineland believing they will learn something about animals and develop an appreciation for nature.

These are laudable goals but it seems unlikely they will be met at Marineland. For example, Dr. Naomi A. Rose, marine mammal scientist and coordinator of all marine mammal programs for the Humane Society of the United States describes the dolphin show as "almost devoid of biological information" and notes that the performance "would not meet the minimum professional educational standards required under the (American) Marine Mammal Protection Act."  Dr. Rose also found that enclosures for animals did not meet minimum standards for size and noted rust and chipping paint that affected water quality. Similarly, Dr. John Gripper, a veterinarian with over 30 years of international experience, an appointed zoo inspector in the U.K., and Advisory Director of the World Society for the Protection of Animals also found the animal enclosures too small and advised that Marineland "would fail an inspection under the standards of the U.K. Zoo Licensing Act".  Other scientists who contributed to the Zoocheck report came to similar conclusions.  Clearly, then, the only message that children will derive from a visit to Marineland is that it is ethically acceptable to imprison animals in unacceptable conditions and force them to do pathetic tricks for our entertainment.

Marine mammals are not the only animals imprisoned at Marineland. In a 2002 report for the World Society for the Protection of Animals and Zoocheck, Rob Laidlaw described how bears and deer are confined in wholly artificial, featureless environments that provide no stimulation, privacy or shelter and do not allow the animals to exercise their full range of natural behaviour and movement.  The bears, normally solitary in their natural environment and sensitive to auditory stimulation, are crowded together directly opposite what Marineland touts as the world's largest steel roller-coaster.

Clearly, the case raises important ethical and political questions.  Those who are concerned about freedom of speech and civil liberties in general and those who care about animals will be watching the case closely.  Public sympathy is more likely to be with a small group of volunteers who care deeply about animal welfare than with a large corporation that looks like it's trying to crush those same volunteers when they speak out against what they see as cruelty and injustice.  Certainly, the controversy will raise public awareness of what actually happens inside Marineland and, if the case does proceed to court, a great deal of previously unattainable information will be exposed about Marineland's operations, such as the number and causes of animal deaths and conditions inside the park.  In attempting to silence its critics, Marineland may be opening doors on secrets it has tried to hide for years.

* John Sorenson is a professor in the Department of Sociology at Brock University in St. Catharines, where he teaches courses on the role of animals in human societies.

 

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