Documentary star urges Ontario to strengthen animal protection
Tourists line up at a viewing area to see two Marineland attractions, a Killer Whale calf swimnming with its mother and a small pod of Beluga Whales in Niagara Falls, Ont. on Wednesday, July 18, 2001. (The Canadian Press/Scott Dunlop)
TORONTO -- The star of an Academy Award-winning documentary on dolphin abuse is urging Ontario to enact laws to protect captive animals, including those at Marineland.
Ric O'Barry, a former dolphin trainer turned animal activist, is lending his support to Zoocheck Canada and former park employees who allege animals at the Niagara Falls tourist attraction aren't properly cared for.
Asked how it measured up to other parks he's seen outside Canada, O'Barry, who has not visited Marineland since the 1990s, responded: "Relative to progressive countries, very civilized countries, yeah, Marineland is the worst by far."
Countries like Guatamala, Brazil and Haiti are ahead of Canada in terms of protection laws for marine mammals, he said.
"For a country as advanced as Canada to not have offered any protection whatsoever is just shocking," he added.
O'Barry, who trained dolphins that were used in the TV show "Flipper" in the 1960s, became a critic of captivity after the death of Kathy, one of the dolphins.
His efforts to raise public awareness and stop mass dolphin kills in Japan was documented in the film "The Cove," which won an Oscar in 2010.
O'Barry said problems at Marineland have come up repeatedly over the years. This time, he hopes the public will put pressure on the government to make some changes.
Parents should do it for their children, who are witnessing a "spectacle of dominance" at these parks, he said.
Whales and dolphins are confined to small spaces -- basically a "bare concrete box" -- with no connection to their natural environment, he said.
Parks like Marineland should be abolished and the captive animals allowed to live out their lives in dignity, he said.
"So if you don't want to do it for the animals here in Canada, do it for your kids," O'Barry said.
"Pass some kind of legislation, something to offer some kind of protection. There is none here, none whatsoever."
The rules in Ontario are so lax, anyone can acquire animals and set up a zoo in their backyard, said Rob Laidlaw, executive director of Zoocheck Canada.
"The regulations as they stand now are vague, they are weak," he said.
"Nothing is defined in the regulations and they need to be upgraded."
The groups delivered a petition with 77,000 signatures to the legislature in an effort to spur the government to take immediate action.
Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur said members of her staff are reviewing the law and will amend it if necessary.
Both the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals launched investigations after the former employees complained that poor water quality and other issues was risking the health of the animals.
CAZA said it found no major issues at the park. The water quality was very good, the animals looked fine and it was clear there was adequate veterinary and other staff care for the animals.
The only problem was an issue with the maintenance of the water management system, but Marineland agreed to have an independent assessment of their systems and unannounced inspections by CAZA in the future.
Marineland couldn't be reached for comment Friday. But in a statement Oct. 3, it said while it was "very difficult and personally upsetting" for many Marineland staff to see these issues raised through the media, their primary concern is to provide a safe and healthy environment for their animals.
The OSPCA is continuing its investigation, but in a recent update said it identified "some areas of concern."
It noted that any animal that's under the care of a licensed veterinarian is exempt under the law and can't be investigated.
But Meilleur said that's not a loophole, because vets are obligated to report any mistreatment under the law.
They're also required to report mistreatment under their professional code of conduct and can face penalties if they fail to do so, she said.
"If there is any need to amend the legislation, we will," she said Thursday.
Marineland will close Monday for the season, but O'Barry said he hopes the issue will remain alive so places like Marineland close for good.
He said he'll join others, including New Democrat Cheri DiNovo, who plan to protest outside the park on Sunday.
"There's nothing wrong with abolishing that kind of cruelty," he said.
"When that level of cruelty is absolute, we should oppose it absolutely. There's nothing radical about that."