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Taking on Marineland

By: 
Evan Johnston

May 25, 2013

If you've grown up in Ontario, you know Marineland as the amusement park with the affectionate orcas and infectious jingle. But amidst the growing controversy surrounding the park's operations, its slogan - "everyone loves Marineland!" - is starting to sound more like a desperate plea than a statement of fact.
 
Marineland, located in Niagara Falls, Ontario, is well known for its exhibits of marine mammals such as orcas, beluga whales, sea lions, and dolphins, as well as non-marine mammals such as bears, deer, elk and buffalo. These days, it's also becoming increasingly known as the site of evictions and suicide, of persecution of former employees and journalists, and - at the centre of it all - of cruelty toward its captive animals.
 
On Saturday, May 18, approximately 1,000 people arrived outside Marineland's newly planted perimeter fence to protest the injustices being perpetrated against humans and non-humans alike by Marineland president and owner, John Holer. It was a diverse crowd, made up of kids, teachers, animal rights activists and organizations, former employees of Marineland, members of the 47 families that were evicted by John Holer, and members of the surrounding community.
 
It was was the largest demonstration against Marineland to date, and the second largest animal rights protest in Canadian history. The last demonstration at Marineland was on its closing day in October, which pulled approximately 800 people.
 
Saturday's demonstration also fulfilled the ambition of a young animal rights advocate, Vijay Singh, by breaking a Guinness World Record for most folded origami whales for public display. In Japanese folklore, if you fold 1,000 origamis, you are granted one wish. With just under 3,000 origami whales on display, it looks as though Vijay’s wish - to free the animals at Marineland - is within reach.
 
Who is John Holer?
 
The man Vijay would be freeing them from would be John Holer, a name familiar to those living in Niagara Falls. Holer, the owner of Marineland since its opening in 1961, is no stranger to controversy. The Toronto Star reported that in 1977, "the US Department of Fisheries seized six bottlenose dolphins caught by Holer in the Gulf of Mexico." Since that time, he's faced countless accusations of animal mistreatment from activists and employees alike.
 
Most recently, in 2012, the Toronto Star published a special series of articles that explored accusations of animals mistreatment and poor water conditions leading to illness at Marineland facilities. Later in 2012, John Holer was accused by a former employee of shooting a baby deer in the throat and leaving it to choke to death. In March, Holer was accused by local residents of shooting two Labradour Retrivers that belonged to a family living on a neighbouring property.
 
Throughout all of it, Holer has proven himself to be a latter-day King Midas, albeit with a touch that's more rotten than golden. He seems to posses the uncanny ability to piss off nearly everyone he comes into contact with, and in the process, he's created a perfect storm of resistance.
 
Marineland Animal Defense (M.A.D.)
 
The May 18 demonstration was organized by Marineland Animal Defense (M.A.D.), which describes itself as a "campaign of concerned citizens determined to end animal captivity at Marineland." The four goals of its campaign are to (1) end breeding programs at Marineland, (2) end plans for expansion of animal captivity, (3) remove captive animals to Sanctuary sites, and (4) hold Marineland and John Holer accountable for various abuses, human and non human.
 
According to M.A.D., "Since 1992, 14 orcas have died while in Marineland’s care. Causes of death have ranged from drowning and twisted intestines to meningitis and immuno-deficiency."
 
"In addition to problems caring for marine mammals, Marineland also houses bears and deer in deplorable conditions. The deer have been observed for decades as having open wounds and tumours, while the bears have been reduced to begging for food from complicit tourists. They do not receive any veterinary care from the park, and an ex-employee has stated that he witnessed John Holer shooting deer himself."
 
An ongoing investigation by the Toronto Star has corroborated these and similar claims through interviews with former Marineland trainers. The Star investigation prompted the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) to conduct an on-site inspection, but was rather predictably "bogged down into a bureaucratic battle," the Star reported. Similarly, the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) reported in December that Marineland was two months behind in ordering an independent assessment of its "problematic" water. However, M.A.D. notes that CAZA functions more or less a PR front group for the self-regulating captive animal industry, while the OSPCA not only lacks jurisdiction, but is ill-equipped to carry out thorough inspections.
 
In Janauary, in response to the discovery of mass graves, the Ontario Ministry of Environment ordered Marineland to stop burying dead animals on its grounds immediately.
 
After numerous delays, Marineland appears to have made some progress on a few of the concerns that have been raised, and have been rather quick to broadcast their progress through a new PR blitz. But Dylan Powell, one of M.A.D.'s main organizers, stresses that M.A.D. "is not a reform campaign." While any improvement to the living conditions of Marineland's captive animals are welcomed, such reforms fail to address the root cause of the poor living conditions that are endemic to the animals at Marineland: namely, the act of holding animals in captivity for profit. As one banner at the demonstration succinctly put it: "Captivity kills."
 
According to Powell, the campaign against Marineland is about "making Marineland unprofitable." Thus, they have focused their efforts on having regular information pickets outside Marineland in order to discourage attendance, and to provide instructions to parents and kids on how to oppose school field trips. M.A.D. has also been winning a decisive battle in the PR war, with the campaign employing innovative social media strategies such as its recent thunderclap (a "crowd-speaking" technique that sent out a timed Facebook post or tweet from all their supporters simultaneously).
 
The Displacement of Green Oaks
 
But as I learned on Saturday, the fight against John Holer isn't only about captive animals. On Feb 23, 2009, 47 families living in the Green Oaks Mobile Home Park - a property adjacent to Marineland - were given notice from John Holer that their leases were being terminated. They were given 18 months to re-locate their mobile homes.
 
However, despite the "mobile" in the name, many of the trailers had been in place for more than 40 years and could not be moved, and doing so was a process that was far too expensive for many of the people who lived in them. According to the City of Niagara Falls, mobile homes are considered a "Permanent Residence," and it's on these very grounds that the families have waged their legal fight against Holer.
 
According to Brian Topolinsky, the creator of the website GOHomeless.ca and a member of one of the families evicted from Green Oaks, the residents were continually harassed by John Holer in the lead-up to the evictions, and he was reported to have driven around the park four or five times a day.
 
The evictions have resulted in many of the families being pushed into bankruptcy.
 
On March 11, 2011, after the Landlord and Tenant Board sided with Marineland, the last remaining tenant, Paula Millard, committed suicide in her home. Millard was in her 60s, and couldn't afford to re-locate. In a suicide note left on the wall of her home, she wrote: "A blessing on John Holer. May you get exactly what you deserve - 10 fold."
 
"If this is how he treats humans," said Brian, "imagine how he treats the animals?"
 
Holer purchased the land in 2003, and according to official Marineland press releases, they intended to use that land to build maintenance and support units to accommodate the expansion of the park. As of May 2013, the land remains empty.
 
"I'll never let it go," Brian said. "I want my story to be told."
 
Unity in struggle
 
The fight against John Holer and Marineland remains a difficult one. To say that Holer has many ties within the business community in Niagara Falls is an understatement, and he certainly has the money and resources to intimidate his critics. Holer has filed lawsuits against Dylan Powell, ex-trainers Phil Demers and Christine Santos, the Toronto Star, and two of its reporters. Powell considers the lawsuits to be SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuit against public participation), which are thin on substance but have the effect of silencing and intimidating those who can't afford the legal fees.
 
When I asked Phil Demers what the movement needs most right now, he responded: "money".
 
Not surprisingly, the SLAPP suits aren't having the effect John Holer intended, and has instead served to solidify the links between the three seperate groups: the 47 families, Marineland Animal Defense (M.A.D.), and the ex-trainers. "Unity helped all of us," said Brian, and he notes that it took the courage of the ex-trainers to reveal what everyone had already suspected and to spearhead the resistance.
 
As Phil puts it, "we are together because we are united against injustice."
 
In the process of fighting together, each group has helped to inform the ideas of the other. Brian indicated to me that at the outset, he wasn't particularly interested in the topic of animal rights. But ideas change through struggle, and in the process of working together with M.A.D. and the ex-trainers, he's come to see what their struggles have in common: a fight against greed, injustice, and cruelty.
 
For Dylan Powell, the strength of the movement lies in the fact that it's "about grassroots, face to face organizing." In other words, "it's about people power." And judging by the 1,000 people I saw around me on Saturday, I'd say he's right.
 
To donate or find out more about about the campaign, visit marinelandanimaldefense.com. To find out more about the 47 evicted families, visit gohomeless.ca.
 
If you like this article, register now for Marxism 2013: Revolution In Our Time, a weekend-long conference of ideas to change the world. Sessions include "Solidarity against austerity: lessons from the front lines", "Energy revolution and social revolution" and "Marx's ecology."

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