The Vancouver Aquarium sent five harbour seals to a facility in Ontario long condemned by animal-welfare advocates, the Straight has learned.
One of the seals is dead and four are allegedly blind after being exposed to poor water conditions at the aquarium named Marineland Canada.
According to three former Marineland employees interviewed separately for this story, the animals were transferred to that facility from the Vancouver Aquarium in 2005.
The seals arrived at the Niagara Falls aquarium without apparent injury or illness, except for one animal, which employees were told may have a neurological condition, the trainers maintained.
The seals allegedly later suffered from poor water chemistry involving spikes in chlorine and ozone levels. That incident was highlighted in an investigation by the Toronto Star; Marineland has denied claims made in those stories. One of the seals, named Pepper, has passed away. The other four, named Rolo, Curry, Poppy, and Squamish, went blind.
Today the surviving seals remain at Marineland where they are sometimes on display for the public.
Marineland refutes accusations regarding poor water quality. According to an April 24, 2013, notice posted on its website, an independent investigation by Stantec found Marineland’s water management system was “suitable for maintaining water quality parameters for the species and number of marine mammals under human care and are capable of providing an appropriate environment.”
Update: This article is subject to legal action by Marineland.
According to an amended statement of claim dated October 2, 2014, none of the animals in question incurred harm as a result the treatment they received while in the care of Marineland.
"The seal did not die as alleged, and the seals were not blinded at all as a consequence of their treatment by Marineland," the document states.
Philip Demers worked as a senior trainer at Marineland for 12 years before parting ways in 2012. He told the Straight that it was “common knowledge” among staff that the water in which the animals were kept was adversely affecting their health.
“There was an incident where they were exposed to what was obviously dangerous amounts of ozone,” Demers said in a telephone interview. “They were not eating anymore, and their fur was falling out, really aggressively—it was really scary. Their eyes were always clenched shut and everything.”
He emphasized that the seals were healthy when they arrived at Marineland, adding that he felt they could have been released into the wild.
“They didn’t need medication and their feeding was fine,” he said. “You could argue that they became dependent on being hand-fed. But they weren’t hand-fed then. When we got them, you had to throw fish to them….They initially wanted nothing to do with us. They were healthy when they came in.”
Interview requests left with the Vancouver Aquarium and Marineland Canada were not returned by deadline.
According to an April 26, 2013, Marineland media release, an investigation conducted by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals deemed the aquarium’s water system to be “world class”. That review also examined the eyes of Marineland’s pinnipeds, and found a problem with one sea lion’s eyes to be age-related; no significant problems with the aquarium’s seals were reported.
Update: An amended statement of claim filed by Marineland takes issue with Demers' reliability as a commenter in this matter. It states that Demers "has no formal education or qualifications that would permit him or the defendants [the Georgia Straight] to reasonably rely on Demers' allegations regarding water quality, water chemistry, ozone, chlorine, the health of any animal, the cause of any animal's condition, if any, or any matter that is normally addressed by a veterinarian".
On April 25, the Vancouver Aquarium posted a video on YouTube in which vice president Clint Wright emphasized the aquarium’s history of rescuing animals found sick or injured in B.C. waters.
“The goal of our marine mammal rehabilitation program that’s been running for about 50 years now is to try and get these animals that come into our centre turned around, get them well, and get them back into the wild,” he says.
Update: The Vancouver Aquarium has responded to this article on Twitter, describing it as “inaccurate”, and refuting claims that the seals in question are blind. The aquarium’s tweet includes a link to a Marineland media release, which states that a 2012-13 investigation by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found no evidence of animal abuse.
On May 1, 2014, Vancouver Aquarium CEO John Nightingale refuted claims made by Demers and others quoted in this article. “I don’t believe those seals are blind," he said speaking on CKNW.
Demers’s version of events was supported by Brendan Kelly, who held a number of positions at Marineland between 2006 and 2012, and by Angela Bentivegna, a former Marineland trainer who worked at the facility from 2004 to 2008.
Kelly told the Straight that he never understood why the five harbour seals were at Marineland in the first place.
“The story that I was told is that they came from the Vancouver Aquarium, and that the Vancouver Aquarium had apparently rescued them to be rehabilitated,” he said in a telephone interview. “That’s the story they told us to tell the public, anyway.”
Kelly questioned why the rehabilitated animals weren’t returned to the wild. “I think they could have been released,” he said.
Bentivegna similarly maintained that the Vancouver seals were in good health when they arrived at Marineland.
“They looked healthy, happy, and normal, with the exception of Rolo,” she said. “But with the other ones, there were no indications that they were sick or injured or anything like that.”
For years, there have been concerns around animal welfare at Marineland.
In 2009, Sea World—the subject of a documentary called Blackfish that calls attention to its treatment of orca whales—sued Marineland in an effort to repatriate a whale it had on loan there. According to court documents, Sea World officials were concerned about the level of care its animal was receiving. More recently, a lengthy investigation by the Toronto Star revealed a litany of welfare concerns raised by a number of former employees.
All three ex-trainers interviewed by the Straight said that they were not aware of Vancouver Aquarium officials ever contacting Marineland about the seals’ health, despite the matter repeatedly being brought to the public’s attention.
The issue of marine mammal captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium is scheduled to go before the park board tonight (April 28), and to city council tomorrow (April 29). Earlier this month, Mayor Gregor Robertson stated publicly that he opposes cetacean captivity.
At the centre of the debate are two dolphins and two beluga whales held in tanks in Stanley Park, plus an additional three whales the aquarium has on loan to Sea World facilities in the United States. It’s unknown how many smaller animals, like the five Marineland seals, that the Vancouver Aquarium has out on loan to other facilities.
Vancouver park board commissioner Sarah Blyth told the Straight that these revelations raise questions about the aquarium’s claims it focuses on rescue and rehabilitation efforts.
“As a commissioner, I’m concerned about policies around the rescue and release of wildlife, and how we decide that animals can’t be released,” Blyth said. “How do we decide that animals should move to another aquarium? How do we do the transfer? Are they sold, borrowed, or traded? That’s a curiosity that I think we need to know.”
Blyth also asked why nothing was done to help the seals after it came to light that they were not doing well at Marineland.
A $100-million expansion is currently underway at the Vancouver Aquarium. Those plans include an enlargement of aquatic tanks to accommodate additional dolphins and a breeding program for beluga whales.
The Vancouver Aquarium and Marineland are two of the only facilities in Canada still holding whales and dolphins in captivity.