Vancouver Aquarium seals allegedly left blind or dead after transfer to other facility
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.
Apr 28, 2014 at 6:37pm
Sorry but how is this germane to the current debate about this issue? This transfer happened over 9 years ago and the Straight has gotten around to publishing it now. Y'all even marketed it as breaking news - with the whole this just in click bait. Once again anyone educated on the issue would know that either of the parties mentioned have no influence on the process of whether an animal can be reintroduced into the wild.
Apr 28, 2014 at 6:47pm
Terrible! I had thought that the aquarium should be kept as a rescue facility for rehabilitating injured sea animals, but now after reading this I agree that this should be stopped at least in a public show forum. Perhaps another site like Bamfield could be used for rehabilitating.
That the Vancouver Aquarium care so little that they ship the seals and whales around in itself seems awful, but to not take action when the know there is suffering is unforgivable.
I support the city and the major in stopping the display of whales, dolphins and seals and other sea animals like this
peter kaplansky @p33tzmusik @seashepherdglobal @stoptaijinow
Apr 28, 2014 at 7:18pm
thank you Georgia Straight, the coverage of the Aquarium (ESPECIALLY THE ONE AND ONLY VANCOUVER ROCKSTAR: MARLEY D (VANCOUVER ANIMAL DEFENCE LEAGUE) and this sad but true event, the aquarium pretty much just FREED OUR (not their) BEAUTIFUL FRIENDS THERE LIKE JACK AND DAISY and those 2 beautiful belugas - SEASHEPHERD GLOBAL THANKS YOU< AND OBVIOUSLY THE UNITED NATIONS (as they support everything that seashepherd stands for: our clients: the whales, seals, dolphins and everything in the sea.
'33' - Protection, Defence, Outreach, Support, and Conservation of Animal Activists (global CEO). @PDCAA
Apr 28, 2014 at 7:23pm
The Vancouver Aquarium is complicit in this crime. They know fully well the terrible reputation and care afforded the animals at Marineland.
Harbour seals can easily re-adapt back to the wild, even after many years in captivity.
It sounds very much like the Vancouver Aquarium has been selling seals for profit and I wonder how many others have been shipped away from their rehabilitation program.
While the Vancouver Aquarium doesn't acknowledge Marineland and its population of Beluga's, which is more than all the Beluga's held captive in facilities within North America,they don't seem to mind selling a few seals to John Holer and his nightmare for animals.
Apr 28, 2014 at 8:03pm
At this point, I am not aware of any information that would indicate that money changed hands in the transfer of the seals to Marineland.
Apr 28, 2014 at 8:07pm
That picture is horrifying. That's where Marineland sent the seals to get better?!
Captivity is not okay.
Apr 28, 2014 at 8:21pm
This is atrocious and so incredibly heartbreaking. We have no place holding these marine mammals captive. The aquarium expansion needs to come to a halt, this "rehabilitation" is just a cash grab in disguise.
Apr 28, 2014 at 8:23pm
None of the articles you provide links to, contain any connection between the Vancouver Aquarium and the seals at Marineland. I am curious how you made such a connection since it is not obvious to me.
Apr 28, 2014 at 8:39pm
Thank you for exposing some more of the Vancouver Aquarium's Dirty Big Secrets. I have found several over the years and it is very secretive so whenever uncovered it is Breaking News!
Here is some more history of the Vancouver Aquarium “rescue” mistakes: Rehab 101 http://lifeforcefoundation.org/ecotv_play.php?id=48
Apr 28, 2014 at 9:02pm
Hi @JK, thanks for your comment. None of the articles that I provided links to discuss connections between the seals at Marineland and the Vancouver Aquarium because these connections were not previously known. That's why I wrote this article. The connections are what is news.
The Vancouver Aquarium did not respond to my request for an interview. They could have, and in that interview they could have denied a link, if one does not exist. It's likely telling that the Aquarium did not respond to my request for information about these animals.
I interviewed the three trainers separately. All three of their stories matched in every detail they provided.
The Marineland seals' connection to the Vancouver Aquarium is also mentioned here: http://mlcfans.tumblr.com/post/32235250862, though I didn't deem that link (and several others like it) credible enough to include in this article.