When Will It End?
A Commentary by Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper
Posted May 22nd, 2018 on Niagara At Large
“Attempts to defend amusement parks and circuses on the grounds that they ‘educate’ people about animals should not be taken seriously. Such enterprises are part of the commercial entertainment industry. The most important lesson they teach impressionable young minds is that it is acceptable to keep animals in captivity for human amusement.” – the late American folk singer Peter Seeger
Just as he was when he sang and spoke about war and peace, about civil rights for all, about fair wages for workers and about keeping poisons out of our lakes and rivers, Pete was right about this too.
There are other ways we can learn more and celebrate the majesty of these beings we share the miracle of a few moments on this earth with.
There are responsible whale watching journeys we can take off the shores of the east and west coasts, and there are libraries of very good film documentaries and photo books we can turn to.
For at least some of us who have spent time on a whale watching boat and have experience the awe of whales gliding and breaching in an open sea that is their home, it is impossible to imagine how anyone can find any pleasure of seeing these magnificent mammals held captive in a tank.
Yet even now, some three decades after the first animal activists began picketing outside its gates, people were still out there on this long weekend of May, streaming through those gates at Marineland, just as people were when this amusement park in Niagara Falls, Ontario, with its marine mammal shows and exhibits, first opened at the head of the 1960s.
On the Saturday of this May long weekend in 2018 –opening day of Marineland’s 57th season – somewhere between one and two hundred members of animal advocacy groups from across southern Ontario lined the shoulder of road in front of the park.
They held up signs with captions like; ‘End Captivity’, ‘Animal Exploitation is not Education’, and ‘A Pool is not a Home’, and called out to people, including parents and their children, to “turn around” and not go in to the park.
Among them was one of the stalwarts of the animal advocacy movement in Ontario, Catherine Ens who is a leading member of a long-time group of stalwarts called Niagara Action for Animals or NAfA, for short.
“NAfA has been campaigning at Marineland for almost 30 years, and I keep going because it is a local issue that I feel we can have some impact on it,” Ens told me after this first of a string of rallies planned for this season wrapped up.
“Any wild-caught or even captive-bred animal doesn’t deserve a life in captivity,” Ens said, “and I hope that we can help bring about some change.”
Also at the rally was Phil Demers, a former Marineland animal trainer, and one in a line of former trainers who have gone public over the years with concerns about the welfare of animals in the park.
Demers has been living with a $1.5-million lawsuit Marineland filed against him and others more than five years ago for allegedly hurting the park’s business with his whistleblowing activities that included statements attributed to him, in a 2012 series of articles in The Toronto Star, about health issues and living conditions for animals in the park.
He was also accused of trespassing onto Marineland property during a closing day, 2012 rally of activists in front of the park, and of allegedly planning to steal a walrus named Smooshi, who he developed a close bond with while still working at Marineland.
“The notion that I’m ‘plotting’ to steal Smooshi is absurd,” Demers was quoted saying in a February, 2013 story in The Toronto Star. “I also doubt my second floor apartment would hold a walrus.”
In the same story, he was quoted saying; “I look forward to defending myself” against the lawsuit in court
More than five years later, at the Saturday, May 19th rally in front of Marineland, Phil Demers told me is still waiting for his day in court because he is convinced he can successfully defend himself against any and all allegations of wrongdoing – but there has been some holdup, he said, of testimony or evidence being submitted to the courts on the Marineland side.
Demers also told me he is determined to see it through until justice is done, despite the toll the long ordeal has taken on him and his loved ones, and on moving forward with his personal and working life.
“I am not going away,” he assured me.
One would think that the owner or owners of Marineland – if they are as confident in their case as they apparently were when they filed the suit – would want to get it over with too.
And speaking of owners, the number one owner and founder of Marineland, John Holer, often stressed during the times I had opportunities to do face-to-face, sit-down interviews with him in the 1980s and 90s that he took excellent care of all the animals in his park.
He’d be a “fool” not to, he told me, because the animals cost him money and they are making him money. And besides, he reasoned, people would not be coming to Marineland in the tens-of-thousands each year if the animals were being mistreated.
Those throngs of people, Holer would also never forget to tell me, keep coming to the park because he is giving them an experience that they want.
That brings me back to the statement from Pete Seeger that I began with about the kind of lessons that amusement parks and circus that keep animals teach us, from an early age, about our relationship with these great creatures.
It also brings me back to the message I have been delivering in commentaries I have written for more years than I care to count about places like Marineland.
We can vilify the owners and operate these places as much as we want, and there are enough people out there doing that.
Yet at the end of the day, it is all of the people who keep paying at the gates to get in that keep places that hold animals in captivity for whatever entertainment or educational value they think comes with the price of admission going.
Is this what so many of us want? Is this the way we really want to relate to other creatures on this earth that we say we care about and have respect for?
“I definitely think that there is more awareness about captive animals in general and places like Marineland in particular,” said Catherine Ens at the end of the May 19th rally in front of the park.
“I believe that is being borne out just by the numbers of people who are willing to come out and protest the situation at Marineland,” she said, and “we see it in other issues such as the travelling circuses; many of which no longer use ‘wild’ animals or domestic animals either.”
“There has definitely been an awakening to this issue.”
At long last – after all of these years – let’s hope so.
(One Quick Footnote Here – I feel moved to give a shout out to members of the Niagara Regional Police Service who were at the scene of the May 19th rally. They performed their duties in a very fair and professional manner for everyone concerned -for those driving by the Marineland property, for the park’s owners and operators, and for visitors going to the park’s gates, and for the many animal activists participating in the rally.
You deserve our thanks and respect – Doug Draper)
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