09/17/2012 10:27 EDT | Updated 11/17/2012 05:12 EST

Former Marineland workers say Ontario needs rules to govern zoos, aquariums

TORONTO - Ontario needs regulations to protect animals at zoos and aquariums, former workers at Marineland in Niagara Falls said Monday as they delivered a petition with 77,000 signatures urging the government to take immediate action.

"Our best interests at Marineland was to care for these animals, but sadly over the years things got systematically worse and worse, at least in my personal experience," said Phil Demers, a former animal trainer at the popular tourist attraction.

In addition to dolphins, sea lions, walruses and whales, Marineland is also home to bears, elk and deer, which the former employees say are housed in pens that in no way represent a natural habitat for the animals.

Watching dolphins swimming with their eyes squeezed shut because their water filtration system had broken down and was not repaired was heart breaking, added Demers.

"My job went from trying to stimulate the minds and keep these animals healthy to administering appetite stimulants just so they’ll eat to get the medications that they needed in response to the problem," he said.

"Sadly my heart is a big one, and it continues to break."

Jim Hammond said he quit after 11 years at Marineland because he could no longer stand to see animals not being properly cared for and housed in inappropriate settings.

"One morning I walked in and filled out my slip, walked up to the administration building and handed it in, knowing that I had failed, at that point, to do what’s right for the animals," Hammond said as he choked back tears.

"We need laws that are provincially governed. We can’t stand for laws that are local."

Marineland declined to comment Monday, saying it wanted to wait until the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums completed a joint investigation and released the results of their inspections.

Dr. June Mergl, the head of Marineland's veterinary services, has previously denied the allegations, saying the animals receive quality care.

Premier Dalton McGuinty said Monday he too wants to wait to hear from the experts, but he expects the government will eventually move to regulate zoos and aquariums.

"We think the responsible thing to do, in addition to acknowledging the concerns expressed through those petitions, is to wait for the investigation to be completed and see what recommendations come to the fore as a result of that," said McGuinty.

"My sense is we’re going to have to do something, but I think we should wait for the expert body to weigh in on this."

PC Leader Tim Hudak said the legislature has more important issues to deal with than zoos and aquariums, such as jobs and the economy.

However, the New Democrats said regulations to protect the animals were needed immediately.

"How can we as a society put regulations on individual pet owners, but not on companies which use animals for entertainment," asked New Democrat Cheri DiNovo.

Zoocheck Canada said anyone can open a zoo or aquarium in Ontario without facing regulations or standards to protect the animals or the staff, and can import exotic animals like tigers without permits.

"You don’t require any expertise, any training, any experience with regard to the handling and care of wild animals or the safety of wild animals," said Zoocheck director Ron Laidlaw.

"There are no regular inspections, and there’s no way to close a zoo...no matter how bad it is."

Hammond said he was disheartened when he worked at Marineland to see management get advance warnings of inspections.

"When I was at Marineland it was always very disappointing to hear that we were getting a call from the Humane Society, maybe a day or two days in advance, before they showed up to do their investigation,"he said.

"We can’t rely on organizations like this to do the right job."