05/03/2014 01:35 EDT | Updated 05/03/2014 11:59 EDT

Vancouver Aquarium Disputes Seals' Condition At Marineland

Philip Demers

The Vancouver Aquarium disagrees with a former animal trainer who says that seals transferred to an Ontario facility are in poor health.

Philip Demers says that he was a trainer at Marineland in Niagara Falls when five harbour seals arrived from Vancouver in 2005. In a blog on The Huffington Post Canada, Demers chronicles the agonizing death of one of the seals, named Poppy:

One morning we came into work to find Pepper lethargic, dry and refusing to eat. As we approached her we could see blood seeping through her skin. I recall someone leaning down and stroking her back. Her fur fell out in clumps everywhere that she was touched, revealing more irritated and bloody skin.

Her breathing was laboured and shallow. We frantically removed Pepper from the aquarium and brought her back to the barn for treatment. Once there we began to force-feed her frozen herring and inject her with antibiotics. She writhed in pain during the procedure, fighting hard to reject the fish. The procedure would prove futile, as it was already too late for Pepper. Her cause of death was explained to us to be ozone poisoning.

Demers, who quit Marineland in 2012, says the other seals exhibited the same symptoms, but eventually recovered. However, he says three of them now have "little to no eyesight remaining" and live in an "archaic" pool with no natural light.

Two other former Marineland trainers support Demers' story, reported The Georgia Straight.

But the Vancouver Aquarium disputes Demers' allegations, stating that their head veterinarian examined the four seals during an inspection of Marineland last year.

"Aside from minor issues related to aging, including cataracts, they were fine," Clint Wright, the general manager and senior vice-president of Vancouver Aquarium, told The Huffington Post B.C.

"When we learned of Monday's unsubstantiated reports that they are now sick and blind, we called Marineland immediately. We were relieved to hear that four animals were in generally good health and in fact all of the seals’ eyes were examined as part of an annual medical review by an outside expert in December 2013.”

Marineland was cleared of any wrongdoing in an investigation by Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums into animal abuse and water quality.

The five seals that were placed at Marineland had been classified as "non-releasable" by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. That could mean they couldn't catch food on their own, or perhaps had a neurological disorder. Two were part of the roughly 100 seals rescued by the Vancouver Aquarium every summer. The other three were research seals — accustomed to human care — from the UBC Marine Mammal Research Unit.

“We either try to house the [non-releasable] animals ourselves or find accredited facilities willing to adopt the animals. Each adoption is carefully evaluated on a case-by-case basis," explained Wright. He said the Vancouver Aquarium would give "full consideration" to placing seals at Marineland in the future.

Demers also accused the Vancouver Aquarium of not responding to former trainers who have tried to get in touch.

"There have been no efforts to reach us," said Wright. "To the best of my knowledge in my 24 years at the Vancouver Aquarium I have never been contacted by any Marineland trainers — past or present.”

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