TORONTO — Ontario's animal welfare agency laid five animal cruelty charges against Marineland on Friday, levelling allegations of mistreatment that were swiftly rejected by the amusement park.
The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said the charges against the Niagara Falls, Ont., tourist attraction relate to peacocks, guinea hens and black bears — and noted that further charges are pending.
The OSPCA said inspection officers and a veterinarian went to Marineland on Nov. 10 after receiving a complaint about alleged animal cruelty.
"Reports of animal cruelty are taken very seriously," said senior OSPCA inspector Steve Toy. "When we receive reports of cruelty that involve wildlife or exotic animals, we will utilize our experts as well as industry experts to assist us with our investigation."
Marineland faces one count of permitting a peacock to be in distress, one count of failing to comply with the prescribed standards of care for a peacock and two counts for failing to comply with the prescribed standards of care for guinea hens.
The facility also faces one count for failing to comply with the prescribed standards of care for about 35 American black bears, including failing to provide adequate and appropriate food and water for them.
Marineland said the OSPCA visited the park in response to a complaint "by a former animal care worker who was fired for poor performance and inappropriate behaviour."
It said the OSPCA was provided "full access" to the park and its thousands of birds and land animals.
"A single peacock, out of thousands of birds, had an issue with one eye," Marineland said in a statement sent to The Canadian Press. "The peacock was otherwise healthy, eating well and interacting with all the other birds."
Marineland said its veterinarian treated the peacock and believes the bird "is fine and with appropriate treatment will return to the flock and lead a healthy long life."
On the matter of the guinea hens, Marineland said the wild birds did not respond well to the sudden entrance of four OSPCA staff into their enclosure.
"No guinea hens were unhealthy, needed medical treatment, or were not acting in a well-adjusted manner," the park said, noting that it has provided an additional area for guinea hens to shelter after the OSPCA expressed a desire for the birds to be given more space.
Marineland said the OSPCA expressed one concern with respect to the black bears — that one or more small labels attached to fruit and vegetables had managed to make their way into the bears' food.
The park said the produce given to the bears is fit for human consumption and comes with the same labels seen on fruit in grocery stores. Those labels are removed before the fruit and vegetables are fed to the bears, but "occasionally, a label is missed," Marineland said.
"That is regrettable but it does not pose any risk to the bears," the park said. "The diet for and the health of the bears has been checked numerous times over the last three years by the OSPCA and each time has been approved."
Marineland noted that there has never been a complaint made about the water provided to the bears.
"The bears' diet is extremely healthy and includes fish fit for human consumption and fresh fruit and vegetables," the park said. "All of Marineland’s bears are extremely healthy and were recently checked by veterinary staff on November 23, 2016."
The OSPCA said it didn't remove any animals as part of its investigation, but will continue to monitor the animals as the investigation continues.
OSPCA spokeswoman Alison Cross said further charges are pending, but wouldn't elaborate.
"If convicted, they could face a $60,000 fine, a lifetime ban in owning animals and up to two years in jail," she said.
Marineland first opened in 1963 when owner John Holer started shows with a few sea lions in a small pool in Niagara Falls.
It has since grown into a massive amusement park with one killer whale, dozens of beluga whales, dolphins, walruses and land animals such as deer, bears, birds and fish.
Marineland has been investigated before.
Former employees went public with allegations of animal abuse at the park among both its marine and land animals in 2012. The OSPCA did not lay charges at the time but issued several orders, which Marineland complied with.
The OSPCA has a team of officers that inspect zoos and aquariums across the province that belong to a voluntary registry. The specialty unit first started in 2013 and they inspect zoos like Marineland twice a year.
Cross said over the past three years Marineland has received "several correction letters and they have complied with all of them."
Marineland has long maintained it treats its animals well and has said all allegations of animal abuse are not true.