09/26/2012 03:34 EDT | Updated 11/25/2012 05:12 EST

How Fixing Marineland Could Fix Niagara's Economy


The spotlight is on, the microscope calibrated, and the issues are in clear focus.

The results of the Ontario Society for the Protection of Animals investigation into Marineland, and any follow-up charges or action regarding the documented and evident animal abuse case at Marineland will certainly define them. The provincial government's response to the plight of Ontario's captive animals will also prove a defining moment. These are precarious times for Premier McGuinty and his team, as he sits in a minority government, and has already compromised the much-valued teachers' vote. Will the premier dismiss the concerns of animal lovers, too?

I recently had the privilege of speaking candidly with many Members of Provincial Parliament who have lent their support to helping Ontario's animals, and one common theme has emerged: how can animal protection laws be created without ruffling too may feathers? No politician wants his or her name attached to willfully dismissing the suffering of animals in captivity (with the apparent exception of PC Leader Tim Hudak, who claims the legislature has more important issues to deal with than zoos and aquariums), yet some MPPs worry that Marineland and other similar bodies generate tons of tourist dollars, supporting many well-paying jobs in southern Ontario communities. Nobody, including myself, wants that to be compromised.

But shining a little more light reveals that there is common ground.

Job loss is obviously a major concern for politicians and Ontarians alike. But as detailed in The Star investigation into Marineland, serious understaffing has been one of several concerns expressed by myself and the other former employees who have exposed Marineland for its lackadaisical operation. What job losses do we fear from better protecting Ontario's animals? The fact is, if zoos and aquariums were held to higher standards, it follows that more jobs would be created!

Another myth appears to be that these zoos (which tend to operate on a seasonal basis) generate good, safe and well-paying jobs. I'd like to offer some insight into this. As a performer leaping off the rostrum (that's shop talk for whale face) of a 6,000 lb Orca in 2000, I was making a whopping $7 an hour.


Fast forward 12 years, and having benefitted from wage increases far beyond what any other employee in my department had experienced, I left that job making $19/hour and change. Another employee who currently works there, in his/her 11th year of employment, is currently supporting his/her family with a $14/hour wage -- hardly the "good paying, secure" jobs politicians want to protect. The other simple truth is most employees of these zoos and aquariums are part-time seasonal employees who operate rides and flip burgers; and I don't see how protecting our animals will compromise those gigs.

Another concern is the potential loss of tourist dollars. In an excerpt taken from a leaked email conversation sent to me by an anonymous source between Niagara's powers that be, the claim is made that Marineland is responsible for 53 per cent of rooms filled in Niagara Falls. This is ludicrous. Have we forgotten about the big, natural phenomenon that sits only feet from Marineland's admissions gates -- the iconic Niagara Falls? If Marineland were to improve its operation, the improved tourist experience would generate more business and tourist dollars for Niagara and local businesses -- not less!

Finally, many politicians have wondered how animal protection laws can be strengthened without compromising Marineland's current business model? Well I ask you this: Why is Marineland exempted from the pressures that come from abiding to stiff government standards and regulations in Ontario, and since when is this government in the business of selling out vulnerable beings to protect business interests?

If I wanted to open a hotdog stand tomorrow, there is enough red tape to deter me or ensure that my challenges remain great enough to keep me from thriving. The onus is on every other business to adhere to quality practices or run the risk of failure.

Every business, it seems, but Ontario's zoos and aquariums. Why shouldn't Marineland be made to become a credible, law-abiding business like other Ontario operations? Had it not been for red tape and bureaucratic challenges, my father would still be in business too, but alas he was made to bear Ontario's entrepreneurial shackles and now finds himself like most businessmen of Ontario -- trying to find a way to make money.

That is, every business but Marineland.