05/02/2014 04:56 EDT | Updated 07/02/2014 05:59 EDT

At Marineland, I Watched These Seals Suffer

In 2005, the Vancouver Aquarium sent five harbour seals to Marineland Canada and they suffered in the poor conditions. I was one of the employees who received them. Maintaining balanced water chemistry was always a challenge for the maintenance employees, and dangerous spikes in chlorine and ozone off-gas levels were common. One particular incident claimed Pepper the harbour seal's life. Her suffering and subsequent death I recall vividly.

Consistent with most transfers of sea animals I've known of or experienced while working at Marineland, I'm certain this one happened during the wee hours.

There were the telltale signs the day before. Our supervisor would become evasive and silent. Then there was the dead giveaway.

We'd check the cupboards for the "blood box" -- an old fishing tackle box filled with needles, vials and alcohol wipes... everything needed for drawing blood. If it was missing, you knew with absolute certainty that we would have more animals come sun up.

On this particular occasion, we received five harbour seals from the Vancouver Aquarium. Rescued, rehabbed and (for whatever reason) deemed "un-releasable," the aquarium decided to send them to Marineland, where I worked, for display.

With them came documentation detailing their names, physical attributes, diet history and behavioural tendencies. They were indeed a finicky group at feeding time.

Rolo was a young male with what we were told was a neurological disorder. His pupils were always dilated. His body would convulse steadily, and he had trouble both swimming and crawling. He was also aggressive and provided few precursors before biting. He would have little to no chance of survival in the wild, that's a certainty.

Squamish was the youngest female. Plump, round yet dainty, she was by far the most timid of the bunch. She had a tiny mouth and would often struggle to swallow the bigger herring. She was a picture of health.

Poppy, the princess, was noted for being smooth as silk. We nicknamed her "Black Velvet" and during training sessions we would aptly sing for her the Alannah Miles song. One particular trainer's voice still haunts me, though I respected the passion with which she sang.

Curry, another female, would be best described as feisty. She refused to eat any fish on dry land, choosing instead to snatch fish from our hands and flop back into the pool to consume it. She was fast, and bit me good one time.

Photo of Rolo

Pepper was a healthy young female. Sadly, I don't remember Pepper's personality very well.

After acclimating the harbour seals to their new feeding schedule and training program, it was decided that they would be displayed in Marineland's aquarium facility.

Built in 1966, the aquarium is a static environment, comprised of a small stage with a stuccoed castle backdrop. The pool is small, round and made up of several panes of glass for underwater viewing.

Maintaining balanced water chemistry was always a challenge for the maintenance employees and dangerous spikes in chlorine and ozone off-gas levels were common. One particular incident claimed Pepper the harbour seal's life. Her suffering and subsequent death I recall vividly.

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.

Within hours, the others began exhibiting similar symptoms. It became evident that we were dealing with an emergency situation. One by one we brought the seals back for treatment, this time foregoing the painful feeding of frozen fish and instead opting to insert a tube down their throats to facilitate the pouring of fish slurry into their stomachs. The seals slowly began responding to treatment, narrowly averting death, however much permanent damage would be suffered.

Once recovered, they were returned to the archaic aquarium pool to live out the remainder of their lives void of any natural lighting and with no chance at ever experiencing a semblance of the freedom the Vancouver Aquarium presumably sought to provide them when they first rescued and rehabilitated them.

Today, Rolo, Poppy and Squamish have little to no eyesight remaining and Curry's vision has deteriorated as well. Deep scars also remain from their multiple injection sites.

In hindsight, it's hard to consider Vancouver's decision to send the seals to Marineland a "rescue" at all.

Since speaking of our experiences, the Vancouver Aquarium (much like SeaWorld and Marineland) has dismissed the concerns and testimony of MANY former trainers, classically suggesting it's all an elaborate lie, from radical animal activists.

We have not been contacted by any of their representatives, nor have our efforts to reach them been responded to.

R.I.P. Pepper.

(Here is the Vancouver Aquarium's response to the claims made in this blog.)


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