Marineland of Canada has made good on its threat to sue a former trainer for defamation after the trainer, Christine Santos, went to a Toronto newspaper with allegations of neglect and poor living conditions for the park’s sole surviving killer whale, Kiska.
Ironically, Santos’ defense might be supported by allegations against Marineland launched by officials from another marine-mammal entertainment park, SeaWorld.
On December 12, attorneys for Marineland filed a claim in Ontario Superior Court against Santos, alleging she “acted in a premeditated and calculated manner” and “deliberately, flagrantly and callously disregarded” the rights of the company, which “suffered damage to its reputation and goodwill.” Marineland is seeking $1 million (Canadian) in general damages and $250,000 in punitive damages.
Santos was dismissed by Marineland on October 17, just one day before The Toronto Star published a blistering expose on Kiska. In that article, Santos said the orca’s flukes (tail) had been bleeding on and off since July, and getting “progressively worse,” to the point of gushing.
Santos was fired for refusing to sign a document stating she had not personally witnessed animal abuse at Marineland, according to her boyfriend, Philip Demers, who was also a trainer at Marineland.
Demers, Santos and other former trainers have alleged that understaffing and high turnover led to systemic behavioral and health problems at Marineland, including a lack of mental stimulation for the animals (or “enrichment”) and water quality issues that, they said, were dealt with by over-chlorinating the tanks.
Santos told The Star that Kiska began cutting her dorsal fin on her tank’s fiberglass grates, and that trainers often cut their fingers on the same objects. She did not know what caused the bleeding she reported seeing from Kiska’s flukes.
Marineland vigorously disputes those allegations, and charges that Santos acted out of vengeance when her boyfriend quit and was not rehired during a dispute with management over a female walrus named Smooshi, who reportedly “imprinted” the trainer in her mind as being her own mother.
Marineland also alleges that Santos had agreed to sign a statement saying she had not witnessed neglect or abuse at the park, but went to The Star with her concerns instead.
The claim charges that Santos’s allegations were published “maliciously, for the dominant purpose of widely defaming Marineland in mass media,” that Santos knew the allegations were false, failed to apologize for making them, and never complained about poor animal conditions at the park in her 12 years of employment there.
Specifically, Marineland said Santos’s allegations “meant and were understood to mean” that: Kiska was being “abused and neglected”; that Marineland allowed Kiska’s physical condition to deteriorate for several months to the point of “gushing blood”; does not employ enough staff to properly care for its animals; fails to “make adequate provision for the safety” of the animals; keeps Kiska on constant medication; and rushes staff through their animal-care duties, with time allowed only to feed the animals with “nothing more for their benefit.”
Marineland said Santos was aware that the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA) had inspected the park and concluded that “there was no evidence of animal abuse at Marineland.” (Critics of Marineland counter that CAZA is an industry trade group with no independent regulatory authority.)
Demers called the lawsuit “a distraction ploy,” and said it didn’t rebut a single allegation about conditions at Marineland, or what he called the “detailed, documented cases of abuse” there.
“The claims are just so laughable that it’s really not as stressful as you would imagine,” he said of the lawsuit. Still, Santos does find the situation unsettling. “Anything that reminds her of Marineland will do that,” Demers said. “We thought about moving away, getting out of Dodge, but we have unfinished business to take care of here.”
If the case goes to trial, Santos might have documentary evidence to support at least some of the things she said about Marineland. The source is a surprising one: SeaWorld.
In the spring of 2011, SeaWorld successfully sued Marineland to regain possession of one of its orcas, a young male named Ikaika (“Ike”) who was sent to Ontario in 2006 on what is called a “breeding loan.” When Ike returned to SeaWorld, Kiska was left utterly alone in her tank, a solitary confinement that would be illegal under U.S. law.
In its lawsuit, SeaWorld said the Canadian park was ill-equipped to competently handle the health, training and general wellbeing of Ike, an adolescent male about to become sexually mature.
“SeaWorld is concerned that Marineland does not have the necessary or adequate staff to properly train Ikaika to ensure his ongoing physical and psychological health,” Chuck Tompkins, corporate curator of zoological operations at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, said in a sworn affidavit in February, 2011.
At trial, Tompkins said it was “not just the facility” and “not only the medical side” of Marineland that worried him, even though “the health of the animal is extremely important.” He was also, Tompkins testified, “concerned about the stimulation and the training that Ikaika is getting.”
Tompkins had spoken repeatedly to Marineland officials about ways to make Ike “mentally stimulated by having more training staff, more opportunities to be trained.” He also wanted Marineland to offer the whale “environmental enrichment devices,” something that Marineland’s owner, John Holer, “doesn’t believe in,” because “he doesn’t like the look of them, which is a concern of mine.”
Dr. Christopher Dold, SeaWorld VP of veterinary services, said that Ike had “exhibited an unusual behavioral pattern” at Marineland that “suggested physical problems,” and added that “the safety of our animal caregivers as well as the health and wellbeing of our animals are paramount.”
Dold said that a recent lab report on blood tests from Ike “indicates a differential white blood cell count which, in my opinion, could be related to stress.” A separate report, however, filed by a vet hired by Marineland, found Ike to be in good health, and not impacted by stress.
Meanwhile, another section of Marineland’s lawsuit will likely be contested.
“Ms. Santos knew that Orca whales (sic), including Kiska, engage in rubbing against rocks or the side of pools, in both the wild and in captivity, as a normal part of their behavior,” Marineland’s lawsuit alleges. “Ms. Santos knew that in so doing, the whales occasionally receive cuts or abrasions.”
I am aware of just one orca subpopulation, the Northern Resident community of British Columbia, which routinely rubs against rocks underwater. But those are smooth, round stones that line the “rubbing beaches” of Robson Bight, on Vancouver Island. Scientists don’t know why these whales engage in this regular cultural ritual, though it probably feels good, and may remove parasites.
“They would not rub themselves up against sharp or rough surfaces,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, a senior scientist at Humane Society International who studied the Northern Residents extensively. “They don’t deliberately inflict cuts or abrasions on themselves.
Some pods have more skin rakes, cuts or abrasions than others. One of these is in the Antarctic, and I assume the marks come from prey interactions, because seals and sea lions fight back. There is also contact with the undersurface of ice, which is not deliberately rubbing, but rather contact during regular surfacing while swimming.”
Rose was not aware of any wild orcas that cut or abrade themselves on rocks. “And I have always felt that that the rakes and cuts I see on captive whales were inflicted by other whales, not so much the sides of the pools, which generally aren’t sharp or rough enough to do much damage.” Rubbing the concrete sides of pools also occurs, she said, “but that’s not relevant because it’s probably stereotyped in those cases. If the animals are getting cut or abraded when rubbing, it isn’t normal.”
As for the pending trial, Demers said that he and Santos look forward to presenting their evidence “and having the word ‘allegation’ removed from what we’re saying.” What they don’t look forward to are the hefty legal costs.
“This is a big endeavor,” Demers said. “But we knew the reality of what we were doing, and this is the consequence. It’s time to put the big-boy pants on and do what we got to do.”
They have set up a legal defense fund, but have only raised a fraction of the anticipated amount needed. What if the money doesn’t come in? “I won’t even allow myself to consider that,” Demers said. “The resources will be there. If not, I’ll start selling the jeep, the house, and we’ll go live in a box. Anything to be in solidarity with the animals.”
The legal action is like a poker game, and you’ve got to play your cards,” Demers said. “These are the cards we were dealt with, so now we are going to play them."