Killer Whale Whistleblowers Vow to Fight On, Despite Crushing Legal Fees

Former Marineland Ontario trainers Christine Santos and Phil Demers need all the financial help they can get.
A killer whale performs for the public at Marineland Ontario. (Photo: Ontario Pics)
Mar 19, 2013· 5 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

A group of former SeaWorld trainers has joined forces to help raise money for the legal defense of two former Marineland trainers being sued by the Canadian theme park for claiming that its animals suffer from neglect.

After looking these animals in the eyes, I pledged to them that I’m not going to forget about them.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) alleged that water quality at the park is “not up to par,” something the ex-trainers have contended since last summer. 

Marineland has since filed a defamation and lost business suit against both ex-trainers, Christine Santos and boyfriend Phil Demers. But now the couple is getting some high-profile support from south of the Canadian border.

“We’re sending a message that we will not crawl under a rock and hide if colleagues are faced with these types of intimidation tactics,” Carol Ray, a former trainer at SeaWorld Orlando, told Take Part. “I hope it shows others out there who may be thinking of coming forward that they have a support network here with us and with other freedom advocacy groups who appreciate their courage and will do all they can to back former marine park workers.”

Ray and former SeaWorld trainers Jeffrey Ventre, MD, and Samantha Berg are among the most prominent, outspoken U.S. opponents of killer whale captivity, though that wasn’t always the case.

As described in my book Death at SeaWorld and the upcoming documentary Blackfish, all three worked with orcas in Shamu Stadium, and all three came to believe that killer whale captivity was wrong. Since the 2010 killing of orca trainer Dawn Brancheau by the 12,000-pound Tilikum, they have continued to speak out publicly and forcibly against the practice.

Now, in an interesting twist, the former SeaWorld trainers are stepping forward to help their Canadian counterparts.

Last summer, Santos and Demers took their concerns about animal welfare to the Toronto Star. In particular, they were worried about the solitary orca Kiska, and a walrus named Smooshi. They alleged that poor water quality and a lack of environmental “enrichment,” among other problems, were making the animals physically and mentally ill. Many animals, they said, suffered from peeling skin and fur, raw, red and swollen eyes, and vision problems.

In October, Marineland hit Santos with a $1.25 million defamation and lost-business lawsuit, and told the Toronto Star that her allegations were “seriously inaccurate, false and, if published, are defamatory of Marineland, its veterinarians and (owner John) Holer.” In January, Santos countersued for $750,000, charging the suit against her was “trivial, frivolous, vexatious and constitutes an abuse of process of the court.”

Then, last month, Santos’ boyfriend Demers was served with a $1.5 million suit accusing him, among other things, of plotting to kidnap Smooshi, whose close bond with Demers was featured in a story by the Canadian Broadcasting Company. Demers denied the charges, calling the idea of stealing a nearly 800-pound walrus “absurd.”

But fending off nearly $3 million in legal claims, no matter how “absurd,” costs an unspeakable amount of money, and Santos and Demers are collecting contributions from supporters around the world, much of it generated through online efforts by the anti-captivity group Fins and Fluke.

That’s what got Jeff Ventre involved. The former Orlando trainer developed a contentious relationship with SeaWorld and was let go for allegedly failing to follow safety procedures. He can relate to what his Canadian counterparts are going through “because I’ve been a victim of marine-park bullying,” he told TakePart. “I'm the only person that’s ever been fired from a zoo or marine-life park for kissing an animal during a show performance.”

SeaWorld blocked his unemployment benefits because of Ventre’s allegedly unsafe act, he said. “It’s just another example of thug-like behavior from an industry that is slowly fading into irrelevance, at least in North America and Europe.”

And that, Ventre added, “is why I donated. Marineland’s worst nightmare is that the litigation gets to the discovery phase. If that happens, then all kinds of information will be available to the media and subsequently, the public. We want this to move forward. The anti-captivity community has rallied, thanks to Fins and Fluke, and it’s been amazing to watch and participate.” 

Sam Berg got involved because Marineland’s legal tactics “could intimidate future whistleblowers in the marine mammal industry and prevent other current or former trainers from stepping forward to share stories or evidence,” she said.

Santos’ and Demers’ allegations have been “thoroughly backed up with facts, photos, and testimony in the media,” Berg said, “clearly the animals are living in unacceptable conditions that need to change immediately.” Even so, Marineland “still went forward with suing them. This is definitely disturbing, it sends the message that might-makes-right. A company with deep pockets can silence whistleblowers by harassing them and potentially forcing them into financial ruin, even if they are telling the truth.”

Alex Lewis of Fins and Fluke said the campaign has raised more than $18,000. The response was remarkable, she said, even though more money is needed. The campaign was “straightforward and simple,” she noted. A Facebook page was created asking everyone who “joined” to donate $10 each. “Many people were comfortable giving donations higher than the amount we requested and we were able to raise over $10,000 in less than 5 days.”

“Anyone who is able to speak out for the animals is someone we need to continue to back,” Lewis continued. “Many organizations out there solely support animals, and would not touch this campaign.”

Phase II of the campaign is now underway, Lewis said. “We have launched a new Facebook page called ‘Occupy Marineland’ and a twitter handle @NoToMarineland,” she said. “We’re aiming to reach other organizations that put an emphasis on social justice and human rights issues. We’re hoping to be able to generate further donations from their support.” 

And on March 20, Fins and Fluke will launch a “tweet Storm” to trend #SaveMarinelandAnimals on Twitter, at 4 PM Eastern. “The goal is to get this hashtag trending worldwide, which will allow millions of people to finally learn about the animals at Marineland,” Lewis said.

Back in Ontario, Demers expressed a bit of fatigue with the coming legal onslaught, but vowed never to stop fighting. “It’s great and it’s humbling,” he said of the donations. “On the one hand, it’s wonderful not to be left high and dry in the cold, and that people recognize the unjust nature of the conditions at Marineland. But the money raised is only a drop in the bucket – and it’s evaporating already.”

Demers said most lawyers wanted a $25,000 retainer upfront, but found one that would accept just $5,000. Animal advocate and co-creator of The Simpsons, Sam Simon, “stepped up with a very generous donation and that was amazing,” Demers added. “But I’m being quoted hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend this thing. It’s hell on earth; we’re the target of a grossly unjust system that allows corporations to literality and legally annihilate people.”

Some friends advised the couple to “sign the papers, or declare bankruptcy, or whatever, and move on,” he said. “But they weren’t there. They didn’t witness what we witnessed. After looking these animals in the eyes, I pledged to them that I’m not going to forget about them.”

Canada lacks many of the animal welfare statutes found in the United States. When it comes to marine mammals, monitoring and enforcement is done by volunteer agencies, such as the Ontario SPCA, which opened an investigation of the park last August after the former trainers came forward.

On Tuesday, OSPCA Chairman Rob Godfrey said his group had issued seven orders against Marineland to fix various problems at the park, adding that the company had complied with four orders and is “working on” the other three, one of which calls for improving water quality.

“The water is a big issue because we concern ourselves with any animals’ environment,” Godfrey told the Star. The fact that OSPCA issued an order on water, he said, was “a clear sign that the water quality for those marine mammals is not up to par.”

Marineland denied that any of the OSPCA orders pertained to its water system and told the Star that its “animals, young and old, continue to receive excellent care and medical treatment.”

The investigation, one of OSPCA’s largest and most complex, found no evidence of abuse or neglect. Even so, Marineland tried to quash it, according to the Star. “A Marineland lawyer called the OSPCA and threatened to sue the society if the newspaper published the story, and warned that Godfrey would be sued personally,” the paper reported.

So far, Marineland has started “an environmental enrichment program” for Kiska and completed an “assessment” of the water system. Marineland also brought in an independent marine mammal ophthalmologist to examine all seals, sea lions and walruses.

But more work remains, including “a new water filtration system and maintaining consistently good water quality,” Godfrey said. The deadline for fixing the problem was extended, however, “to allow additional experts to review the results.”

“If Marineland doesn’t comply, the OSPCA could lay charges,” the Star reported. “‘To the people out there who are phoning into the Ontario SPCA...I share their concerns,’ Godfrey said.”

Water quality, of course, was central to the ex-trainers’ allegations, though it’s not clear how the OSPCA order will impact their defense.

Either way, support from the former SeaWorld trainers will continue.

“The public is becoming more and more intolerant of the conditions faced by these captive marine mammals,” Carol Ray said. By supporting the Marineland defendants, the SeaWorld ex-trainers are “sending the message to sea parks that the movement is growing,” she said. “It tells them that we are definitely not going away.”