On the 2 year anniversary of the day Marineland Canada filed a $1.5 Million Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation against myself and Marineland Animal Defense I am launching a short, random and small series on this history of the Marineland Animal Defense campaign and the decline of Marineland over that span of time. Deep cuts, things for the hardened/hardcore activist.
July 11, 2011
I got an email from Toronto Star reporter Liam Casey asking if we could meet for an interview. We met that day at the Summer St. location of Rise Above – at the time a brand new vegan bakery that was growing into a restaurant. Kyle, the owner, put Ted Leo’s “Hearts of Oak” on the radio trying to calm my nerves. I’d done lots of media interviews before, but none this important. Liam was following up on the custody battle raging in St. Catharines Superior Court over SeaWorld’s Orca Ikaika, that Court reporter Peter Small had written about on July 9, 2011. On breeding loan to Marineland, SeaWorld wanted their Orca back. Marineland refused and this sparked off a battle that would end with Ikaika’s secretive removal back to SeaWorld in November of 2011. To this day, I still don’t know what or who tipped the Star off to this court battle – but in doing so wheels were set into motion.
26 years old at the time, I struggled to convey ALL of the speculation, rumours, and facts that come along with the 50 year history of Marineland. I remember Liam recoiling at the mention of “mass graves.” “Do you have any proof?” It’s been written about before, confirmed by staff, and where else would they bury all of these animals? There is no graveyard for Orcas and Dolphins. The conversation was a push and pull typical when someone new to these issues confronts someone near the centre of protest against them – but Liam left with more concerns outside of just this custody battle. Rise Above didn’t have debit yet, so I paid for Liam’s lemonade. For months he offered to pay me back for this. “I want to pay for my lemonade. I know it’s ridiculous, but it would make me feel more comfortable.” I never did accept payment.
Liam would file his first Marineland story on July 16, 2011 after visiting the park on the day of our interview. That summer Liam would track that custody battle while bridging out and building on that story and would finish the year with a critical profile of park owner John Holer. The following year Liam would join with veteran reporter Linda Diebel to create the investigative team that broke the 2012 Toronto Star series that dominated headlines.
Those stories and that series would shrink in the face of a $7 Million SLAPP suit Marineland Canada filed in April 2013. In January 2014, the Star let Liam go. Much of the initial push to these stories, and this level of protest, centres around this young reporter and his willingness to fly by new libel law rulings which got around Marineland’s decades of stonewalling media. Without this, without this platform, all of this could have died with coverage of just the custody battle and Ikaika.
Offseason 2013: Protest is Everywhere
Marineland finished the 2012 season under intense pressure. Mass media coverage, mass protests, and mass civil disobedience to shut down the final dolphin show of the year. They stumbled and couldn’t keep up with the coverage, but the offseason of 2012-2013 gave them time to prepare. They filed a handful of lawsuits, bought up media/PR experience, built a fence around the property and aggressively began an email marketing campaign that saw them email just about every school board, organization, and corporation that existed within 200kms. The emails questioned the credentials of employees who months ago were entrusted with their animals, and painted all opposition as extremists and bullies. The email package actually talked directly about protests and prepared them for what to do if they encounter on the ground protest on the day of their visit. To follow this up, in the 2013 Marineland Visitor Guide Marineland also printed a similar warning to guests. Marineland seemed intent on telling every single visitor, and potential visitor, that there were a group of people who took issue with their business.
Although media coverage was intense, and protests were as well, a protest schedule of 10 demonstrations lasting 3 hours over the span of their season would only reach a small fraction of their yearly visitors. Similarly, not everyone reads the Star, is on social media, or has time to think about these issues. Many of Marineland’s visitors are tourists to the region – people advocates have almost no link to. Many people in this world also simply do not know that ANYONE objects to keeping animals captive in cages and tanks for profit. Marineland was keen to present themselves as “under attack,” but in doing so they had made protest omnipresent and placed doubt within the minds of their customers. Years of a PR strategy based on ignoring any opposition had given way to a new strategy of creating opposition everywhere.
The effect of this can be seen all over social media and on review sites. We will see comments or reviews about protests on days where they are none. School boards, organizations and corporations who previously had no second thought simply packed up and went elsewhere to places where there was no chance encountering a protest (and why wouldn’t they?). For those who did enter the facility, reviews started to focus on the captive animals. Even positive reviews were relaying criticism of captivity at the park.
News media have taken up this “constant attack” angle. In his curious May 2014 op-ed “Morning at Marineland” Niagara Falls Review (QMI) reporter John Law talks of “weekly protests” as a reason to alter the park.
Marineland has had a remarkable run, but the age spots are showing. The holes are getting harder to plug. It symbolized the old Niagara Falls, but it can also symbolize the new. One without captive animals, without weekly protests, without all the hand-wringing.
Marineland has never faced “weekly protests” in its history. At best, Marineland has faced 12-15 demonstrations a summer and in most recent years on site protests have actually dropped down to 6-10 in order to consolidate dates and bring out larger numbers. In framing the issue this way – bullies vs. high standard of animal care – Marineland has set an unrealistic standard for themselves while presenting their opposition as larger and more intense than it actually is.
If one were to detail all of the ways in which Marineland’s woes were self inflicted it would be a long list. This specific way has gone under the radar, and it’s effects are long term.
The Paranoia Spreads
To close the 2013 season we planned 4 days worth of events. On the closing day protest, we added an ambitious walk from the area’s other captive animal facility, Safari Niagara, to Marineland. Around 13km’s. It was dumb. I would never encourage anyone to walk 13kms onto a four hour demonstration that you are organizing.
Unsurprisingly, we had a hard time finding people willing to take up this walk. In the end, there were four of us. We set up early in the morning at Safari Niagara to find that the Niagara Regional Police had set up a perimeter and that the facility had actually placed steel barricades at all entries. We laughed, took a few photos as a record, and started our walk. As we began our walk the owner of the facility pleaded with the Niagara Regional Police to stay, that our initial moves were just a ploy to get them to leave at which point we would come back in mass and storm their facility. We had 13kms to laugh about that.