The crowd before her roars as Buttercup waddles onto the stage on this late Wednesday afternoon at Marineland’s King Waldorf’s Stadium. The centre of attention, the 900-kilogram walrus twists around and wags her flippers at her trainer’s call, sending people in the nearly packed bleachers clapping and cheering even louder for more.
Despite a protest that saw some 400 people gather outside its gates just days before, business at the embattled Niagara Falls tourist spot was booming, as sunscreen-covered children and their parents flocked toward amusement rides and marine attractions.
Last week, Torstar News Service published an investigation on the plight of marine mammals at the park. It included accounts by eight former Marineland employees of animal suffering, including skin damage and impaired vision, as a result of poor water conditions.
The investigation sparked widespread public outrage, including the crowds at last Saturday’s protest, and prompted the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to announce that it would conduct an on-site inspection of Marineland with sea mammal experts.
Owner John Holer has denied there are any problems with water quality or that the water has harmed marine mammals, and commercials advertising the Niagara institution continue to blast through radios and televisions across the region.
In the days since the article appeared, Marineland’s parking lot has continued to be nearly full as tourists flock to see the park’s star attractions, its marine mammals. But some visitors at the park Wednesday said the allegations of mistreatment had struck a chord and even made them to question their plans to visit the park.
Emily Comenov, at the park with son Milos, 5, said she felt conflicted about visiting the Niagara Falls attraction after reading about allegations of animal suffering, “but my son has always seen those commercials and I promised we would go, so I didn’t want to break his little heart.”
After Wednesday, however, “I don’t intend to come back,” she said.
Yvonne Plasse, who lives north of Montreal, said her family had decided to go to Marineland months before as part of a week-long vacation in Niagara Falls. When she heard about the investigation via Facebook last week, she said, she worried about visiting the park, but decided to go ahead as she had already purchased tickets.
“I’m an animal lover and I wasn’t too pleased about (the news reports) … but I said to my son, we’re gonna go and make the best of it,” said Plasse.
Some questioned the allegations of former Marineland employees. Lupita Romero, visiting from Mississauga with her children, said the animals seemed healthy.
“I didn’t hear the whole story, but I just saw the animals and they looked good,” she said.
Others, however, said they planned to reserve judgment either way until the OSPCA completed its investigation.
Susan Kargas of Newmarket, at the park with husband John and her two children, said she debated about going after reading about the allegations, but “we don’t know for a fact that it’s happening.”
“It’s hard, but you have to sort of use your discretion with what you read,” added Elaine Arnold, a mother of three, of Stouffville.
Niagara Falls Tourism director Toni Williams said she was aware of the allegations, but planned to wait for the outcome of the OSPCA investigation.
“We need to know what the facts are,” said Williams, adding that she didn’t think the allegations had affected Niagara Falls tourism. “I think the majority of people are waiting for the investigation.”
With files from Linda Diebel