In a move certain to send chills down the spines of whistleblowers and animal welfare advocates everywhere, Marineland in Ontario is mounting a major legal assault against a fired orca trainer who spoke out publicly about living conditions for the park’s sole surviving killer whale, Kiska.
"It was atrocious," Demers said. "Animals were losing fur, becoming permanently or temporarily blinded."
The former trainer, Christine Santos, 33, was dismissed on October 17, just one day before The Toronto Star published a blistering expose on Kiska, in which Santos complained that the whale’s flukes (tail) had been bleeding on and off since July, and getting “progressively worse,” to the point of gushing.
The Star, which published a string of critical exposes about animal welfare at Marineland over the summer, also released a video it obtained showing a trail of blood in the water behind Kiska.
Andrew Burns, an attorney for Marineland, owned by the colorful (and some would say controversial) entrepreneur John Holer, also threatened The Star with legal action before it ran the story, calling the allegations “seriously inaccurate, false, and if published…defamatory.”
Santos was fired for refusing to sign a document stating she had not personally witnessed animal abuse at Marineland, which is now threatening to sue her for “well in excess of $1 million” for making statements “in complete carelessness, reckless and/or negligent disregard for the truth,” according to a five-page letter she received.
“It’s obviously been a hell ride, there’s been highs and lows. She doesn’t stomach threats as well as I do,” Santos’ boyfriend, Philip Demers, 34, told TakePart.
Santos was advised by her lawyer not to give interviews, though she did tell The Star there was “no way” she would retract her statements.
“We’re just going to buckle down and keep speaking the truth,” said Demers, who was a trainer at Marineland for 12 years, but quit in disgust last May because the living conditions for many marine mammals were, he said, unbearable to witness.
Santos and Demers both began working at Marineland around the beginning of 2000, and they loved their jobs even though, Demers said, he had his doubts about park management from the beginning. “But I was a company guy, I believed in what I was doing,” he explained. “And I prided myself on confidentiality.”
The trainers, who became romantically involved in 2006, climbed the ranks to senior positions—Demers at the two show venues and Santos at the more low-key Friendship Cove facility, where visitors could get up close to orcas and beluga whales.
In 2004, Demers had an extraordinary bonding experience with a young female walrus named Smooshi, who reportedly “imprinted” the trainer in her mind as being her own mother. Demers stayed on for many more years, largely to look after the animal’s welfare.
But according to Demers, understaffing and high turnover led to systemic problems at Marineland, including a lack of mental stimulation for the animals (or “enrichment”) and water quality issues that, he said, were dealt with by over-chlorinating the tanks.
“It was atrocious,” Demers said. “Animals were losing fur, becoming permanently or temporarily blinded.” Some developed eye ulcers, others suffered appetite loss, lethargy or skin problems. Some dolphins kept their eye clutched shut, “evidence of permanent damage,” he said.
Distressed and demoralized, Demers finally quit. “I was depressed beyond what I could express,” he said. “Quitting Marineland really did save my life.”
This summer, Demers took his allegations to The Star, which ran a front-page expose. But Santos remained silent. She wanted to keep her job, mostly because she was a chief caretaker to Kiska, the park’s last orca.
When the couple first started, Marineland had seven orcas. Since then, six died. Another whale, Ikaika (Ike), was reclaimed last year by SeaWorld, which had loaned him for breeding purposes, then sued to get him back, citing sub-par conditions at Marineland.
According to Demers, Santos witnessed Ike repeatedly attacking Kiska and forcibly trying to penetrate her, and the two had to be separated for extended periods of time. But after Ike was sent back to the U.S. one year ago, Kiska has been utterly alone, a violation of U.S. law, though not the law in Canada, where animal welfare is largely self-regulated by the display industry.
Once in total solitary confinement, Kiska began cutting her dorsal fin on her tank’s fiberglass grates, Santos told The Star, adding 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.
“Now Kiska’s skin is healing, but she’s generally very unhealthy,” Demers said. “She’s been on lots of meds: antibiotics, antifungals, the occasional aspirin.” She is not very responsive to humans and “calls for other whales when she vocalizes.
Demers believes Santos was fired, in part, because of her relationship with him. He called the lawsuit against Santos “absurd, a bully tactic; and it’s not going to work.”
Demers is unsure why Marineland is not going after him, but vows to help defend his girlfriend. “Let them sue,” he said. “The evidence, the photos, the documents, it’s all there. If there’s a suit, during the discovery period, everything can be substantiated. Marineland will be revealed.”
As for Kiska, Christine Santos “just wants her to have anything other than what’s going on right now,” Demers said. Retirement to a sea-pen is one option, or even transfer to another park. “What Christine wants for her,” he said, “is a better life, with a little more dignity.”
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David Kirby, a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, has been a professional journalist for 25 years and was a contracted writer for The New York Times, where he covered health and science, among other topics. He has written for national magazines and was a correspondent in Mexico and Central America from 1986-1990. His third book, Death at SeaWorld, was published by St. Martin’s Press.