Marineland says Senate bill harmful to science; activist praises 'historic' move

Amusement park and zoo says the bill S-203, passed by the Senate Tuesday, will harm scientific research. But an animal activist argues it's long overdue.

Senate passed bill that would ban captivity of whales, dolphins after years of debate

Phil Demers worked at Marineland for 12 years before becoming an animal activist. (Phil Demers)

A former Marineland trainer turned animal welfare activist says the Senate's decision to pass a bill that would ban keeping whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity is long overdue and marks a "paradigm shift" away from offering live animals as an attraction.

But the Niagara Falls, Ont. amusement park and zoo argues the bill will hurt scientific research and is specifically aimed at shuttering the park.

Following nearly three years of debate and study, bill S-203 cleared the Red Chamber Tuesday night. It still needs to be passed by the House of Commons before it can become law.

The bill would ban keeping and breeding cetaceans, including whales, dolphins and porpoises, in captivity through amendments to the Criminal Code.

Parks that don't follow the law could face fines of up to $200,000.

Philip Demers worked at Marineland as a trainer for 12 years and has been a vocal advocate for S-203. He described the bill passing the Senate as a "historic" step.

"This is a big deal, if only symbolically because the industry's interests weren't able to stop this bill," he said. "Even if it's not law, this is a huge change and it's really indicative of the future."

From Marineland's perspective, the change promised by the bill won't be positive.

"Bill S-203 was not supported by the relevant ministries or the credible scientific community," reads a statement from the park. "Sadly, it impairs legitimate scientific and research programs and is explicitly targeted to close Marineland."

The park added it is hopeful the House of Commons will halt the bill as the debate around it has been "highly emotional, lacking in fact-based or science-based analysis and mired in unnecessary conflict incited by radical animal rights groups from the United States."

Park being left 'fast in the past'

Demers said Marineland's statement echoes what the park has been saying for years and offers a position he believes has been proven false.

"It was through thorough analysis and thorough consultation that this bill was passed. Their defence of this, saying it lacks scientific credibility, has been debunked, every step of the way," he explained.

Marineland says the debate around the bill was based on emotion and not scientific facts. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The activist added if Marineland does close, he believes it won't be because of the bill. Instead, it will be because they refuse to accept that keeping live animals as an attraction isn't popular anymore.

"This is just Marineland showing themselves once again as living in a world that no longer exists and is leaving them fast in the past."

Activist calls bill a 'big win'

The Senate bill would, through the breeding ban, phase out captivity over time. That means Marineland would still be able to keep its current stock of some 55 cetaceans even if the legislation is passed by the Commons.

A bill like this, politically, could just prove a big win for Canada.- Phil Demers, former Marineland trainer

Demers and other activists are hopeful Canadian marine mammals currently in captivity could be moved to seaside sanctuaries instead.

The bill would also prohibit the importing of cetaceans, or their sperm, tissue cultures or embryos.

Despite the three-years battle it took for the bill to pass the Senate, Demers said he remains hopeful it will become law.

"A bill like this, politically, could just prove a big win for Canada as a whole," he explained. "If there's anything that could be fast-tracked, maybe this is the exception. Against all odds it's still alive, so maybe this thing has a chance."

with files from John Paul Tasker