Marineland founder John Holer dead at 83

John Holer, founder of the Niagara Falls amusement park and zoo Marineland, has died.

Park lawyer says Marineland will continue to run as 'Mr. Holer would have wanted it to'

A sign for Marineland is shown in Niagara Falls, Ont., Monday, August 14, 2017. John Holer, the founder of the Marineland theme park in Niagara Falls, Ont., has died at the age of 83. His lawyer Andrew Burns says Holer died in his home Saturday morning surrounded by family. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

John Holer, who founded Marineland and turned the zoo and amusement park into a major tourist attraction, which later became a magnet for protests, has died. 

On behalf of the park, lawyer Andrew Burns confirmed Holer died "peacefully" at home on Saturday morning, "comforted by his wife and son." He was 83.

Manitoba Conservative Senator Don Plett said the park's creator had been "frail" and suffering with health issues in recent years, but his sudden passing still came as a shock.

"You could not meet a kinder person than John Holer," he added, describing the park's owner as an "outstanding Canadian and a close friend."

"We're mourning," he said, adding he planned to call Holer's wife to offer his condolences Sunday night.

Coming to Canada

Holer was a Slovenian immigrant who worked with circuses before he founded Marineland in Niagara Falls in 1961.

Plett said his friend would often tell stories about dodging communist guards during his escape from the Eastern Bloc.

"He liked to boast a little bit about the fact [that] the only money he had ever received in his entire life from any government was the $25 that each of them had gotten as he got off the ship as a 21-year-old," explained the senator.

He was the type of person we need more of in our country.- Senator Don Plett

Plett added that in just five years, Holer transformed that $25 in $2,500 which, when combined with a loan from the bank, was enough to buy three acres and begin building Marineland.

"He was the type of person we need more of in our country," said Plett. "He was just a remarkable individual with a remarkable work ethic and a remarkable interest ... in the well-being of every animal in Marineland."

But not everyone agrees with Plett when it comes to his perspective on his friend's relationship with animals. 

Today the theme park is home to both land and sea animals and is known by many for its catchy jingle "Everyone loves Marineland."

But the message in that slogan has often clashed with reality as the park has been plagued for years by allegations of animal cruelty, which Marineland has consistently denied.

Between November 2016 and January 2017 the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals laid 11 animal cruelty charges against the park relating to the treatment of its land animals, including black bears, elk, red deer, fallow deer, guinea hens and a peacock.

Those charges were withdrawn by the Crown in August 2017, which cited no reasonable chance of conviction.

The park is now suing the OSPCA for $21 million, alleging the animal protection agency maliciously targeted Marineland and essentially tried to "destroy" it.

Activist says focus should be on animals 

Marineland and its founder have also been the target of animal rights activists.

But as news of Holer's passing broke Sunday and social media lit up with comments from critics, one longtime adversary took to Facebook to ask that the focus remain on the animals, not on spreading hate.

"John Holer was a father, husband and grandfather as well as a business man," read a post signed by Carly Ferguson, president of Ontario Captive Animal Watch Inc.

"He came to Canada and built an empire out of nothing. We just happen to disagree on WHO he built that empire upon - those animals."

Holer's death has led to speculation online about the future of Marineland, but Burns said that although the park is taking time to reflect on his "sad passing" there are no immediate plans to stop entertaining guests.

"It has been a great season so far, and Marineland will continue to operate as Mr. Holer would have wanted it to."

About the Author

Dan Taekema is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: daniel.taekema@cbc.ca

with files from the Canadian Press