Memories of Marineland

I worked at the theme park decades before stories of mistreatment broke. It seemed bad even then

Marineland stage
Illustration by Amedeo de Palma

Here’s what I cannot remember about the incident: the exact date, my hairstyle at the time, that summer’s hit song or the price of gas, whether the Jays were in the pennant race—those white noise details that form the background jibber-jabber of our lives.

Many of the more specific details elude me, too. What colour were the walls in the Barn? How did we wrangle the sea lion into Big Blue? Afterwards, did my friend Matt and I sit under the maples in the staff picnic area, regaling our fellow “trashies” with our strange tale?

But it goes even deeper. There are gaps in the chronology, as if mice have crawled into my skull, chewing away the connective fabric. Lose those crucial linkages, and doubt seeps in.

I could fill in some holes rather easily. For example, I could take my birth year (1975) and my age the first summer I worked at the park (sixteen). The incident, I know, took place in my second summer. So 1975 + 17 = 1992. From that, I could tell you gas was fifty-five cents a litre, the Jays would have won the World Series, and the summer’s hit song may have been “End of the Road” by Boyz II Men.

These unassailable facts have the effect of pulling me closer to the incident. Because of them, I can nearly convince myself that the gauzier memories—the chimeric moments, the things I want so dearly to be true—must be facts, too.

This is the most dangerous element about memory. If it means enough to us, we can convince ourselves that almost anything happened.

Here’s how I remember it: My friend Matt and I worked on the grounds crew at Marineland, an aquatic-themed amusement park in Niagara Falls, Ontario. We wheeled Dumpsters through the tourist hordes, emptying the trash cans, our knuckles stung by the wasps trapped inside.

One afternoon, our supervisor, Rod, approached on a yellow golf cart. We followed him to the Barn, a huge warehouse behind the stadium where the orcas, dolphins, and sea lions performed six times a day throughout the summer. He led us through a door into a room adjoining the stadium—the trainers’ space, usually off limits to us. I recall the overwhelming odour of a fishmonger’s stall. A whale swam in the quarantine pool, a cement bowl so small that the animal’s spine followed the curve of it.

To our right stood the sea lion pens. Inside one lay a dead sea lion. Our job: to drag it back to the Barn’s walk-in freezer.

This particular animal had been a favourite of one trainer, and we were to have it out of sight before the show concluded, to spare her the sight of it face down in the brine. Its flippers were… Open your hands and lay them flat with the palms facing upward. Now touch your wrists. That’s what its flippers looked like, more or less.

Matt grabbed one flipper, I the other. The creature possessed the disobliging weight of all dead things—but it was wet, its hide naturally oily, so it glided rather easily across the floor, up a cement ramp, and into the freezer, where we left it among the pallets of frozen fish.

Near the end of our shift, we returned to the freezer and stood around the animal, our breath puffing whitely. It was now encased in ice—the lacy, wafer-thin kind that forms like a crackling skin over winter puddles and shatters under the slightest pressure—and frozen to the smooth concrete. We pushed and shouldered it. No luck. In extremis, Rod put the boots to it, kicking until it came unstuck.

Matt and I laughed—a shameful admission. You know those hysterical giggles you get when a situation is so absurd, shocking, or terrifying that they’re more a form of damage control? The laughter boils up your throat with a fizzy club soda effervescence, impossible to tamp down, intent on releasing the poison inside you.

I truly want to believe that’s what it was. Otherwise, it was just two cruel boys laughing as our supervisor kicked a dead sea lion in the head.

The ice splintered. The sea lion spun on its axis like a compass needle seeking true north. We guided it from the freezer, its body skidding awkwardly down the ramp and onto a concrete platform set above the Barn’s floor. Rod backed up Big Blue, an ancient stake truck retrofitted as a trash hauler, until its bumper nearly touched the platform. Then we slid the sea lion into the bed. Its hide was gummed with soggy french fries and half-masticated hot dogs and syrupy fountain pop, with dirty diapers and bloody Band-Aids and snotty Kleenexes. When Rod gunned the engine and pulled away, I heard the animal bash around in the truck bed, skating unmoored like a block of ice.

Where did he take it? I never asked. But my mind leaped to the burn pit. That’s what we did with garbage back then: burned it in a charred bowl dug out of the earth that sent up coils of black, carcinogenic smoke. My teenage self was unfailingly mesmerized by the sight of embers eating through fresh bags. They split apart like sheerest flesh, revealing innards of plastic cutlery, Styrofoam plates, and waxed cups full of half-melted ice cubes that vaporized into hissing steam.

I imagined Rod reversing Big Blue, then mashing the brake pedal, the tires stuttering to a halt just shy of the pit’s edge. I saw the sea lion rocketing from the bed, its body suspended for an instant against the cobalt sky, describing a perfect parabolic arc before nosediving into the trash pile, whumph, kicking up curlicues of char.

The following afternoon, I had stood atop Big Blue, hurling bags into the pit, idly wondering if the sea lion’s bones were blackening somewhere beneath that layer of crackling slag.

Two decades later, a scandal has rocked the park. A Toronto Star article, the first in an ongoing series, ran on August 15, 2012. It documented a horrific inventory of mistreatment, ranging from poor water quality to tiny enclosures to insufficient or undertrained staff. These were cited as the cause for a litany of health concerns in the animals, such as fur loss, inflamed eyes, open sores, general listlessness, blindness, and more.

I followed the series with interest, as many ex-Marinelanders surely did. I had my own repertoire of stories, each with its own title: “The Tale of the Frozen Sea Lion”; “The Legend of Cinnamon, the Perpetually Buggered Bear”; “The Fable of the One-Legged Seagull.” I used to tell them to my high school and university buddies for yuks. You would be shocked at how, just by accentuating the absurdities and downplaying the implicit horrors, you can have a room of drunk, eager-to-make-nice freshmen roaring at the story of a dead sea lion knocking around a garbage-strewn truck.

As the years drew on, I would tell them differently—not for laughs, but closer to how they occurred in my memory. I would emphasize other details, my voice much more sombre. Friends who had heard the earlier versions would frown and say, “You’re telling it wrong, man.” They had been expecting to laugh, but more and more my stories did not offer that licence.

Then, when the scandal hit, I finally forced myself to confront a gnawing question about that incident in the Barn, which stands out from the rest for being singularly awful: what did I absolutely, for sure remember?

We all experience galvanic events in our lives. Afterwards, the question may arise: what do we really remember about them? Memory is enforced through repetition, but many moments exist discretely, unduplicated. My recollection of handling the frozen sea lion comes in crystalline flashes, glimpses and scents and other sensory keynotes that exist in my mind like baubles on a charm bracelet, connected by a spider’s thread of experiences hanging just outside my conception.

Could I have doctored the incident, turned it into an anecdote I told for personal gain? It was certainly possible. Yet I was convinced that veins of truth must be threaded through it. So I began to bloodhound the story—investigating myself, essentially—testing what I remembered against the memories of others who were there, working backwards through time, seeking an objective truth.

If you grew up in or around Niagara Falls, chances are you’ve worked in the tourist industry, making change at the Skylon Tower arcade or handing out raincoats for the Maid of the Mist. Me? Marineland.

Back then, I had two sets of friends: school and summer. Matt Warriner was the latter. We lived in different towns, attended different schools. If we had bumped into each other in the wintertime, it would have been weird, like two bears stirring from hibernation, blinking confusedly at each other. But during those summers, he was my best friend. Anyone who has worked a summer job knows this feeling. We spent eight hours a day together—fourteen if we worked a double shift—hauling those stinking bins.

We meet at a chain restaurant after his shift at the resort where he works as the banquet supervisor. We haven’t spoken in years. At thirty-six, he is thicker but handsome, with bags under his eyes; he still sports the Morrissey, a dark rip curl rising off his forehead, gelled into a frozen wave. A bigger fan of the Smiths you will not find.

Back in the day, we would get drunk as underage boys do: falling-down, gut-pukingly so. Tonight Matt orders a bottle of Bud Light and declines my offer of a second round. He must get home to his young son and daughter; one of them has the flu. I ask him to tell me the story, however he remembers it.

“We got called up to the Barn because a seal had died and they’d left it in the freezer,” he says. “It was stuck to the floor, remember? We had to get rid of it. We put it on a truck. I’m not sure where it was going. I mean, I joke about it going to the burning inferno of garbage. I don’t think it was going there—but I don’t think it was going anywhere proper.”

He breaks for a sip of beer.

“Didn’t we have to pry its head up with a shovel? Weren’t we kicking it in the head to get it unfrozen from the floor? Then me and someone else grabbed near its head, and you grabbed its flippers, and it just kind of relieved itself on you; he wasn’t frozen all the way through. You dropped the end and went, ‘Good Lord, I’ve been shat on by a dead seal!’ I remember laughing my ass off.”

I didn’t forget this part; I purposely omitted it. It hews too cleanly to how everyone viewed me back then: the fat, floppy-haired clown who of course would get shit on. Also, perhaps more crucial, it always struck me as what a screenwriter might call a “punch-up”—a slapstick, slip-on-a-banana-peel detail more suited to a movie than to real life. But Matt tells a hell of a story. It’s one of the reasons we always got on so well.

“Then we just whipped the seal onto the flatbed of a truck as best we could,” he says. “And it drove away.”

Our stories share crucial overlaps, but I can’t ignore the discrepancies.

“You heard anything about Rod? ” I ask. “He’s a hard man to find.”

Matt gives me a puzzled look. “Craig, Rod’s dead.”

It rushes back. A car crash. Rod had died in his cherry red sports car. Jesus, I spent hours trying to track down a dead man for an interview, and I had completely forgotten something so essential. What did that say about the condition of my memory?

Before long, we have run through our shared stories, and a distance settles between us—nothing more than the years piling up with their faultless arithmetic. We agree to touch base soon, to gather our families for a summer barbecue. I hope it happens. It’s not just that I miss the days of hauling bins or hiding out behind the Dragon Mountain roller coaster talking about… well, I can’t remember exactly, but those memories, however degraded, conjure a deep wistfulness in me.

We were still kids then, and our world was small: our school, our neighbourhood, our crummy summer jobs. Everything outside that orbit—the grand confusions and injustices, those impenetrable cosmic misfortunes our folks called “the facts of life”—existed on the other side of boyhood. Matt and I could see their outlines developing but remained sheltered from them.

Except we weren’t, were we? The facts of life were right there, festering.

It does suck to think that these guys really, really hate me,” says Phil Demers, a veteran trainer who, along with seven others, talked to the Star. Eventually, fifteen former staffers went on the record, but Demers is the unofficial mouthpiece of the movement, the key whistle-blower.

My brother (another ex-Marinelander) and I meet with him on a cold fall afternoon, at a bar not far from the park. Trim and athletic at thirty-four, a night watchman’s cap tugged tight to his skull and his wan features obscured by a five-day beard, he tells us that warning signs cropped up early in his tenure.

“My very first day, my first job was scrubbing blood drops; they trailed all the way through an arcade they’d built into the Barn. So you can imagine that: cleaning up a killer whale’s blood. They’d do a necropsy and then roll the dead animal through the arcade, put it in the truck, and bury it. So there I was on my hands and knees, just scrubbing.” A disbelieving bark of laughter. “That was day one.”

We talk our way to the bottom of a few pints, over the course of which Demers comes off as a thoughtful guy with no inkling of the forces he would be grappling with. Months after our interview, he would be slapped with a $1.5-million lawsuit claiming he had attempted to kidnap Smooshi, one of Marineland’s walruses. (Demers maintains that he wasn’t even on the park grounds when the alleged attempt was made.)

The lawsuit will sting, since he repeatedly refers to himself as a “company guy.” He joined the park out of college, working his way from blood scrubber to senior trainer. But during over a decade on the job, he claims to have witnessed a pattern of mistreatment that, despite his protests, went unrectified.

“I’m in the pit now,” he says. “I’m getting a good shit-kicking all around. There was a great high that came from speaking up initially. Sort of like, Wow, I’m being celebrated for doing the right thing. But when that dies down, you’re left with all the… ” He falters. “If I could go back three months and kick my ass, it would be for believing someone was going to step forward and fix the place.”

Marineland has weathered plenty of accusations over the years. In the early to mid-’90s, protests were a common summertime occurrence. They ranged from pitiful (a lone, wild-haired string bean in a tie-dye shirt waving a placard) to profound. One year, a large group of activists gathered along the road leading into the park; they had a huge inflatable killer whale with cardboard shackles banding its flippers. One protester fastened himself to the front gates with a bicycle U-lock, clipping it around his throat. But the demonstrations never seemed to amount to anything. As for how the park dealt with the animals, it was always business as usual.

This time, of course, members of Marineland’s inner sanctum are talking, and the park has kept itself in the news cycle by launching lawsuits against Demers and others. Some two weeks after the Star published its first article, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals launched an investigation. The paper has reported that the OSPCA ordered Marineland to address numerous issues, including improving the environment for Kiska, the last surviving killer whale. Marineland denied such an order was ever issued—and sued the Star over the allegation—along with any mistreatment of its animals. Several months after I meet with Demers, on April 24, the OSPCA will announce that it has completed its investigation, that all of its orders have “met with compliance and as such have been revoked.” Yet, heading into the busy summer season, I haven’t seen anything that confirms this—no announcement of a new habitat for Kiska, no new whale friends.

“She’s a highly social, intelligent animal,” Demers tells me. “Having gone through all she has—over and above the capture itself—to lose every other animal she’s ever socialized with, mated with, to lose all her calves, everything, and to be left alone. Every single day I worked there, she was on meds.”

“You medicate the whales? ” I ask. “The same stuff that works for a human brain? Like Prozac? ”

“Valium they use a lot,” he says. “Listen, when it comes to animal protection there’s a law. You can’t cause an animal to suffer unnecessarily, but you’re allowed to cause necessary suffering. So if cutting off the head of a pig is necessary to harvest its meat, that’s okay. Is what’s happening at Marineland the same? Well, nobody was stepping in to say no it’s not, or yes it is. The letter of the law is just so vague.”

There is simply no legal basis in Canada for challenging the practices at a place like Marineland, which is, after all, a business.

“It’s not on the park to create an environment where animals thrive,” explains Demers. “The cycle is, animals die; get more animals; get your millions of dollars in ticket fees; animals die; get more animals.”

I tell him my own story. He nods at its plausibility, then says, “We used to bury ’em. I, in fact, ah… I can’t tell you that story.”

After some gentle coaxing, he does. “I had to dig up a dead killer whale about two weeks after it was buried: Kandu, the male. The laboratory asked after a sample for one particular part of the brain, which was missed during an exhaustive necropsy,” he says. “The vet asked me, ‘Can you get someone to do this? ’ I could never ask someone else to do that, so I suited up, and I went out there.”

On the drive home, I turn to my brother. “The whale grave,” I say. “Digging Kandu’s brain out. Think it really happened? ”

I tried to picture it: Demers in a haz-mat suit or something, perched at the lip of a grave containing a 4.5-metric-ton killer whale that had been interred for two weeks. Demers slip-sliding around a rotting whale carcass—a mountain of putrefying flesh—in the wee hours of the night. By what, lantern light? How the hell did he get the brain out? You can’t pick up a whale and shake him until his brain falls out like a dried pea from a soda can. You ever touched a whale? Its skin is as tough as an inner tube. Was Kandu’s skull sawed apart already? I mean, Christ—try to picture it yourself: Phil Demers’ arm sunk shoulder deep in a killer whale’s head, gloved fingers rummaging through blubber and shattered bone and Valium-steeped blood for that runnelled bowling ball of a brain.

Stories live or die in the delivery. What is stressed, what’s left out. The truth can be massaged. We know we do it, and we accept it from others.

Consider the story I told you. Dissect it. There is that ticklish business of wrangling the sea lion from the freezer into Big Blue. In my memory, it slid so smoothly, a torpedo into its launching tube.

Someone only ever had to ask, “Craig, what does a sea lion weigh? ” Here I might have stiffened, a witness under cross-examination: “I don’t know, a hundred pounds? ”

No. Males weigh 200 to 400 kilograms, females fifty to 110—facts I would not have known offhand, but then neither would most listeners.

My questioner may have furrowed his brow and said, “So, how did you get that damn sea lion onto the truck? ”

Hence the platform. My mind plucked it out of the ether, put it right where it needed to be. Or maybe it was truly there.

I looked back at my notes to see what Matt had said about it: We just whipped the seal onto the back of a flatbed as best we could.

Nebulous, sure, but seeing as it’s stage dressing that connects more vital bits of our shared story, it’s easy to gloss over.

How about that ice covering the sea lion’s eyes? Not to brag, but isn’t that a great fucking grace note? It’s the little things, isn’t it? You pull the listener close by reaching a hopeful hand into his chest, ferreting for those strains of shared personal experience—the crack of wafer-thin ice under a boot—that forge that crucial bond.

You believe me, don’t you? We’re the same, you and I. Lying to you would be like lying to myself—and that’s impossible, isn’t it?

Iapproached my investigation as a journalist. I sought out sources, conducted interviews, listened to their versions of events. At the end of every conversation, my subject would say, “Know who you ought to talk to? ” I’d be given another name, another story—an endless daisy chain of confessors.

“At SeaWorld, the belugas that need medical attention are trained to swim into an area that gets closed off,” says Brendan Kelly, a trainer who quit soon after the Star article went to print. “But at Marineland, what we’d do is drop the water to knee level, and whichever one the vet chose that day, the whole staff would jump on it, restrain it, and then the vet would either take blood or administer an injection.”

They called it the Beluga Rodeo.

“Of course, there are other belugas all over the place, and we’d try to position them away from the grate of the pool, but sometimes because of all the flopping they’d get back toward the grate, end up cutting themselves, gashing each other up. We used to say the water would turn Caesar—like, Caesar red, same as the cocktail? ”

We’re sitting in another bar, the ideal confessional. Kelly’s stories accumulate, and in time I tune out. It’s not that his accounts aren’t gruesomely compelling; they are, just like Demers’, or like the ones that keep popping up in the newspapers. It’s that, taken as a whole, they’re overwhelming.

In the evenings, I would sit with the collected information. I would listen to the tapes again, reread the newspaper stories, and highlight relevant portions. Weeks after interviewing Demers, a key development: the Star reports that more than a thousand animals have been discovered in two of four mass graves on Marineland property. Was my sea lion among them? In the end, I was left with tens of thousands of words pointing to the abuse I thought I had witnessed, but I never got close to corroborating it.

“One time, I had to help with a necropsy on a male sea lion, Thunder,” Kelly says, still on a roll. “At the same time, I was doing a show, because we were low on staff. So you go backstage, pulling intestines out of this male sea lion who was just fine two weeks ago. And you’re doing this on the floor in the Barn. Then all of a sudden, it’s showtime, and you’re running out onstage, you’re smiling… everyone thinks everything’s fine.”

Iworked at Marineland for eight summers. Brendan Kelly, six years. Phil Demers, twelve. It paid our rent and put beer in our fridges. Best summers of my life. To a man, we spoke those words.

It makes you wonder. What if, rather than fabrication, “The Tale of the Frozen Sea Lion” was an act of erasure? My unconscious mind embarking on a sly mission of disburdenment, of purposeful forgetting? If I forget enough, if my own story fills with holes, I can tell myself it’s a lie. And that’s easier, overall. Easier than holding on to the knowledge for twenty-plus years, doing nothing meaningful about it. Easier than remembering how I laughed as my supervisor kicked a dead sea lion.

As for you, dear reader—now that you know, you might say, “How perfectly goddamn awful,” and perhaps you will even post a link on Facebook or consider writing someone important about it, but you probably won’t; and you’ll wake up tomorrow or the next day and it won’t matter so much, because you’ll be taken up with the bits and bobs of your own existence. Years from now, you’ll hear that familiar jingle on the radio—go on, sing it—and think, That place is still around? How perfectly goddamn awful.

Or perhaps you’ll say, He’s lying anyway. None of it happened. And maybe you’d be right at that.

In the meantime, indulge me for one last story. It’s one I have told less often. I can’t recall my age or how many years I had been working at the park. I had been promoted to junior rides supervisor. The park was closed for the night. A group of us were drinking at a nearby bar called Malibu Jack’s.

I stopped short mid-pint: “I forgot to drain the Dragon Boats.”

Every Thursday night, it was my duty to drain the ring of water the boats travelled around in an endless loop, or it would get scummy and collect drowned mice.

“We gotta break into the park,” I declared.

It became a chant: “Drain the Dragon Boats!”

My brother and a few others hopped the fence at the staff parking lot, entering the starlit park. We sectioned off, fragmenting the way drunken groups often do.

I made my way to Family Rides alone, unscrewed the plug, listened to the glug-glug of water rushing out, and walked to Friendship Cove. During the day, the orca pool was thronged with sunburned tourists; right then, only me.

Depthless water, dark as smoked glass. An orca’s dorsal fin cleaved the surface as cleanly as a razor blade through tautened silk. The orca vented air from its blowhole, atomized mist sparkling in the moonlight.

It was beautiful, absurdly so. A whale landlocked in southern Ontario, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest ocean.

Phil Demers spoke about necessary suffering in a legal sense, but in a larger sense suffering is necessary simply because our world’s problems far outstrip our capacity to furnish correctives. And we push the suffering away by telling stories.

The whale surfaced next to me, as it had been trained to. I could have sent it out for a high bow—I had watched the trainers, so I knew the hand signal—but I did not. Its skin shone like vulcanized rubber, its eyes were as big as golf balls surrounded by nets of fine wrinkles like in kid leather. My chest swelled with an unnameable emotion, impossible to grasp in its immensity. It wasn’t happiness or sadness, though it held aspects of each.

The Walrus thanks the Writers’ Trust of Canada for its financial support of this story.

This appeared in the July/August 2013 issue.

Craig Davidson
Craig Davidson is a senior editor at Reps magazine. He has a new novel, Cataract City, due out in September.
Amedeo De Palma
Amedeo De Palma is a senior graphic designer at CBC.