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article imageGroup pushes fund drive for Marineland whistle blowers Special

By Elizabeth Batt     Feb 21, 2013 in Environment
Niagara Falls - Cetacean conservation group Fins and Fluke is urging the public to take a stand and support former Marineland trainers who blew the whistle on the conditions of the Canadian park's animals.
The request from the group came after another lawsuit was slapped on former marine mammal trainer Phil Demers by John Holer, the Niagara Falls park owner. Demers, once a senior trainer and Christine Santos, a primary trainer for Marineland's lone orca Kiska, revealed that all was not well for the park's animals in an extensive investigative series that appeared in the Toronto Star last August.
Since the revelations aired, Marineland has faced inspections from the Canadian Association of Zoo and Aquariums (CAZA) and Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA), all of which it seems to have passed with few hiccups.
"It took only a day for inspectors to give Marineland the thumbs-up in the wake of a Star investigation and public complaints about animal care at the Niagara Falls facility," said Linda Diebel and Liam Casey, staff reporters for the Star.
Meanwhile the OSPCA investigation was bogged down by a bureaucratic battle that lasted months they added. And even then, as the organization issued several orders for the park, they were kept secret. This in turn ticked off concerned animal lovers because the organization is a private charity that receives $500,000 in annual provincial funding.
As Marineland continued to appear to sail through investigation after investigation, including one from the Ministry of the Environment into the burying of dead animals onsite without a permit, Holer fired back by leveling several lawsuits against the former trainers who initially blew the whistle armed with video, personal testimony and pictures.
First, Santos was hit with a $1.25 million lawsuit for defamation and lost business. Marineland lawyer Andrew Burns told the Star last October that Santos' account was "seriously inaccurate, false and, if published, are defamatory of Marineland, its veterinarians and (owner John) Holer."
Last January, Santos countersued Marineland for $750,000 and accused Marineland of filing a lawsuit against her that was "trivial, frivolous, vexatious and constitutes an abuse of process of the court."
But the best was yet to come.
Just last week, Marineland slapped Demers with a $1.5 million suit that accused the former trainer of plotting to trespass on the property last October and steal Smooshi, an almost 900 pound female walrus. Demers has made no secret of his bond with the walrus. The duo's special relationship was featured in this news report by CBC:
Still, as close as the relationship is, Demers laughed off the ridiculous claim. "The notion that I’m ‘plotting’ to steal Smooshi is absurd," he told the Star recently. "I also doubt my second floor apartment would hold a walrus," he said.
Cetacean advocate group Fins and Fluke (F&F) agrees. In a new campaign designed to raise funds for the former trainers, they explained that not only have both Santos and Demers been sued, Demers has also been threatened with additional legal action as well.
"Demers and Santos now face crippling legal bills just to defend themselves," they said, "and financial ruin if they can't muster a legal defense."
Digital Journal spoke with one of the co-founders of the group -- Alex Louise Lewis, who says they have less than two weeks to raise funds for the duo.
EB: From Holer's actions some folks might believe that he wants this to proceed in court, but F&F believes that this isn't his true motive. Why not?
ALL: We believe his true motive is intimidation. He wants the whistle blowers to "shut up" and go away. By suing them for large sums of money that they without question don't have, he thinks he can keep their claims quiet. We've never seen SeaWorld do this to the ex trainers. But the intimidation tactic isn't working, Phil and Christine stand true to their claims.
EB: So what do you think would happen if this did make it into the courtroom?
ALL: If this does make it into court, I think Phil and the other whistle blowers have more than enough documented evidence to support their claims. Ultimately we believe this would not rule in Holer's favor based off of their reports out of Marineland, and the way the animals are treated.
EB: So F&F's role then, is to raise enough funds for Santos and Demers to legally mount a defense and force the park to defend the treatment of its animals on public record?
ALL: Fins and Fluke is indeed trying to rally public support from individuals who share a passion for ending cetacean captivity to donate to this campaign. We have 12 days left to raise enough money for Phil and Christine's legal fees.
As a community, we simply cannot fail these people. It would send a negative future message to any person that witnesses deplorable conditions for animals in the future and wants to speak about them but fears retaliation. Holer's actions could impose censorship for years to come.
These frivolous lawsuits really are a case of David versus Goliath. The Goliath in this case being that Holer has the financial might to squash the opposition whereas Christina and Phil don't.
EB: So what is F&F planning?
ALL: We are encouraging people to donate just $10 to their legal case and pass the word on to another person. So far, it's working out well. In the last two days since launching the campaign we've been able to bring in $1,736.00 with our theory that if 1,000 people donate $10 each, we'll reach the goal.
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So far, more than $17,647 of a requested $25,000 has been donated to the former Marineland employees' cause. Now the the race is on said F&F, to accrue the remainder by March 5.
"We are grateful for any amount you can give, large or small," said F&F through their event page on Facebook. "We need to show Marineland that it can't get away with using lawsuits to attempt to punish and bankrupt whistle blowers" the campaign said.
Donations can be made directly at Indiegogo.com, F&F does not handle the financial donations directly.
"If you can't donate" Lewis told us, "then please help us spread the word across social media." Lewis said that all of the information needed to help is posted on the Facebook event page.
Lewis also added, "We're also searching for any Ontario lawyers who might consider taking Demers' case -- pro bono or at a reduced rate. Please send us a message through the event page, or email info@finsandfluke.org."
More about fins and fluke, phil demers, christine santos, marineland, john holer
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