Marineland owner John Holer has died at 83

Marineland owner John Holer has died at 83
His death on Saturday was confirmed by longtime friend Niagara Falls councillor Wayne Thomson, who’s also chair of Niagara Falls Tourism.

“We’ve been friends for 50 years,” Thomson told the Star. “I’ve been though it all with him and I feel that I was part of Marineland because it was so important to this community.”

Thomson declined to comment further out of respect for the Holer family, saying he would share his memories at Holer’s funeral, the date for which has not been set.

The tourist attraction has been a key part of the Niagara Falls community for decades and familiar to many through its commercial jingle “Everyone Loves Marineland.” But not everyone loves the amusement park, which has for many years been embroiled in controversy, including the alleged mistreatment of animals. For years, animal activists have fought to have it shut down.

Marineland has always maintained that its animals are well treated and all allegations of abuse and mistreatment are not true.

Holer was born in 1935 in Maribor, Slovenia, then part of Yugoslavia. He immigrated to Canada and landed in the Niagara region in the late 1950s and started a circus.

“I saw that a vast number of visitors were coming to Niagara Falls, and there was very little for them to do besides the actual falls,” Holer recalled in a 1983 interview.

Sensing an opportunity, he opened Marineland in 1963, with a few sea lions doing shows in a small pool. Over the years, he bought up more land — this too was controversial because on one occasion it involved the eviction of 47 families from a trailer park he had acquired — and the park grew into a massive tourist attraction that included a killer whale, beluga whales, dolphins and land animals such as deer and bears.

And there were numerous incidents involving animals — a bear cub once escaped for a few days before returning and a bison wandered out onto a nearby highway. In 1977, the U.S. government seized six bottlenose dolphins that Holer had caught in the Gulf of Mexico, and following the death of a beluga whale in 1999, arson threats were made against him.

Keiko, the male orca and star of the hit film Free Willy, started his performance career at Marineland in the 1980s, but was sold in 1985 to an aquarium in Mexico.

In 2012, the Star wrote extensively about whistleblowers from Marineland alleging mistreatment of animals, including a killer whale who spent his final four years indoors, often alone in a small pool with little natural light; dolphin skin floating in the water; and a sea lion that suffered eye damage because of filth in the water.

Following the Star investigation, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA) did not charge Marineland, but ordered it to make changes, which the park complied with.
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