Saturday, July 6, 2013

John Holer: The Man Behind Marineland

Some people outside the Niagara Region may be surprised to know that unlike SeaWorld, Marineland is not owned by some giant corporation but rather privately owned by just one man, who built it all from virtually nothing...John Holer. Born Ivan Holerjem in Slovenia in 1935 Holer was originally schooled as a wine chemist. Looking for work he eventually crossed the border into Austria and joined a travelling circus. It was in the barbaric circus where he learned to train bears and other animals to do tricks like ride a bicycle.

Holer came to Canada in the 1950's. He arrived in the Niagara region on the promise of a job at a winery but it never materialized. Unable to speak English Holer worked various jobs including welder, hospital orderly and as a machinist at the Port Weller Dry Docks. One day a submarine came into the Dry Docks and he was fascinated by it. He developed a prototype of an amusement park ride based on submarines and shopped it around to the owners of local parks like Crystal Beach & Roseland Park. Both rejected it but they referred him to a company in New Jersey who bought the idea. According to Holer the company turned around and sold the concept to none other than Walt Disney who turned it into the Jules Verne Submarine ride at Disneyland.

With the money he made from selling his idea, in 1961 Holer built two large steel tanks on the property just outside Niagara Falls that would become Marine Wonderland and filled them with two sea lions. He began charging people admission to watch him put the sea lions through various routines and tricks and an additional fee for people to feed and pet them. Business was so slow at first he made a deal with a local car lot to have cars parked outside his tacky roadside attraction for it to appear busy. Eventually the tourist trap began making money, Holer added dancing girls and a show as well as more land and more animals such as bird, foxes, deer and bears.

In 1966 John Holer began the first major expansion of Marine Wonderland by building the aquarium dome featuring a stage with an indoor pool and stadium seating. Changing the name to Marineland & Game Farm Holer added dolphins to the show.

 By the early 70's he had purchased his first Killer Whale - Kandu as well as adding more animals such as sea lions, alligators, seals, tigers, bears, lions, bison and elephants. This required the second major expansion which included the outdoor stadium complex built in 1976 to house Kandu and other orcas he began importing. Adding gift shops and food stands along the way Holer aggressively continued to acquire more land to expand the park.

By 1985 it was time to expand once more. Holer was feeling pressure from the popular amusement parks within driving distance and decided to add major rides such as a roller coaster for the first time. The park itself was given a medieval themed makeover and Game Farm was dropped from the name. Holer had grandiose plans for Marineland's multimillion dollar expansion originally announced in 1980, citing the creation of 2,000 permanent jobs, a monorail system, a canal ride and more. Much of it never materialized and to this day visitors can see the half built "fire spewing" volcano and other unfinished remnants.

The last major expansion of the park wouldn't come until the late 90's. Under increased scrutiny from animal advocacy groups calling the conditions at the park deplorable and the threat of government regulation Holer built several larger tanks for orcas and belugas - Friendship Cove & Arctic Cove. With his mind more likely on breeding the profitable animals over what animal rights groups were saying Holer retired the orcas from the circus like shows and waterwork sessions with trainers. The shows were replaced with his age old money making scheme of charging visitors to pet and feed the animals which happens to be far more lucrative.

Today Marineland occupies 1,000 acres making it only second to Disneyworld in total area however less than half of Holer's land is undeveloped and sits empty. The constant promise of thousands of permanent jobs never happened and Marineland only employs about 150 people all year round with that number swelling to approx 650 in the summer, most of those at minimum wage. Canada's Wonderland, a nearby 330 acre amusement park with a similar operation schedule employs a much larger number of people.

Marineland, for what it is was built on the backs of animals and the exploitive minimum wages of its non union employees. Holer earned a famous reputation among his staff for being cheap when it came to maintenance and care of the facilities. But within the history of Marineland and John Holer's rise are other stories. Stories that shape how it was done and continues to this day to be run.

In 1977 John Holer was charged with illegally importing dolphins into the United States after stopping for fuel in Texas. Holer was fined $10,000.

In 1981 a tuberculosis outbreak occurred among the deer at Marineland. John Holer immediately dismissed the danger to the public and his employees by calling the scare "...a pile of baloney". Nearly two dozen deer were eventually destroyed.

Also in 1981 John Holer aggressively tried to purchase a 26 acre public park called John Allan Park in order to expand his property. A campaign by local residents was launched to oppose the plan with a 1,000 people attending a rally. Despite pleas from residents the park was sold to Holer by the City of Niagara Falls.

In 1983 Holer continued to purchase land under dubious circumstances. He used then Niagara Falls Mayor and current city councillor Wayne Thomson's wife as a front to purchase land from a seller who would not sell to him specifically. The deal was brokered by future Mayor - Ted Salci.

Also in 1983 the Ontario Ministry of the Environment laid charges against Holer and Marineland for running an illegal toxic waste dump. Marineland pleaded guilty to 44 charges under the environmental protection act and was fined $15,000.

Rounding out 1983 John Holer and several acquaintances were arrested, jailed and fined $1,000 in New York State for illegally hunting deer at night. A judge who prematurely released Holer and his friends from jail was later admonished by the State Supreme Court for his actions.

After a 1984 tax assessment hiked Marineland's tax rate Holer accused the government of "trying to destroy his dream" and released several media statements declaring there would be no further expansion. He also threatened to move Marineland to the United States which was largely seen as a red herring as his taxes were more likely to double there. Eventually the provincial government introduced legislation to give Marineland a break on the hike.

The breaks for John Holer and Marineland continued in 1985 as the city of Niagara Falls decided to charge Marineland a fraction of its regular garbage collection rates.

In 1992 John Holer was charged by the Lincoln County Humane Society with animal cruelty for failing to provide suitable and adequate care for a newborn deer. The judge later dismissed this charged based on the technicality that Marineland Inc. should have been charged instead of its hands on owner, John Holer.

In 1996 Holer was charged with careless driving after allegedly striking a protester with his truck as she leafleted outside Marineland. The protester was transported to a hospital by ambulance with injuries described by police as “very minor.” Holer was acquitted of the careless driving charge in July 1997.

In 1999 the 65 year old brother of John Holer, Stanislav Holer was charged with sexually assaulting a 16 year old female Marineland employee.

Also in 1999 John Holer applied to the federal government for a permit to capture wild Beluga whales outside of the town of Churchill Manitoba. Town residents came out against the plan and Holer was denied permission.

In 2000 Marineland was ordered by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment to stop discharging untreated wastewater into a local creek.

In 2004 John Holer and Marineland launched their first Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) against Dan Wilson and Niagara Action for Animals. The suit was later dropped.

In 2005 world renowned environmentalist David Suzuki calls John Holer & Marineland a "thug in the community" in response to the NAFA lawsuit.

In 2009 John Holer & Marineland served eviction notices to 47 families of the Green Oaks trailer park. Holer had purchased the land 5 years earlier and claimed he wanted to build maintenance facilities on the land previously giving no indication of his intentions and allowing new residents to buy homes there. Facing total loss of their homes and equity residents appealed to the city and the Landlord & Tenant Board. Holer drove through the park on a daily basis harassing the tenants. Former business partner of Holer and then Mayor of Niagara Falls Ted Salci refused to invoke an existing city bylaw to help the residents and despite evidence to in their favour the L&T Board ruled against them. On the day of eviction in 2011 long time resident Paula Millard committed suicide in her home. To this day the small 6 acre area remains empty and unused.

In 2010 SeaWorld served Holer notice that they were terminating a longstanding breeding agreement between the two parks because they were concerned for the well being of their orca Ikaika if it remained at Marineland. Holer and Marineland refused to hand over the killer whale and was taken to court by SeaWorld eventually losing the case and appeal.

In 2012 John Holer was videotaped threatening to run over a protester with his truck and threatening to "cut his head off". No charges were ever laid.

Also in 2012 John Holer & Marineland approached the city of Niagara Falls to lease the public land at the entrance to the park that has been used by protesters. Holer claimed he wanted the land for beautification purposes. The city rubber stamped the deal and to this day the land remains unchanged.

2012 Marineland was the subject of an extensive investigation by the Toronto Star exposing animal abuse and neglect at the park. Inspections and orders from various regulatory agencies were initiated and there was widespread public condemnation and the biggest protests in the park's history.

In late 2012 the Ontario Ministry of the Environment discovered Marineland was burying thousands of dead animals illegally on the property and ordered them to stop.

In 2013 Marineland began launching SLAPP lawsuits against virtually anyone who opposed them.  By mid 2013 they had multi-million dollar lawsuits against 3 former employees, 2 activists and the Toronto Star newspaper.

In 2013 Marineland began construction of a massive perimeter fence around the property.

Also in 2013 John Holer & Marineland for the first time hired an outside Public Relations specialist to deal with the fallout of the last year's enormously bad press.

In 2013 Holer was videotaped threatening another protester outside the park. He threatened to "stab and bury" the individual handing out leaflets. Police investigated and despite the threat being captured on video no charges were laid.

Also in 2013 Marineland began directing traffic out a long time entrance way instead of the park's normal exit to ensure their customers avoid contact with protesters handing out leaflets. This resulted in traffic chaos and near accidents.  Marineland would eventually install a traffic light at the intersection at their own cost.

2013 Marineland's lawyers went before Niagara Falls City Council and lied about the actions of protesters in order to obtain a second land lease from the city.  This gave Marineland two more sections of public property in order to block protesters and silence opposition.

2013 Marineland issued permit by the Ontario Ministry of Environment to resume burying dead animals on the property.

John Holer has been directly responsible for taking hundreds of animals from the wild who have died at Marineland with significantly shortened lifespans. He built his business based around the exploitation of animals and despite the change in public attitudes around this refuses to transform Marineland into anything but an abusement park. He treats animals poorly and people even worse. He outright breaks or skirts laws and uses Canada's lack of regulations and oversight of captive animals to his advantage. He has never expressed the desire to work with animal advocacy groups to better the conditions at Marineland and has been at all out war with them for years.

Now at age 78 it is unknown what will happen to the business when Holer dies. He has one adopted son that is involved in the business but not in a management status. His only natural born son died suddenly in 2013. Holer lives in the village of Chippawa just outside the property of Marineland near Niagara Falls. One thing's for sure, he has a lot of blood on his hands.


  1. I wish these so-called 'animal rights' activists would stop picking on aquariums and marine life parks and channel their efforts to stopping the wholesale slaughter of dolphins in Japan. One thing that puzzles me, however, is the fact that John Holer owns more beluga whales than are in the entire Sea World collection and he will not sell, rent or loan any of these animals to Sea World and other aquariums.

    1. Greg. Almost every single anti captivity activist i know is aware of the wholesale slaughter of dolphins and are vehemently in opposition to it. The two issues are connected. Where do you think many aquariums get their dolphins?

      As for the Belugas, Marineland and Seaworld used to have a very lucrative breeding loan arrangement until they had a custody battle over an orca and SeaWorld had to repossess it by taking Marineland to court.

    2. Greg sounds like another dumbass that needs to be shot he has no idea where these whales, dolphins comes from.. That they are from Japan where they are brutually murdered and babies are sold for people like Gregs Entertainment.. Maybe if he watched The Cove he would have a better outlook but until then.. And as for the breeding most of the infants die they dont live very long!

    3. Greg, how will you know, we don't fight for other ceteceans, too ? This sounds like: "hey, I'm a regular visitor of marine parks and love amusement, so don't you activists disturb me...! Please fight far away from me..." I wish that one day the ignorance and amusement-addiction of humans will stop, ...because then the exploitation and torturing of animals will stop !
      Until then, this owner and others make millions of Dollars by exhibiting suffering animals to a blind and selfish audience.. He can commit crimes like sexual abuse, illegally importing dolphins and so on without being fined a high amount or without being in risk of losing his business !

    4. Just to clarify, Marineland captures and imports their dolphins and belugas from Russia.

    5. This man is 'evil'...and should be shut down, but sounds like there are no laws protecting marine life. At least seize the bears and deer and get them to a sanctuary, and then campaign and advertise extensively for people to stop giving Marineland any business.

    6. John Holder should be put in a cage an treated exactly the way he treats his staff and animals. Fucking murderer

  2. Excellent account of the history of a very bad man at a very bad place.

  3. We activists are pretty good at multi-tasking, Greg...............we are fighting to end captivity in marine abusement parks like Marineland AND fighting to end the slaughters of dolphins in Japan. We've got it all covered , Greg, and we are relentless.

  4. Greg,
    I implore you to watch "The Cove" and "Blackfish", before you start judging us "activists"! Whoever thinks keeping ANY animal captive is a good idea really need to educate themselves. These precious animals were NOT put on this planet to perform for humans at the expense of being ripped apart from their mother's and family members and to live in deplorable conditions until they die

  5. Mr. Holer is a friggin monster. Is it bad that I wish he dies ASAP and I also pray that KARMA visits him every single day until then....
    I have mad respect for my parents for never taking myself and brother to any ABUSEment park. It was the "in" thing back in the 70's but it's not anymore. There are NO reports of any Orca (in the wild) of killing any humans and SeaWorld claims it doesn't illegally capture dolphins or whales. Um, that's because you either pimp Tili out or have others capture, or rather hide behind the guise of rescuing them because they LOVE them so

  6. I stumbled upon this website and feel heartbroken by all of this. Having only been there once at 11 years old I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes... but now that I know I feel nothing but sorrow knowing that the orca I got to pet is most likely dead by now.

    I feel as though my entire childhood has been shattered as I used to have positive images of MarineLand (my mom says I used to clap at the commericals) but now that I know this... I have no idea what to feel now.

    Though I have to thank you for raising awareness about this, it is better I know now than to live the rest of my life in ignorance about the cruelty that goes on behind the scenes. I for one plan to go whale watching instead of going here to get my orca-fix. I'd much rather see them in their natural habitat anyway.

    1. What a lovely sentiment ... yes it is an exciting thing to see large marine animals in the wild. I am glad my parents did not take us to any "ABUSEment parks' but then we all did not fully understand how cruel it all was. We were all in love with the Jacques Cousteau / National Geographic portrayal of these beautiful animals and someone found a way to monetize it ... at the expense of the animals. I like to think our society is evolving and I hope our politicians will catch up. IN the interim it is these intelligent creatures that pay the price. Unspeakably sad.

    2. What a lovely sentiment ... yes it is an exciting thing to see large marine animals in the wild. I am glad my parents did not take us to any "ABUSEment parks' but then we all did not fully understand how cruel it all was. We were all in love with the Jacques Cousteau / National Geographic portrayal of these beautiful animals and someone found a way to monetize it ... at the expense of the animals. I like to think our society is evolving and I hope our politicians will catch up. IN the interim it is these intelligent creatures that pay the price. Unspeakably sad.

  7. Anyone know if there are sources online for all the charges and stuff??

    1. You can read about a lot of them, in the newspaper archive:

  8. I used to live behind Marineland with my backyard abutting the parks property. John Holer was my neighbour...a horrible man. His wife was a frightened reclusive shell of a woman who didn't mix with the neighbours. I assume she was also one of John Holer's victims.
    The world will be a better place when John Holer dies.

  9. People who imprison and enslave animals like Mr. Holer does, without the slightest apparent concern for their welfare, are mentally ill, IMHO. It is a shame that society rewards their illness with money.

  10. John Holer forced out 47 families from the trailer park that he bought. He never used the land. His reason for he eviction was a sham. Right up until he gave out the eviction notices, he was telling people the park would be there forever. He is a true psychopath and he enjoys the suffering and misery that he inflicts on others.

  11. This man is a greedy mutha f*%$#$ !!! That is all that he cares about. I would love to put him in an equally desolate environment and make him live out the rest of his days.I live close to Marineland, and I too went a couple times as a kid. Since regret it, not knowing then, animals should never be in captivity for human enjoyment. This man is the worst of the worst, I believe. He couldn't give a damn about any animal, only money.SOOO SAD.

  12. Mr. AHoler is clearly motivated by greed, and has no concern for the welfare of animals in his park. The video showing living conditions for a group of 28 black bears was appalling and sad. Clearly, they totally appreciated the Thanksgiving apples provided by thoughtful visitors. Natural, healthy snacks should be available to purchase for the bears, not the sugar pop sundaes Mr. AHoler sells in his concessions. Really?! Cereal? Although cones are probably a step up from the reported cigarette butts and other trash tossed over the fence. Please find a way to close the park and send its prisoners to respected sanctuaries.

  13. It is obvious that the city and its business owners are in collusion in Holer, and just as obvious why. TOURIST DOLLARS. It is one of the main attractions, and, if you have children or grandchildren, the next place to go after seeing the falls themselves. It would REALLY hurt local businesses for it to close. And let's face it - via the bylaw process, the city could have closed it down or better regulated it long ago. Instead, they've all profited on the suffering and deaths of hundreds, if not thosands of animals. When ANYONE with an unbiased eye can see the abuse - like the walruses whose eyes are destroyed by the water quality. Shame on them !!

    1. Well said. Its a statement on our society - or at least our government that places $$ / economic considerations above all other values.

  14. Why is no one protesting at Ripley's Aquarium???

    1. There are plenty of protests at Ripley, maybe you should look into it instead of just assuming things because you don't hear about it.