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.