John Holer, founder and owner of Marineland, one of Canada’s last remaining zoological theme parks, mastered the practice of keeping wild creatures in captivity for profit. He started his business in the early 1960s with just three sea lions living in a tank on a small parcel of land in Niagara Falls, Ont., and it evolved into today’s 1,000-acre amusement facility with performing marine mammals, as well as assorted deer, bears and fish on display.
Despite the fact it receives 250,000 visitors a year, and contrary to its ubiquitous radio jingle and TV ad promising family fun, not everyone loves Marineland. At the opening of its 57th season last May, hundreds of animal-rights activists lined the road in front of the park to rattle the cage of Mr. Holer, who frequently referred to protesters as “kooks.” In an interview for Niagara at Large, an online publication, Mr. Holer told the reporter, “I have a clear conscience. My animals are looked after A1. I would be the biggest fool walking on earth if I did not take care of these animals.” He stressed that a single whale or dolphin is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to a marine aquarium. “I couldn’t afford to lose my animals,” he said.
Mr. Holer, who died on June 23 at his home near Marineland at the age of 83, was a constant presence in the park. From opening to closing time he patrolled the grounds in a golf cart while wearing work pants and a ball cap. He looked like any regular employee. If a visitor asked if he worked there, he said he did without elaborating. Mr. Holer was known for his acts of generosity, which included paying for an employee’s medical treatment in the United States and helping someone else buy a house. He had a habit of buying ice cream for children.
His business’s contributions to the Niagara Falls economy are also substantial and undeniable. In a recent statement, Marineland claimed to be responsible for 55 per cent of nearby summer hotel bookings.
Mr. Holer’s friend Wayne Thomson, a former Niagara Falls mayor, notes Marineland also brings significant employment opportunities to the region, including summer jobs for thousands of students. Mr. Thomson said of Mr. Holer, “He was passionate, a unique and special individual who was driven by his dream, which was to create the best water theme park in the world. Every cent he earned went back into the business to expand it. He was relentless in accomplishing his objectives.”
Mr. Holer was born Ivan Holerjem, on Aug. 15, 1935 in Zice, a village in Slovenia, formerly part of Yugoslavia. The Holerjems were farmers and vintners in a region known for its wine. Ivan supplemented what he learned from the family business by studying the chemistry of wine in technical school. After the Second World War, when Communists expropriated part of the family farm, Ivan escaped across the border into Graz, Austria. He worked at a winery before travelling to Germany, where he gained employment with Circus Krone, learning to train sea lions and bears. In those days, bears were made to dance by being forced to stand on metal that heated until they lifted their paws.
Seeking a new life, Ivan, soon to become John Holer, immigrated to Canada in 1957. He improved his English while working in assorted occupations, including as an orderly at a hospital where he memorized instructions before consulting a German nurse who translated for him. His diligent work ethic impressed a hospital patient who offered him a job working for Canada Steamships at a dry dock in Welland, Ont. While there, a damaged submarine gave Mr. Holer an idea: build an underwater amusement ride. A broker steered the idea to the Walt Disney Co., which paid Mr. Holer and a co-worker $14,000 for their design to be used as the basis for a Jules Verne-inspired submarine ride at Disneyland.
For the next two years, Mr. Holer, ever frugal, lived in a cabin in the woods without electricity while using the Disney payment to seed his next venture. He’d looked around Niagara Falls and observed there wasn’t much city entertainment for tourists. He set to work, welding two large tanks together and installing portholes so visitors could watch sea lions swim. The charge was 25 cents, plus another 25 cents to feed the animals. In order to boost attendance, he hired cars from a local wrecker and had them towed to his parking lot so it appeared full. The ploy successfully sparked people’s curiosity about the attraction. They paid the admission fee.
As business increased, Mr. Holer brought in whales and other valuable sea mammals. Glitches inevitably arose. In 1976, the U.S. government seized six trained dolphins he was attempting to import from Mexico. Bad weather had forced the pilot to land in Texas without a permit for his live cargo. The dolphins were released into the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1971, Marineland added orcas, also known as killer whales, to its roster of performers. The famous orca Keiko, eventual star of the 1993 hit movie Free Willy, worked at Marineland for a few years in the eighties, a decade in which the park saw a multi-billion-dollar expansion. When Keiko began exhibiting signs of distress, Mr. Holer sold him to a Mexican aquarium.
Over the years, as attitudes toward keeping animals in captivity changed, Marineland became a target for animal-rights activists. Marineland’s lawyers have responded to critics with numerous lawsuits, in some cases dropping the suits before they got to discovery.
Last year, Marineland filed a $21-million lawsuit against the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (OSPCA), claiming that the group had maliciously attacked the theme park. The OSPCA had made serious allegations about the animals’ treatment and the Crown subsequently laid 11 counts of animal cruelty against Marineland, but the charges were ultimately dropped.
“He was strategic” said Julie Woodyer, campaign director for Zoocheck Canada, a wildlife protection agency. “He never came after us because all our reports were science-based and had been vetted by lawyers.” She remembers her run-ins with Mr. Holer. “I had a video camera and was filming him. He put up his hand and shoved the camera into my face. He was aggressive. He once said, ‘I know where you live.’ The police were standing there. I said ‘Did you hear that? Seriously? This guy can just threaten anybody?' They said, ‘Oh that’s just John Holer. That’s what he does.'” Ms. Woodyer said Zoocheck finally gave up organizing protests and decided to lobby for tougher legislation instead.
In 2015, Ontario banned the practice of owning and breeding orcas in captivity while simultaneously allowing Marineland to keep its last remaining orca, named Kiska. Marineland unsuccessfully objected, arguing that Kiska needed a companion. She is the last orca in Canada to be owned and is now too elderly to be released.
Bill S-203, known as the Free Willy bill is currently before the senate. If it is passed into law, it will be a criminal offence to keep or sell whales and dolphins in Canada.
In a statement on social media after Mr. Holer’s death, Mike Garrett, a former animal activist who has been named in a Marineland lawsuit, wrote, “Regardless of personal beliefs, Mr. Holer was from a different generation and accomplished much with very little.”
Mr. Holer leaves his wife of 46 years, Marie; son Peter; siblings Marica and Branko; and two granddaughters. His son John died in 2013.