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Animal cruelty charges that had been laid against Marineland were dropped Thursday after prosecutors said there was no reasonable chance of conviction on most of the 11 counts faced by the Ontario tourist attraction.
During a brief hearing in a Niagara Falls, Ont., courtroom, the Crown said it could have proceeded on three of the charges — which related to failing to comply with standards of care for a peacock, guinea hens and a red deer — but did not believe it was in the public interest to do so, citing potential court costs and a weak case.
Crown attorney Stephen Galbraith said prosecutors had instead come up with an alternative solution that included ongoing monitoring of the amusement park and zoo.
"The Crown's case is more circumstantial than direct evidence," Galbraith told the court. "The photographs and video provided preserves observations, but there was no independent examination of the animals. The veterinarian's report was not able to determine the cause of issues related to the animals."
The justice of the peace hearing the case accepted the Crown's submission and withdrew the charges.
The 11 charges against Marineland were the result of an investigation by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that was launched last November after the animal welfare agency received a complaint.
Marineland was initially charged with five counts of animal cruelty late last year in connection with the treatment of peacocks, guinea hens and black bears. In January, the OSPCA laid six more animal cruelty charges against Marineland relating to elk, red deer and fallow deer.
In a statement issued after Thursday's court hearing, Marineland said it had suffered "reputational damage" as a result of the charges that were withdrawn.
"The Crown conducted its own independent review of the OSPCA charges and has effectively agreed with Marineland by determining all the charges ought to be withdrawn," the company said.
The OSPCA said it was surprised the charges were withdrawn.
"We are extremely disappointed in this outcome and feel that this matter is of public interest as all animals rely on humans for appropriate care for their general welfare and the public demands this," said OSPCA chief inspector Connie Mallory.
"If anyone has any concerns for the welfare of the animals at Marineland, we encourage the public to contact 310-SPCA to report the new information."
The 35-page complaint that prompted the OSPCA investigation in November was filed by a California-based animal rights group called Last Chance for Animals. It contained allegations of animal abuse along with photographs and videos from a former Marineland employee.
The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the group's complaint, as well as copies of the photos and videos from the former employee with metadata indicating they were taken on Marineland property last summer.
Marineland said at the time that the complaint was part of a smear campaign by a former employee who had been fired for poor performance and inappropriate behaviour. It also argued the images and videos may be doctored.
The former employee, who requested anonymity for fear of being sued, told The Canadian Press he quit on good terms and is not an animal activist and doesn't want the park to close.
Last Chance for Animals, meanwhile, has said its goal is not to shut down Marineland, though it does believe "wild animals should be left in the wild.''
"The Crown’s decision to drop all charges despite having sufficient evidence to move forward on at least three counts is shameful," the organization said in a statement. "It is the government’s responsibility to hold Marineland accountable and enforce existing animal welfare laws."
On Thursday, Marineland reiterated its previous position that the OSPCA laid the charges to appease animal rights groups that have criticized it for not doing enough to protect animals.
"The OSPCA literally prepared the first of these charges on site, after spending a single afternoon executing a search warrant and viewing more than 4,000 animals across more than three hundred acres at our park," Marineland said. "The OSPCA did not remove or isolate any of the 4,000 animals, despite laying multiple charges."