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The animal-rights group that issued a report in June criticizing the treatment and condition of animals at Marineland, a popular summer tourist destination, tried to hold a public debate Tuesday night in the Niagara Falls Library.

Representatives of the park did not attend the meeting, but directors of Zoocheck Canada presented their views to about 35 people.

Earlier this summer, Zoocheck issued a study of the park's animal and marine life exhibits. The report said, in part, that the park's killer whales, dolphins and bears suffer from skin conditions, loss of weight and behavioral problems because of the conditions of their confinement at the park.

The city has a local law regulating the possession of exotic animals as pets, said Alderman Kim Craitor, who said he attended the meeting to see how many people had real concerns about animal treatment at the park. He said he had never received a complaint about treatment of animals at Marineland.

"I guess I am just surprised that so many people aren't here," Craitor said outside the meeting room.

Zoocheck directors Rob Laidlaw and Brian J. McHattie, co-authors of the report that criticized Marineland, spoke for most of the session. They produced an exchange of letters between attorneys for the park and their organization. Each letter alleged slander by the other party, and a veiled threat to legal action was mentioned.

Attorneys for John Holer, owner of the park, contended that the Zoocheck was behind a "concerted campaign of misrepresentation" of the condition in the park, while Zoocheck directors maintained that the group has actually helped zoos across Canada to construct better habitats for animals.

"We deal with pragmatic concerns," Laidlaw said. "Our major thrust is that there needs to be legislation (by the provincial government) defining who can own and operate zoos."

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