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John Holer, 83, built Marineland into major tourist attraction in Niagara Falls, Ont.

John Holer. (News file photo)

Died June 23, 2018

When John Holer came to Canada’s Niagara Peninsula in 1957, he took a job at a winery in Niagara Falls, but lost it.

Years before he had worked for a circus in Austria, handling performing bears and sea lions.

So he acquired an acre of land in Niagara Falls, Ont., and installed three sea lions in a pair of large steel water tanks that he welded together. He charged 25 cents to see them and another 25 cents for fish to feed them. He called it Marine Wonderland and Animal Farm.

Renamed Marineland, the business has grown to 1,000 acres and become one of the region’s leading tourist attractions, with amusement rides and a great variety of other land and sea creatures. It attracts more than 500,000 visitors annually.

Mr. Holer, its founder, died Saturday in his home near Marineland after a short illness. He was 83.

Born Ivan Holerjem in Maribor, in what is now Slovenia, he studied to become a wine chemist in technical school. After escaping to Austria, he worked in Graz with the Circus Krone and learned to train bears and sea lions.

In Canada, after he lost the winery job, he became a construction laborer. While working at a dry dock in Welland, Ont., he saw a damaged U.S. submarine and was inspired to build a submarine-type amusement ride with a co-worker.

Through a broker, they sold the concept to Walt Disney for $14,000, who made it the basis for the Jules Verne submarine ride. Mr. Holer used his half of the proceeds to develop a recreation area he started on Portage Road.

He opened Marine Wonderland and Animal Farm in 1961. Throughout the next decade, he added dolphins and other animals, built a 2,000-seat “aquatheater” and installed aquariums and shops. In the 1980s, he completed a multimillion-dollar expansion that included what was then the world's longest steel roller coaster.

His animals made headlines in 1963 when a sea lion escaped, went over Niagara Falls and was found sunning itself at Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Controversy arose in the 1970s after Mr. Holer acquired the park’s most popular attractions: orcas from off the coast of British Columbia. Greenpeace activists protested and the incident led to a ban on the capture of orcas there. Keiko, an orca that came from Iceland and starred in the film, “Free Willy,” began its career as a performer at Marineland.

In 1976, the U.S. government seized six trained dolphins Mr. Holer was importing from Mexico when the chartered plane carrying them was forced down by bad weather in Beaumont, Texas, and the pilot did not have a permit to transport them. They were released into the Gulf of Mexico, and Mr. Holer sued for $3 million.

Marineland now boasts the world’s largest exhibit for viewing beluga whales in captivity, but deaths of belugas and other animals, along with charges of mistreatment, led to a series of protests at the park and lawsuits against Marineland, which Mr. Holer challenged with countersuits.

“If I didn’t take care of my animals, I’d be out of business,” he told the Canadian Press in 2000.

Last year, 11 charges of animal cruelty lodged by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals were dismissed and Marineland filed suit against the OSPCA.

Mr. Holer ran into more controversy in 2009 when he issued eviction notices to tenants of a trailer park that he purchased five years earlier to expand his theme park. One of the tenants committed suicide, saying she had nowhere else to go.

Active in running Marineland until a few weeks ago, Mr. Holer was planning to develop Canada’s largest outdoor aviary.

Mayor Jim Diodati of Niagara Falls, Ont., praised him for creating thousands of jobs and bringing more visitors to the area.

Even his critics gave Mr. Holer credit as an entrepreneur.

In a statement on social media, former activist Mike Garrett, who faced lawsuits for his Marineland protests, said, “Regardless of personal beliefs, Mr. Holer was from a different generation and accomplished much with very little.”

Survivors include his wife of 46 years, Marie; a son, Peter; a brother, Bronko; a sister, Marica; and two granddaughters.

A Mass of Christian Burial was offered June 27 in Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church, 6944 Stanley Ave., Niagara Falls, Ont.

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