Ontario's new animal welfare inspection squad has launched an investigation into Marineland after a worker there said she saved three cubs from the bear enclosure.
Maddie Black, who works with the Niagara Falls, Ont., tourist attraction, said she was cleaning out the bear dens with her colleagues last Thursday when she heard what sounded like a "puppy cry."
"I look in the den and had seen three mama bears and had noticed there were babies in there, too," Black told The Canadian Press in an interview this week.
She said she was worried the male bears would kill and eat the young cubs.
"I knew if we didn't get them out of there, they had no chance," she said.
Black called the park's veterinarian, she said, asking if the bears could be tranquilized while they remove the cubs. The vet told her to talk to her supervisor.
Her supervisor "said we should probably leave them, but if we can get them out safely, it would be a good idea," Black said.
She fashioned a long pole to a fishing net and returned to the bear den, which Marineland says contains 16 adult bears. With the help of colleagues, she pulled three cubs out.
"I got the fourth one out, but the mom chased after me and grabbed the net from me and I wasn't able to get it back out," Black said.
"I'm beyond happy I got three out. I was extremely angry I didn't get that last one."
Marineland's version of the incident differs slightly from Black's.
The park said in a statement that the cubs were not facing any physical threat from the adult males, "but there was a concern about the mothers being able to care for them and keep them safe."
"As a result, they were safely removed from the den and bear facility, without incident or injury using a net," the park said.
It is unclear what happened to the fourth cub, and Black later said she did not see any of the cubs killed.
Marineland said it's monitoring one den where three female bears are huddled at the back and not allowing access to other bears or workers.
"We believe, based on observing the behaviour of the three bears in the den, that they are actively protecting the cub at this time," Marineland said.
The park said it welcomes provincial oversight and will comply with the investigation.
Details of the probe are sparse, but the Ministry of the Solicitor General said its animal welfare division received a complaint from the public through its animal protection hotline.
"There is an active investigation into this matter and, as such, it would be inappropriate to provide further detail at this time," said ministry spokesman Brent Ross.
Marineland said the cubs have been moved to the facility's animal care centre where the park's veterinarian treated the animals. The park said the cubs have been monitored 24 hours a day.
"The cubs have stabilized, have gained weight, and we are optimistic that they will all survive and thrive," Marineland said.
In 2013, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals issued an order to Marineland to build separate habitats to protect bear cubs from being mauled and devoured by males. Marineland said it would develop a birth control program, which the OSPCA agreed to.
The park said it complied with that order and it was soon revoked.
"The order has not been in effect in approximately seven years," Marineland said in a statement. "Marineland has voluntarily continued annual administration of contraceptives to our female bear population since and will continue to do so this year."
The park said the bears' birth control is believed to be 98 per cent effective.
"The treatment requires annual injections, which Marineland has provided each year, with this year's treatment being provided on April 23, 2019," Marineland said.
"We have reviewed our records to confirm that birth control was administered correctly last spring and believe the recent births of cubs at Marineland can be attributed to the lack of certainty any single form of contraceptive provides for any mammal species."
At the start of this year, the provincial government launched a new animal welfare inspection team, with about 100 inspectors across the province, after the OSPCA abdicated its role enforcing animal cruelty laws.
This report by the Canadian Press was first published Feb. 6, 2020.
Liam Casey, The Canadian Press