NIAGARA FALLS, ONT.—Blue and Thor were born together and lived together for two years until the November day in 2010 when the dogs ran into Marineland and the path of owner John Holer.
There, he shot the pets dead, according to a witness and a former Marineland supervisor who said he picked up their bodies on Holer’s instructions.
Jim Hammond, then land animal supervisor, said Holer told him he “got” the dogs and to dispose of them.
The Niagara Falls family that owned Blue and Thor has been unable to get a clear answer about what happened to their beloved pets, Labrador retriever mixes. A police investigation into their disappearance came to nothing and, although it’s illegal to discharge a firearm in Niagara Falls, nothing was done.
The Toronto Star reached Holer on his cellphone several times in efforts to give him a chance to respond to the allegations. He either hung up or stayed on the line, breathing without speaking.
The Star emailed Holer and two Marineland officials with questions about what happened to the dogs, without identifying the witnesses.
Later, Marineland lawyer Andrew Burns responded with an email: “The three-year-old false and defamatory allegations named by an unnamed person(s), are grossly inaccurate and false and are part of an unfair public vendetta against Marineland by animal rights activists who seek to shut all zoos and aquariums in Ontario, aided, supported and furthered by you, despite the clear and unequivocal finding by qualified veterinary experts that there is ‘no evidence of animal abuse’ at Marineland.”
The Niagara Falls Regional Police told the Star the allegations were “unsubstantiated.”
On the day of the shooting, Hammond remembers the dogs were running back and forth outside the red deer pen. They reminded him of his own dog, Bailey, a golden retriever. He said he called Holer and his boss drove over to the deer pen in his truck.
“Do you want to call the (Niagara Falls) Humane Society?” Hammond recalls asking Holer. “And he said, ‘No, we don’t want to call them. I’ll look after it’ and he drove off.”
Then Hammond heard gunshots.
When Hammond got to the dogs they were dead. He said Holer told him “to check if there were any collars . . . around their necks and if there were, to remove them.” Hammond doesn’t remember seeing any collars.
He laid the bodies on the back of the park’s hay wagon and drove to the animal care building where he packed them in the freezer, where the park’s dead deer are kept before burial. When the freezer was full, Hammond said the dogs were buried in one of Marineland’s mass animal graves.
The red deer pen and one for fallow deer are at the southeast corner of the sprawling Marineland property. It backs onto the Chippawa Pkwy. and Thomas St. in a residential area of largely single family homes with kids and pets running around.
Neighbour Diana Drury also heard gunfire that day.
Drury, a former paramedic and now a civil servant, was visiting her mother in one of the nearby houses with a direct view of Marineland. She was at the bottom of the driveway packing up her car when she heard gunfire. She spun around and saw Holer about a football field away, standing in front of his truck aiming a long gun. She’s not sure if it was a rifle or a shotgun.
She said she recognized Holer’s truck and was sure it was him because she sees him often. She also recognized the dogs.
“The first dog was down and whimpering,” Drury said. She had turned around “just in time to witness the second killing. The second shot went off and the second dog went down.”
She raced inside to call police.
“I was shaken up. I couldn’t believe he shot the dogs — they were beautiful dogs. It shook me up. It really did,” she said.
Before she picked up the phone, she told her mother Betty-Lynne, who had heard the gunshots, “I think Mr. Holer shot . . . Gerry’s dogs.” She was referring to the dogs’ owners, Gerry Cormier, Heather Rose and their son, Jeremy, then 20, who lived two houses away.
“When I called the police and I talked to the dispatcher, I told her where I lived and that I had seen Mr. Holer discharge, firing and shooting what I believed to be somebody else’s dogs on his property,” Diana Drury said.
“I was told (by the dispatcher that Holer) had the right to use a gun on his property because it was agricultural,” she said. “That discouraged me. (The dispatcher) said it would take quite a while for the police to come . . . it just didn’t seem like a priority to them . . . they just kind of shoved it under the carpet.”
Diana Drury felt it was futile to file a report. Without one, police told the Star they couldn’t provide information.
She didn’t call the dogs’ owners to say what she’d witnessed because “I didn’t know how to handle it. I think I was in shock.” Two weeks later, however, she told neighbour Barry Bowes, who told the family.
It is prohibited to discharge a firearm within the urban boundary of Niagara Falls, with a few exceptions related to a farm or putting down an animal for humane reasons.
Marineland is not zoned as agricultural, according to Niagara Falls city clerk Dean Iorfida.
The dogs got loose on a crisp fall day. Rose, their owner, was on her veranda replacing Halloween decorations with Christmas ones when the dogs pushed open the porch gate and bolted up the street. She saw them run through the open Marineland gate, but in slippers and pyjamas, couldn’t follow right away. (The gate was open after the hay wagon went through, but a large part of Marineland in that area isn’t fenced.)
“I came back in, threw some clothes on, threw some shoes on, took off down there, screaming around the gate,” Rose said. Unaware their dogs were already dead, the family searched for several days, calling police and visiting the Niagara Falls Humane Society. They couldn’t imagine life without the pups they brought home at six weeks old.
Nobody reported seeing their dogs.
Const. Derek Watson, media spokesperson for the Niagara police told the Star the police investigated but that allegations of Holer shooting the dogs on Nov. 7, 2010 were “unsubstantiated” and the case was closed.
The police did not speak to Diana Drury or Jim Hammond.
It seems nobody is clear on the law.
When the Star told Watson the city bylaw prohibits discharging a firearm within city limits, including Marineland, he emailed: “Have you checked with the Humane Society? That would fall under their mandate more than us! Maybe they can give you some concrete answers.”
Humane Society official Jay DesRoches did not get back to the Star.
The first indication for the family that their dogs were dead came in an email on Nov. 11, 2010. Jeremy Cormier received a message from a school friend saying his little brother had seen Holer shoot the dogs from his backyard.
The friend’s family didn’t want to speak to the Star.
The case is not closed for the Cormier/Rose family. They spent more than $5,000 on a seven-foot fence to keep the young dogs in the yard, but sometimes they got out. Said Cormier: “These were the best two dogs we ever had. They were just so friendly and good dogs. “
Blue followed his brother Thor like a shadow.
“Thor honestly seemed more intelligent than most dogs,” said Jeremy. “If you tell him to sit and he doesn’t want to, he’d turn his head and look at you. Then you’d say, ‘Thor! Sit!’ and then he’d throw his paws in the air and then slam them down on the ground. He was a stubborn, stubborn dog.”
Gerry Cormier’s emotions run high more than two years later.
“If somebody would just have said, ‘I’m so sorry I thought they were coyotes’ or ‘they were bothering my deer’ or something like that. But nothing. The hell with the people around here. He cares nothing about anybody around here. The hell with him.”
Hammond still feels overwhelming guilt about what happened. It took him several months after first talking to the Star about his time at Marineland to open up about his role with the dogs. He left the park after 11 years in August 2011.
When the Star contacted Diana Drury, she agreed to tell her story because “I figure if people don’t stand up for what’s right, nothing’s going to change.
“They were gorgeous dogs. It was heartbreaking,” she said. “All he had to do was catch them, call the Humane Society like everybody else or take them (to their owners).”
That’s what these neighbours did when two elk from Marineland were grazing on Betty-Lynne Drury’s front lawn. Her daughter went across the street to Holer’s home to tell him his elk had escaped.
At the Rose/Cormier home up the street, other dogs have since become part of the family. They thought it would ease their pain. But the family still pines for Blue and Thor.