Star-Bulletin file photo
Marlee Breese, who cared for Sea Life Park's marine animals for nearly 30 years, was recently fired. She is shown with some of the marine mammals in 1993.

Sea Life Park
dismisses longtime
animal-care expert

The firing stems from differences
over animal care, Marlee Breese says

By Helen Altonn

Marlee Breese, who has mothered Sea Life Park's marine animals for nearly 30 years, has been fired.

She said she believes her dismissal stemmed from differences with her bosses over animal care. She has been the park's curator of mammals and seabirds since 1989.

Ray Greene, Attractions Hawaii general manager, said he couldn't comment on a personnel matter.

Attractions Hawaii acquired Sea Life Park and Waimea Falls Park in October 1996.

Atlantis Submarines was contracted in April to handle daily Sea Life operations.

Breese said no reason was given for her firing, but a philosophical change since Atlantis Submarines took over park operations put her in an adversarial position with management.

She said Greene called her into his office Thursday and told her the park's new owner wanted a new animal curator. She said he gave her a choice: She could resign and receive roughly her same pay as a consultant for six months, or she would be terminated with two weeks' severance pay.

"I knew our relationship was not that great, but I was shocked," Breese said.

She said she asked if she could wait until today to decide, but was told Monday that wasn't acceptable. "I said I can't make a decision that fast, so they terminated me."

Breese said she's been through various ownership and management changes since she began working in 1968 at the Makapuu park and "all of the owners/managers always put animal care and health issues as A-No. 1 priority."

But in the past six months at the financially troubled park, she said, "It just seems like animal care issues were not the No. 1 priority."

She said the animals are receiving good care from a dedicated staff and veterinarian, but her relationship with management began to sour over animal health issues.

For example, Breese said, 6-year-old Pohaikealoha, a "wolphin," became ill in June or July and veterinarian Robert Braun proposed putting a fiber-optic tube down her blowhole to look at her airway passage.

Breese said she was excited about the procedure -- relatively new for marine animals -- because she and her staff hand-raised Pohaikealoha.

When she told park manager Mark Rausch about the procedure, she said the first thing he asked was, "How much will it cost?" She said they got into a heated conversation when he said it was a "business decision."

Disagreeing, she told him, "'If you guys don't pay for it, I'll pay for it, but we're going to do it.' The park did pay for it."

Greene said he wasn't aware of that incident, but the park "is taking every precaution to assure the continued health and safety of all animals. ... The animals are the most important things we have. We are sensitive to that throughout."

Braun, a part-time veterinarian at the park since May 1996, said the bronchoscopy helped identify a life-threatening infection in Pohaikealoha's respiratory system. The infection isn't cured but is controlled, he said.

He said it has been "a pleasure and very informative and a great experience working with Marlee the past two years. She is regarded by people, not only here but internationally, as a superb person in animal care."

Breese said she is difficult when it comes to animal care: "I am absolutely uncompromising, unbending and, quite frankly, unapologetic. That's my job. I am an advocate for these animals."

She said she also had a tough time when two of four senior staff members were fired on the spot as a result of a zero-tolerance drug testing policy in August.

While that's a management prerogative, she said the way it was done jeopardized the animals. "In one day two of the most important people that helped take care of animals were just gone."

Other staffers have left or are in the process of leaving, she said.

Greene said Bruce Stephens, a park consultant with many years of experience with marine animals, is acting curator and will work with Braun to maintain animal care.

The park has about two dozen marine mammals, three dozen sea lions and a fluctuating population of seabirds, Breese said.

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