For the Georgia Aquarium, the investigation into alleged abuse by the late dolphin trainer Jose Luis Barbero is over.
Barbero was chosen to become a new senior vice president at the downtown attraction, but then animal rights activists released a video allegedly showing Barbero yelling at and slapping dolphins in his care at Marineland Mallorca in the Mediterranean.
Mike Leven, CEO of the Georgia Aquarium, put Barbero's hiring on hold, and sent the videos for forensic evaluation. Barbero then disappeared. Earlier this month, his body was found in a car parked at the Mallorca airport, his death treated as a suicide.
Leven heatedly criticized “activists” who, he said, “tortured” Barbero with harassment and threats. But the CEO said the Georgia Aquarium will not proceed with the investigation into the charges against Barbero.
“We’ve got to go on with our lives,” Leven said Thursday.
Barbero first began working as a consultant for the Georgia Aquarium about eight years ago, and helped the aquarium plan its “Dolphin Tales” show, which incorporates actors, music, and acrobatic performances by the animals.
Barbero worked at Marineland Mallorca from 1980-1992, and again from 2013-2015. In between those stints, he trained dolphins at Aqualand Costa Adeje in Tenerife, among the Canary Islands.
Barbero can be seen in YouTube videos performing flips with the dolphins at the Tenerife park.
The Georgia Aquarium sought to bring Barbero to Atlanta to help update the "Dolphin Tales" show, Leven said, adding that he was recommended as the "best trainer in the world." Barbero agreed to move to Atlanta, but had not relocated by the time the first video showed up, which appears to include footage from a Marineland Mallorca security camera.
Barbero told El Mundo that the video images had been manipulated and that the charges were part of a campaign to discredit him “orchestrated” by ex-workers at Marineland Mallorca.
The Georgia Aquarium sent an investigator to Mallorca to look into the accusations against Barbero and then discovered the existence of a second video showing alleged abusive training techniques.
A statement from the Mallorcan marine park expressed confidence in Barbero’s performance and said they plan to continue the investigation to help clear Barbero’s name: “We will continue helping the Police and Legal Authorities to clarify the events in order to help cleanse any responsibility arising therefrom, in defence of truth and the memory of Jose Luis,” the park said in a statement.
Michele Bollo, founder of the activist group Mothersea, said if Barbero was threatened, she would find that “appalling” and added that tragedy reflects on the marine park industry rather than on Barbero. “This is less about Mr. Barbero and more about industry failure,” she said.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com