Dolphin Trainer Death Shakes Georgia Aquarium

Georgia Aquarium CEO Mike Leven on “A Closer Look” with WABE's Rose Scott and Denis O'Hayer

Jose Barbero, a dolphin trainer who had recently been hired by the Georgia Aquarium, was found dead in Spain earlier this week.  Spanish authorities have yet to release an official cause of death, although it appeared to be a suicide.  Mike Leven, CEO of the Georgia Aquarium, spoke with “A Closer Look” about the circumstances.

Barbero had been under pressure due to a video released by animal rights activists that appeared to show him kicking, hitting and yelling at dolphins at Marineland Mallorca, his former employer.  A second video appeared shortly before Barbero disappeared late last week.

Leven said that the aquarium had actively sought to verify the complaints of dolphin abuse.

“The results of our investigation essentially did not indicate anything other than the fact that the video was put together and managed inappropriately and possibly contrived,” Leven said. 

Nonetheless, before Barbero’s death, the aquarium was continuing to look into his work history at a marine facility in Spain.   

“Before he disappeared, there was also a second video … that was somewhat inconclusive,” Leven said. “Our whole process was not to condemn him, since our experiences with him over a period of eight years had been very positive.”    

Leven had harsh words for the activists who were distributing the video.  Leven said they were also harassing Barbero.  And he said a professional society had recently rescinded its inital acceptance of Barbero’s membership application.

“I can’t say they killed him, obviously, but it certainly put him over the edge, ” he said. “They accused him of animal abuse before even allowing him to come and explain whether it was he in the video or not and never really investigated at the scene whether the video was correct. 

‘‘We watched a number of videos of him in the past, from Canary Islands where he used to work, and he’s a genius at what he does, and there was no indication of the way he handled dolphins that he was abusive at all ─ and the dolphins looked fine.’’

Leven acknowledged the pain that aquarium staff are going through now. 

“I think those of us who were involved in the hiring, the potential hiring of Jose Barbero … we feel partly responsible for his death,” Leven said.

Some marine parks around the world are closing dolphin shows due to concerns about animal welfare, but Leven said the Georgia Aquarium’s dolphin program will continue. 

“As long as animals are treated fairly and not abused, I have no problem with show animals,” Leven said.