TO many he was the ‘dolphin king’, a gifted trainer with a magical relationship with the much-loved marine mammals.
But within a matter of months in 2015, Jose Luis Barbero went from the top of his game to public enemy number one, after a video emerged of him allegedly abusing dolphins in captivity.
The Spaniard, who worked with the sea creatures for over three decades and was widely respected, appeared to kick and hit the animals in the grainy clips.
A barrage of online abuse followed, with Barbero and his family receiving death threats, and the scandal culminating in him reportedly taking his own life.
Many believed the whistle-blowers – who expressed zero remorse when the news of his death broke – were justified in their means to bring attention to the cruelty faced by dolphins in captivity.
But questions arose about the validity of the video, with some claiming Barbero – who had just signed a lucrative new contract for a top job at a prestigious aquarium in the United States – was targeted out of jealousy.
Now a new Netflix documentary – The Last Dolphin King – delves into the saga, featuring interviews with those involved in releasing the video, and the people who knew Barbero best.
From a young age Barbero established himself as one of the most prolific dolphin trainers in the world.
His special bond with the animals was often showcased in videos of him caressing and playing with them.
According to his friend and fellow trainer Daniel Juarez, the dolphins under Barbero’s care adored him and waited at the door for him to arrive.
He had a reputation as a tough trainer, which didn’t always appeal to those those he mentored.
Daniel explains: “The exercises required a lot of physical preparation. If not, you couldn’t keep up with the show.
“He demanded it of himself and others. What happened? People didn’t like it.”
‘Aggressive and violent’
When the damning video – a montage of clips edited together – was released allegedly showing Barbero and other trainers’ cruel treatment of the dolphins, it provoked worldwide outrage.
The footage was said to have been shot by activists and neighbours of the park who witnessed the alleged abuse and were concerned.
At the time animal advocacy group SOS Delfines, which was instrumental in the video’s release, said the cameras were only “meant to show how captive dolphins are treated”.
In the Netflix documentary, its president Carla Cornella says: “The fact that the dolphins were trained in such an aggressive, violent way shocked and hurt me.
“Jose Luis was responsible. Those events took place under his watch.”
The video went viral and was heavily reported on by news outlets across the globe.
The fact that the dolphins were trained in such an aggressive, violent way shocked and hurt me. Jose Luis was responsible
Carla Cornella, SOS Delfines president
In an attempt to defend himself against the alarming accusations, Barbero said in a statement: “I believe a response is needed to this brutal and cowardly campaign against my profession.
“I can only say from my lawyers’ recommendations that this video is a montage created to private a campaign challenging my professionalism over 35 years.”
Despite his denials, Marineland Mallorca immediately distanced themselves from him.
The park’s then-director, Rafael Abraham, told the media he was “shocked and embarrassed” and insisted the video “does not at all reflect what we do in Marineland”.
The media frenzy that ensued sparked an investigation by Barbero’s new employers – Georgia Aquarium – to establish the video’s authenticity.
Having already travelled to Georgia to start his new job, Barbero’s distraught wife Mari Gracia begged him to come home as the scandal took its toll on his mental state.
On his return to Spain, Mari says he kept a low profile and didn’t go out much.
The couple were hounded by vile messages, with trolls wishing Barbero a slow, painful death. Others claimed they hoped he was shot in the head.
In March 2015, Barbero was reported missing, sparking a huge search party.
After his disappearance another video was released claiming to show more abusive behaviour towards the dolphins.
I had never seen people get as angry as they got with Jose Luis. They didn’t know him
It sparked a fresh wave of messages from sickened social media users, with one writing: “I don’t care if he falls head first off a cliff.”
Heartbroken Mari tells the documentary: “I had never seen people get as angry as they got with Jose Luis. They didn’t know him.”
A few days after he vanished Barbero was discovered dead in a car park at the Palma de Majorca airport.
Although the police said his death was being investigated, they concluded it was suicide.
In the documentary, Barbero’s son Marcos says: “I don’t know long he had been dead, it was one or two days. They didn’t tell us the cause or how he did it.”
‘Hatred and revenge’
After his death social media users continued to leave nasty messages on his Facebook page, with one commenting: “I hope you suffered in your death.”
Questions over the video’s legitimacy remain.
Former colleague Javier Gutierrez believes it was motivated by “hatred and revenge”, and claims it’s understandable why someone would want to hurt Barbero’s career.
“They really chose the right moment to put it out,” he says. “It was when Jose Luis Barbero had signed the contract with Georgia Aquarium, so he was already in the United States.
“They gave a lot of thought about how to do the most damage.”
But SOS Delfines’ Carla insists the videos were “not manipulated at any time”.
“It was simply edited,” she says. “What we did was edit those images into a short video.”
According to the activists, after the trainer’s death all animal rights groups they had been affiliated with cut ties with them.
One of those responsible for the video, called ‘V’ in the documentary, says she felt no emotion when she found out about Barbero’s death.
“I couldn’t feel bad about it because I hadn’t done anything wrong to feel bad about,” she says.
“If I were to feel bad, it would be because I felt guilty.”
The Last Dolphin King is available to stream on Netflix from November 25.
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