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Georgia Aquarium to investigate abuse claims

The Georgia Aquarium will conduct an investigation into alleged abuse by a dolphin trainer in Spain, soon to be an employee at the Atlanta facility.

A video purportedly showing trainer Jose Luis Barbero striking, kicking and shouting at dolphins was made at Marineland Mallorca. It surfaced last week after it was posted online by the activist group SOSdelfines. Barbero has served as a consultant to the Georgia Aquarium and is scheduled to start next month as a senior vice president.

Aquarium CEO Mike Leven said in a statement that Barbero is “innocent until proven guilty,” and said the video is “extremely questionable. Clearly, it is very poor quality and crudely edited.”

But, Leven added, “If it were ever proven that a member of our team had abused an animal, he or she would be swiftly dismissed.”

In the meantime, the International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association, the largest organization representing the profession, has denounced the behavior seen in the video.

“Horrified,” was President Linda Erb’s reaction. “If the images that are depicted are true, no animal should be treated that way,” she said. Erb is vice president of animal care and training at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, Fla., a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to learning about dolphins.

Ken Ramirez, a consultant with the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and former IMATA president, posted a video response to the Mallorca images, saying, “Every one of us who have seen it find it awful, unacceptable, and just plain wrong.”

IMATA is conducting its own investigation into the footage, Ramirez said, and will take “decisive action” if abuse is confirmed.

The video appears to be a combination of security camera footage and images shot from a nearby building, according to Michele Bollo, founder of the Encinitas, Calif.-based activist group Mother Sea. Bollo said she first saw the sequence about 18 months ago.

“It’s stolen,” Florida activist Russ Rector said of the video. He said it’s likely that part of the video came from an employee at Marineland Mallorca, who acquired it illegally. “This is what happens when you get animal rights groups that are trying to promote themselves,” Rector said. “Whoever released this tape didn’t vet it properly.”

Rector suggested that the tape had been spliced together from different sources and times, hurting its credibility.

But Erb, of IMATA, said the shouting and physical threats demonstrate a lack of understanding and a trainer who is out of control.

Certainly, she said, it shows training behavior that is unprofessional, ineffective and unacceptable.

Barbero is still in Spain, where his family has received threats, Channel 2 Action News reported.

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About the Author

Bo Emerson is an Atlanta native and a long-time AJC feature and news writer.