The Shocking Story Of José Luis Barbero, The Spanish Dolphin Trainer Accused Of Animal Abuse

Published November 30, 2023
Updated December 1, 2023

In February 2015, an animal rights group released a grainy 99-second video that allegedly showed José Luis Barbero abusing captive dolphins in his care. Days later, he was found dead in an apparent suicide.

Jose Luis Barbero

FacebookJosé Luis Barbero was accused of animal abuse after a successful 35-year career as a dolphin trainer.

José Luis Barbero was at the top of his game. Considered by many to be the best dolphin trainer in the world, the 59-year-old had earned widespread respect for his loving, harmonious connection with his animals. People had even taken to calling him the “Dolphin King.”

In 2015, Barbero was set to begin an exciting new chapter in his career. He’d be leaving his post at Spain’s Marineland Mallorca to start a prestigious new role as the vice president of the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. However, his promising future was abruptly halted by a shocking turn of events.

Days before Barbero was supposed to start his new role, a grainy 99-second video surfaced on the internet, allegedly depicting Barbero violently mistreating his dolphins during training sessions. Shortly after the footage was released, Barbero mysteriously vanished.

He was found dead days later, a victim of suicide.

Many have said that the activists who created the video were right to release it, arguing that it had helped shed light on abuse happening at Marineland Mallorca. But some have argued that José Luis Barbero was not guilty of the abuse he was accused of — and that the video had been manipulated to target him out of “hatred and revenge.”

The Rise Of A Dolphin-Training Star

José Luis Barbero grew up in a poor family in Salamanca, Spain. As reported in the Netflix documentary The Last Dolphin King, he never knew his mother, and his father was absent for much of his childhood. But according to his brother, Juan Miguel, José Luis had a “sixth sense” for dogs. He would train them, and they obeyed him.

In the early 1970s, he started working at a restaurant in the Marineland Mallorca dolphinarium, where he soon developed a deep fascination with dolphins. When his shifts ended, instead of going home, he would stand for hours watching the dolphins through the fence. His passion for these creatures led to a life-changing encounter with Roberto Bennett, the director of Marineland.

Barbero told Bennett that he had always dreamed of becoming a dolphin trainer. Bennett agreed to hire Barbero, but told him he would have to work his way up from the bottom.

Initially, Barbero worked as a fish bucket cleaner. Later, he got his first opportunity to train a sea lion. In the meantime, he worked hard and learned everything he could from the park’s trainers until he was allowed to start training dolphins himself.

His lifelong dream was finally coming true.

Barberbo was a perfectionist who worked tirelessly to be the best in his field. But those who knew Barbero said he also had a tender relationship with the dolphins he trained. Later, his assistant trainer Daniel Juárez said that the dolphins loved Barbero, and would even wait at the door for him.

José Luis Barbero, The Best Dolphin Trainer In The World

Jose Barbero The Dolphin Trainer

FacebookBarbero frequently demonstrated his special connection with his dolphins through videos of tender interactions and playful moments.

In 1990, José Luis Barbero attended the International Marine Animal Trainers Association conference in Chicago, Illinois. While there, he presented a groundbreaking video of one of his dolphin shows, showcasing an astonishing 42 exercises in just 30 minutes. This achievement earned Barbero the award for “Best Trained Show Behavior” and the title of the world’s best dolphin trainer.

Soon after, however, Marineland was purchased by the amusement park company Aspro Parks. Aspro made cuts — and Barbero was let go. Friends and family later revealed that during this time, Barbero was so distraught over being separated from his dolphins that he attempted suicide.

By 1994, however, Barbero had found a way to work with dolphins again. Barbero established his own state-of-the-art dolphinarium in Spain, importing many of his animals from Cuba. Under his leadership, and using his rigorous training methods, his dolphinarium became the best in all of Spain.

Trouble At Marineland

In 2013, Marineland asked Barbero to move back to Mallorca to work for them. Upon his return, Barbero was made the technical director and given a new team to work with.

Many of the team members did not care for Barbero. He was known for his tough, blunt leadership style when dealing with the employees he trained, which caused tension in their working relationships. Many of them thought his training style was too tough on the animals, too.

As reported in The Last Dolphin King, one employee even filed an official complaint, claiming Barbero had been verbally abusive toward her and was hitting the dolphins. Allegedly, Marineland Mallorca fired the employee after she made this report.

Then, in 2015, Barbero received a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He was offered the position of senior vice president at the renowned Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. He happily accepted the role and was looking forward to starting this new adventure in his career.

José Luis Barbero Is Accused Of Abusing His Dolphins

In February 2015, while still working at Marineland Mallorca, José Luis Barbero suddenly found himself at the center of controversy. Out of nowhere, a 99-second video, released by the animal activist group SOS Delfines, surfaced online, featuring grainy footage that supposedly showed Barbero mistreating the dolphins in his care.

The video had been shot from an apartment near the dolphinarium, and was composed of several dark, blurry clips of what appeared to be Barbero kicking and striking the animals while shouting profanities.

Marineland Video

FAADA/FacebookIn 2015, a video surfaced that allegedly showed José Luis Barbero abusing dolphins at Marineland.

The footage quickly gained traction online, triggering a tidal wave of public outrage on social media. In the days that followed, Barbero dealt with an onslaught of death threats against him and his family.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Aquarium suspended Barbero’s position as it launched an investigation into the allegations against him.

The Dolphin King Claims He’s Innocent

After the video surfaced, some questioned its authenticity, suggesting it may have been doctored to paint Barbero in a bad light — and that he had been targeted out of jealousy over his success in the competitive world of dolphin training. After all, the video had been conveniently released right before Barbero was supposed to start a prestigious new job.

Some of his coworkers said that while Barbero was often hard on the other trainers, he would never harm the animals.

José Luis Barbero vehemently denied his involvement in the footage. According to Esquire, he took to social media to defend his professional integrity.

“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 provoke a campaign challenging my professionalism over 35 years,” he posted on his Facebook page.

His wife, Mari, said that the death threats and relentless scrutiny took a heavy toll on her husband.

“I had never seen people get as angry as they got with José Luis,” she said. “They didn’t know him.”

Representatives for SOS Delfines insisted that the video was not manipulated, but had been edited down from “hours and hours” of disturbing footage sent to them by concerned neighbors and activists.

However, this begged the question: If the people who shot the video were really only concerned about the safety of the dolphins, why hadn’t they shared it as soon as they got the first clips?

Mike Leven, CEO of the Georgia Aquarium, believed that the video clips had been doctored. Determined to unearth the truth, the aquarium hired a former FBI agent to thoroughly examine the video’s content. The agent traveled to Spain to investigate whether Barbero was indeed the person depicted in the footage.

Audio recordings shared in The Last Dolphin King seem to show Georgia Aquarium investigators meeting with representatives for SOS Delfines and apparently agreeing that the footage did not appear manipulated.

But before any conclusive findings were released, Barbero went missing.

An Unexpected And Tragic End

A few days after the controversy erupted, José Luis Barbero mysteriously vanished. Concerned for his well-being, his wife reported him missing.

Jose Barbero With A Dolphin

FacebookThe Netflix documentary The Last Dolphin King explores the rise and fall of Barbero’s career and his untimely death.

Police launched a widespread search for Barbero across the Balearic Islands. For days, he remained missing, leaving his loved ones and colleagues deeply concerned about what had happened to him.

Then, on March 7, Barbero’s lifeless body was discovered inside a car parked near the Palma de Mallorca airport, CNN reports. Authorities investigated his death and determined that the Dolphin King had died by suicide.

“Sadly, he and his family received death threats, and groups and individuals rushed to judge him… His death is untimely, unnecessary, and unjust,” said a representative from the Georgia Aquarium. “Some in our own community tortured him with enough hatred to cause him to allegedly take his own life. I hope the death of José Luis Barbero teaches those who were quick to condemn him a lesson about being hasty to charge and indict.”

The Last Dolphin King Reveals New Truths About The Fall Of José Luis Barbero

The story of José Luis Barbero, the once celebrated and then vilified dolphin trainer, is explored in depth in the 2022 Netflix documentary, The Last Dolphin King. It features interviews with those responsible for releasing the incriminating video, as well as the people who knew Barbero best.

In one shocking revelation, one of the activists who helped create the video confirmed that the person who tipped them off about alleged dolphin abuse at Marineland Mallorca had been a Marineland employee.

Some of Barbero’s former colleagues criticized the approach to the video’s release, saying that instead of being used as an argument against captivity or to highlight Marineland’s treatment of its animals, it was used primarily to challenge Barbero’s reputation.

Today, questions remain as to whether José Luis Barbero really was guilty of the animal abuse seen in the chilling footage.

In the meantime, Marineland continues to breed and train captive dolphins.

After reading the story of José Luis Barbero, the Dolphin King, learn the tragic story of Tilikum, the orca at the center of SeaWorld’s animal abuse scandal. Then, meet John ‘Grizzly’ Adams, the famous mountain man who may not have had as harmonious a relationship with his bears as he claimed.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or use their 24/7 Lifeline Crisis Chat.

Rivy Lyon
True crime expert Rivy Lyon holds a Bachelor's degree in criminology, psychology, and sociology. A former private investigator, she has also worked with CrimeStoppers, the Innocence Project, and disaster response agencies across the U.S. She transitioned into investigative journalism in 2020, focusing primarily on unsolved homicides and missing persons.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.