On the morning of March 3, Jose Luis Barbero Hernandez kissed his wife goodbye, stepped into his Peugeot, and drove from his home in the town of El Toro on the Spanish island of Mallorca to a meeting at which he never arrived. Out of concern that he had reported death threats following the release of an accusational video on YouTube and to the media, The Spanish National Police and Civil Defense mounted a search for Barbero, head animal trainer at Marineland Mallorca, utilizing helicopters, boats and foot power around and throughout the island. Four days later, Barbero’s body was found inside his car in a parking garage at the Palma Airport.
According to Barbero’s complaint with Spanish authorities, the picture and sound of the video, which allegedly shows he and other Marineland trainers punching and kicking dolphins during off season training sessions and using abusive and threatening language towards the animals, “had been maliciously tampered with, leading to a result that does not correspond to reality.”
I’ve reviewed the video in question. It is extremely grainy in nature and contains a number of rough cuts. It is fairly impossible, as Marineland’s investigators determined, to tell who’s in the video. The verbal reprimands allegedly made by the trainers carry across edits between scenes, so as to make it difficult to tell which point of action they belong to. Frame rate in the video has been sped up. When viewed at a lower frame rate, due to the graininess of the image, it becomes difficult to tell if actual punches and kicks are taking place, as suggested when viewing the faster frame rate, or if the trainers are utilizing conventional and accepted hand and foot commands. My assessment is based on my 20 years experience working with IMAX and other cinema technologies, combined with extensive authorship on those technologies, frame rates, and image resolution.
A second video, at higher resolution was released, but suffers from the same issues – not enough resolution to discern the individual trainers’ faces, sped up frame rate, and the inability to tell if the abusive dialogue, which in this new video has migrated to a different scene, is authentic or has been overdubbed. The one thing I was been able to confirm, by comparing the tank configuration and background elements with overhead satellite photography, park maps, and visitor videos of shows at each Western European dolphinarium, is that the video indeed was shot at Marineland Mallorca from two different angles – one a residence adjacent to the park and the second from what appears to be within the dolphin stadium itself.
The video was posted by SOS Delfines, a project of la Fundación Asesoramiento y Acción en Defensa de los Animales, or FAADA, one of Spain’s largest animal rights groups. SOS Delfines has stated that it targeted Marineland Mallorca by making the video public out of concern for the dolphins’ welfare. However, timing suggests that the target may be much bigger.
Marineland Mallorca is one of sixty parks and attractions operated by Madrid-based Aspro Parks. The company’s portfolio includes aquariums, theme parks, waterparks, a zoo, and five dolphinariums throughout Western Europe. Most recently, Aspro added the Aquarium Harderwijk in the Netherlands, completing its purchase in January from Compagnies des Alpes. Aspro will soon announce a new director for Harderwijk, as its current director, Marten Foppen, is leaving in April to run the Spoorwegmuseum (winner of a 2014 Thea Award for De Vuurproef).
Aspro is part of a partnership vying for the management contract of L’Oceanografic in Valencia, Spain, Europe’s largest combination aquarium and dolphinarium. With Parques Reunidos opting not to continue its contract (with suits and countersuits taking place between it and the city of Valencia over moneys owed), three major contendors are vying for the job. First is Rain Forest, whose Spanish zoo Bioparc is considered a pioneer of exhibit design, partnered with Italian aquarium operator Costa Edutainment. Aguas de Valencia, which started out as the local water company and is now operating internationally, is partnering with KET, the company that constructed and first operated L’Oceanografic, and the Vancouver Aquarium. Finally, Aspro is partnering with live event operator Mundosenti2. The winning bid will be announced either later this month or early April.
Timing is everything when running a targeted campaign. PETA, one of SeaWorld’s most vocal detractors, has mastered this art. On February 22, 2013, as a nine year old girl was being bitten on the wrist by a SeaWorld San Antonio dolphin, 100 PETA organized protesters were picketing outside the entrance to the Orlando park, and a PETA employee in Washington, DC stood up and heckled SeaWorld speakers at a travel industry show. All this made its way into a single article on the PETA website seven days later, along with notice of a USDA citation against SeaWorld Orlando for two violations of the Animal Welfare Act (one of which was resolved while the inspector was still on premises. By comparison, the San Diego Zoo was cited for 13 violations during the same general inspection period, a fact PETA has never mentioned).
In a similar way, in 2012, PETA acquired freshly shot footage of a dolphin that had fallen out of its tank at a SeaWorld park, allegedly shot by either a PETA volunteer or a SeaWorld employee. The advocacy group held onto the video for almost a year, finally releasing it nine days after a YouTube video of a newly rescued pilot whale stuck on a tank slideout in Orlando went viral, taking advantage of the attention the other video was receiving.
Approximately half of the SOS Delfines video bears a time stamp of March 2014, yet it wasn’t made public until its posting on YouTube on February 4, 2015. Five days earlier had been Barbero’s final day as an employee of Marineland Mallorca. After more than 30 years at various Aspro parks, he was headed to Atlanta to become the Vice President of Training at the Georgia Aquarium, an institution at which he had provided consultation services for the prior eight years.
The video and then death of Barbero could not have come at a worse time for the Aquarium’s training department, just coming off a sexual harassment lawsuit in Federal court, settled out of court this past December. It’s another issue, however, that has made the Aquarium a focal point of the anti-captivity movement.
On June 15, 2012, Georgia Aquarium filed a permit request with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which overseas provisions of the Marine Mammal Act, to import eighteen beluga whales caught in the wilds of Russia under the authorization of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The majority of the whales would be dispersed on breeding loan to the three SeaWorld parks, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, and Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium (which has since left the partnership). This would mark the first time a whale or dolphin would be intentionally caught in the wild for public display in the United States in close to thirty years.
NOAA denied the permit request, primarily based on three criteria:
“We were unable to determine whether the proposed activity, by itself or in combination with other activities, would likely have a significant adverse impact on the species or stock. We believe that it is likely that total removals from this stock have exceeded the total net production on an annual basis resulting in a small, but steady and significant decline over the past 2 decades. We believe the ongoing live-capture trade since 1989 may have contributed to a cumulative decline over the past two decades, and we considered this in combination with other past, present, and foreseeable future actions.
“We determined that the requested import will likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit. There are ongoing, legal marine mammal capture operations in Russia that are expected to continue, and we believe that issuance of this permit would contribute to the demand to capture belugas from this stock for the purpose of public display in the U.S. and worldwide, resulting in the future taking of additional belugas from this stock.
“We determined that five of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approximately 1.5 years old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent.”
On Sept 30, 2013, Georgia Aquarium filed a complaint in Federal court to overturn the denied permit request. On January 14, 2015, it filed for the case to be dismissed under summary judgement, stating that NOAA’s decision had been erroneous based on both use of incorrect data and misinterpretation of accurate data. On March 16, the government and a group of animal advocacy organizations acting as intervenor-defendants filed their responses to the Aquarium’s summary judgement motion and their own requests for summary judgement.
While belugas from the same Russian facility have made their way to the Polar Ocean World chain of parks and aquariums and Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, both in China, the eighteen intended for the Georgia Aquarium have remained in a collection of small sea pens at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station on the Black Sea, some since 2006, under a nonrefundable deposit. If Georgia is not able to import these animals, they will likely be resold to other parties in Russia or Asia.
THE RISK OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Since I first started writing professionally about the conflict between animal rights advocates and marine life parks in 2012, the social media arena has exploded as a canvas for discourse by both those in support and in objection to the parks. Some of the conversations have remained civil while quite a few verge into hostile territory. There are over 1000 groups on Facebook discussing the marine mammal captivity issue and “tweetstorms” and trolls have become commonplace on twitter.
With thousands of impassioned individuals discussing the issue on social media, it’s quite easy for incorrect and untrue facts, along with unvetted claims, to be promulgated, either through misinterpretation or intentionally. In essence, social media in the conflict over marine mammals acts much like a game of telephone – what comes out is not always what went in on the other end.
One of the more easily traceable examples of this is the 2013 declaration by India that whales and dolphins are non-human persons. This was reported by such reputable mainstream news sources as Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) and the Houston Chronicle. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of the anti-SeaWorld film Blackfish, mentioned the declaration during an interview on the film’s DVD. Others, such as National Public Radio’s Robert Krulwich, noted that:
“‘Cetaceans [dolphins, whales and porpoises] in general are highly intelligent and sensitive,’ the Ministry said, ‘and various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that [they have] unusually high intelligence … compared to other animals.’
“This means, the Indian ministry went on: ‘that dolphins should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights.’ ‘Non-human persons’ — what a pregnant phrase! People-like, but not like people.”
Thus, there are two different interpretations on the matter. The first states that the government of India declared cetaceans to be non-human persons. The other, that the government declared they should be non-human persons. The reality is that neither took place. In its proclamation banning dolphinariums in India, the Ministry of Environment and Forests stated:
“Whereas cetaceans in general are highly intelligent and sensitive, and various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that the unusually high intelligence; as compared to other animals means that dolphin should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights and is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose.”
The key phrasing in this paragraph – “various scientists who have researched dolphin behavior have suggested that the unusually high intelligence; as compared to other animals means that dolphin should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights” – refers to the beliefs of “various scientists,” and was used solely as the basis for the dolphinarium ban, not as a separate declaration. To date, the Ministry has not declared or suggested it be declared that dolphins be named as non-human persons and cetaceans do not have that legal standing in India. However, the claim that they do still arises frequently within social media.
Within the marine mammal debate on social media, SeaWorld is one of the most common targets. The majority of the claims lobbied toward its business practices often show either a disregard or a lack of knowledge of theme park operations. One of the more visited crowd-sourced websites, The Dodo, whose majority owners include Discovery Channel and Animal Planet parent company Discovery Communications, recently released a video which it claims is “SeaWorld’s entire downfall explained in 1 minute.” It features the release of the film Blackfish, student protests, the USDA violation at the Orlando park (which not only features the incorrect month in the video, but uses audio from the film Blackfish about conditions at a now closed Canadian park, which is dubbed over video unrelated to the USDA violations), and the termination of SeaWorld’s partnership with Southwest Airlines as factors leading to stock and revenue drops and the resignation of the company’s CEO Jim Atchison.
What the video doesn’t include is the 2014 competition that SeaWorld’s three most visited parks endured with new and newly redesigned attractions in their markets. San Diego had to compete with heavily marketed attractions and events at Disneyland Resort, Universal Studios Hollywood, and Knott’s Berry Farm, along with a new waterpark at LEGOLAND California. Both SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa suffered attendance losses with blockbuster attractions opening in Central Florida – New Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom and Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida. Busch Gardens Tampa’s 2014 thrill ride, Falcon’s Fury, suffered technical difficulties and was out of commission the entire busy summer season, finally opening after schools had gone back into session. Another drop in attendance resulted from the transition of Christmas Town at the two Busch Gardens parks from a separate hard ticket event, as has been done in the past, to an event included with daily park admission.
Another misleading claim in social media is that SeaWorld is planning international expansion due to pending state and federal legislation that would ban whale and dolphin captivity in the United States. AB-2140, which InPark previously reported on, has been undergoing review and is expected to be reintroduced to a California Assembly committee in 2016. Bills were recently introduced in the Washington State House and Senate to ban cetacean captivity, although it is a state that currently does not house any. The text of the two Washington bills are identical to the California bill, exchanging California’s orca for Washington’s cetacean.
SeaWorld’s primary business is as a theme park company. It has developed the SeaWorld, Busch Gardens, Discovery Cove, and Aquatica brands and has other park concepts that have been developed and may be implemented in other markets. A large number of major theme park operators – Disney, Universal, Six Flags, Merlin, Parques Reunidos, Village Roadshow, USJ (parent company of Universal Studios Japan) – are undergoing major expansions into the Middle East and Southeast Asia. SeaWorld is in a unique situation among theme park operators in that its two largest parks, San Diego and Orlando, operate both like regional theme parks and as international tourist destinations, drawing large attendance from Japan, China, Mexico, Brazil, and Europe. This has given the brand high recognition in international markets. In addition to its multi-park complex in Dubai, with the first park scheduled to open in time for Dubai’s EXPO 2020, SeaWorld executives have completed location scout visits with Village Roadshow in China, Malaysia, and South Korea. Under the completed terms of cooperation, the new SeaWorld IP parks will be operated by Village Roadshow.
The conspiratorial nature of social media sometimes stretches to what would otherwise be respected organizations. On March 14, a group of protesters interrupted a presentation by a former SeaWorld trainer now critical of the park at Whalefest, a large annual conference which, among other things, advocates the ending of cetacean captivity. In response, Whalefest issued a series of tweets alleging that the protesters had been paid and placed within the meeting hall by SeaWorld.
Accusations are lobbed both ways in the realm of social media. Many SeaWorld supporters group all park protesters together under the overriding title of PETA. I speak often with a number of protesters and anti-captivity advocates who not only have told me that they are not associated with PETA, but that they also do not support the animal rights organization. As one said, “Most of what PETA does actually makes our efforts look bad, but because they’re so big and vocal, we have to work with them on a lot of things.”
One of PETA’s most recent efforts to undermine SeaWorld, which will be paying them $28.35 this quarter in dividends for PETA’s 135 shares of SeaWorld stock, involves SeaWorld’s efforts to rescue emaciated sea lion pups on the Southern California coast. This year to date, SeaWorld San Diego has rescued over 400 pups, placing its sea lion show on hiatus to free up trainers to help with the rescue effort and sending additional staff specialized in sea lion care from its San Antonio park. Other marine mammal rescue centers in Southern California have reached capacity and have sent overflow to San Diego. According to Federal regulations, SeaWorld is the only marine mammal rescue organization allowed to work within San Diego County.
On March 12, PETA attempted to not only undermine SeaWorld’s efforts, but placed extra stress on other already overwhelmed rescue organizations, by posting the following comment on its Facebook page:
“Please contact your local Marine Mammal Stranding Center here: http://1.usa.gov/1Ecym6o
or PETA at . . . .“. . . .The animals released by SeaWorld are most often manatees, sea turtles, and other animals who cannot be used as ‘performers’ in their shows. Dolphins, whales and sea lions rescued by SeaWorld who can be forced to perform tricks for food are kept and used as performers.”
A CRIMINAL MATTER
Both Marineland Mallorca and Georgia Aquarium officials had the SOS Delfines video investigated and were not able to find anything conclusive. Shortly after Barbero’s death, Georgia Aquarium CEO Mike Levin released a statement that in part said:
“. . . . After allegations were levied against him, we took the situation very seriously. Georgia Aquarium began a search for truth in hopes of disproving these unsubstantiated claims. Sadly, he and his family received death threats, and groups and individuals rushed to judge him. He was not given the right or the privilege to be considered innocent until proven guilty, a principle I hold dear. His death is untimely, unnecessary and unjust.
“We were not given the chance to thoughtfully and thoroughly review the allegations against him before activists, consultants and some in our own community tortured him with enough hatred to cause him to allegedly take his own life. I hope the death of Jose Luis Barbero teaches those who were quick to condemn him a lesson about being hasty to charge and indict.”
Barbero‘s attorney, Mateo Cañellas, has stated that he will be moving forward with pursuing defamation charges against animal rights activists, groups, and media outlets that exhibited the video and declared it to be in fact Barbero abusing the dolphins without first ascertaining its authenticity.
Cañellas also stated that the prosecution (slander is a criminal matter in Spain and prosecuted by the State) could automatically charge individuals who publicly cheered for Barbero‘s death in social or other media, citing precedence in other Spanish cases.
The morning of her husband’s death, Barbero’s wife posted a thought from a family friend on her Facebook page:
“My friend Jose Luis Barbero Hernandez was found dead in his car. A month ago, SOS-Dolphins FAADA disseminated a video in which he was wrongly accused of mistreating Marineland’s dolphins.
“The lynching that was submitted truncated his brilliant career and the helplessness that he has suffered has led him allegedly to a suicide. Now I still have to read the comments and posts of these ‘self-styled’ animal activists who are pleased with his death. They express their joy, but I’m already blocking them. On my wall and in my life, the undesirable do not fit.”