Free Ric O'Barry

A Miami guy stars in a Sundance film and is sued by angry Dominican dolphin geeks.

On the damp morning of September 6, 2006, after recording the dolphin slaughter and capture of 12 dolphins, as shown in The Cove, O'Barry climbed down the rock wall and was greeted by waiting cops. Furious fishermen demanded he hand over the tape, but the police permitted him to leave with the footage.

O'Barry soon learned the 12 dolphins that were spared had been sent to the Taiji Whale Museum. The Japanese planned to transfer them to Ocean World Adventure Park, a resort three miles outside Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic. The 35-acre complex, which offers a swim-with-the-dolphins program, agreed to pay the museum $154,000 per dolphin. Both organizations maintained the trade was "to promote research, conservation, and education" of the species.

But O'Barry insists the video proves the opposite: Taiji Whale Museum staffers were there the day of the hunt, and neither they nor the Dominican adventure park employees have any regard for the emotional, intelligent creatures.

Ric O'Barry and Flipper in 1964
Dolphin Project archives
Ric O'Barry and Flipper in 1964

Taiji Whale Museum manager Hiromitsu Nambu is adamant the claim is untrue. "The whale museum does not receive funds, encourage, or participate in any killing of dolphins for meat... Taiji is historically a whaling town, and the sale of live dolphins provides much-needed finance for education and research."

O'Barry says the notion they help dolphins is absurd. "It was all PR crap... So I exposed it." And that's where the legal trouble began.

In January 2007, O'Barry crafted a letter to Dominican Minister for Environment Max Puig, demanding he deny the dolphins' importation permits. "A violent and deadly capture took place," he wrote. "We have irrefutable evidence." (The minister denied permits.)

About three weeks later, with the help of a San Francisco-based nonprofit, O'Barry bought a full-page ad in Dominican Today and printed an open letter to President Leonel Fernández lambasting Ocean World. He also published an article on the website that stated the resort was to blame for "the cruel, bloody capture of 12 dolphins."

Then he took it one step too far. On March 8, 2007, he appeared on Medio a Medio, a Santa Domingo political news program, and told a young female interviewer that Ocean World's general manager, Stefan Meister, was "blackmailing the president."(O'Barry says he was referring to a threat Meister made to pull the multimillion-dollar business out of the country.)

Ocean World wasn't happy and its lawyers got busy. The first lawsuit, filed in Miami-Dade in May 2007, claims O'Barry lied to media in order to depict Meister as "corrupt, a blackmailer, and a bad businessman." As a result, it asserts, Meister "has been brought into public scandal and disgrace." (Meister did not return phone calls requesting comment from New Times. Says Ocean World attorney Alexander Penalta: "It is our law firm's policy not to comment on this case.")

The second suit — filed in Broward at the same time — claims O'Barry intentionally sabotaged Ocean World's dolphin delivery contract. It asserts O'Barry "traveled to Japan and the Dominican Republic in order to unjustifiably interfere, harass, and stop the transfer." It also makes reference to "a distorted article" he ran online. They demanded $300 million in compensation.

Attorney Deanna K. Shullman is now taking O'Barry's cases pro bono. She believes the lawsuits are an attempt to silence the activist. "The only way he interfered was through pure political speech," she says. "That's what makes this case so offensive from a First Amendment perspective."

Of course, those lawsuits didn't boost O'Barry's fame like The Cove did. The 90-minute film received eight standing ovations at Sundance from January 15 through 25. The movie, completed just in time for the festival, will be released nationally in August. It makes no note of the legal claims against its main character.

On a recent Tuesday, in O'Barry's at-home office — ornamented with wooden dolphin statues and a worn acoustic guitar — he holds up a copy of the Japan Times like a trophy. A front-page headline reads, "Dolphin Slaughter Film a Hit at Sundance."

"At least it's finally getting out there," he says. "I'm not backing off."

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