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SeaWorld employee posed as animal rights activist to spy on critics, CEO acknowledges

By Doug G. Ware   |   Feb. 25, 2016 at 6:05 PM
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ORLANDO, Fla., Feb. 25 (UPI) -- At least one employee at SeaWorld has posed as an animal welfare activist -- in person and online -- for the purpose of spying on critics, the company said Thursday as it revealed a positive fourth quarter earnings report.

Speaking with analysts, CEO Joel Manby acknowledged allegations that a company employee attended protests and engaged in discussions online while posing as an activist named Thomas Jones.

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"Following the completion of an investigation conducted by independent outside counsel, the Board has directed that the company's management team end a practice in which certain employees posed as animal rights activists in connection with efforts to maintain the safety and security of company employees, customers, and animals in the face of credible threats," Manby said.

Manby delivered the remarks on the same day SeaWorld released its earnings report for Q4 2015 that showed rising attendance and revenue -- but the chief executive tempered those numbers by saying bad weather and fewer visitors from Brazil has hurt attendance so far this year.

Further, the news follows a management shakeup announced last week that includes the departures of Chief Operations Officer Dan Brown and Chief Zoological Officer Brad Andrews.

SeaWorld has taken a public perception beating over the last few years -- particularly owing to the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which noted the dangers and welfare damage stemming from keeping killer whales in captivity -- animals that have been the company's bread and butter for decades.

One such spy, who worked at the company's Southern California park, attended protests in person and stirred the pot online while posing as an activist, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals -- a high-profile animal welfare group that has opposed SeaWorld for years.

The employee in question, Paul McComb, was initially placed on administrative leave but later returned to work, albeit in a different capacity, the company said.

"SeaWorld's latest report confirms not only that the company has employed more than one spy to infiltrate and agitate at PETA, but also that it values its spies more highly than the executives who have had their heads chopped off in droves, as at least one of the spies is still working at the company," the organization said in a statement, the Orlando Sentinel reported Thursday.

PETA said it became leary of the supposed activist when he was arrested with several other animal rights demonstrators in 2014, but was the only one of the group spared charges and sprung from custody.

Last July, SeaWorld hired an outside law firm to conduct an investigation into PETA's accusations.

"The allegations made ... against a SeaWorld employee are very concerning. These allegations, if true, are not consistent with the values of the SeaWorld organization and will not be tolerated," Manby said at the time. "We will take all appropriate actions based on the results of the investigation to ensure that the integrity and values of the SeaWorld organization are upheld."

The company, though, did not reveal Thursday whether the probe led to the termination or disciplining of any employee who was an active participant in the spying practice.

"All personnel matters pertaining to those involved have been handled internally," Manby said.

"We recognize the need to ensure that all of our security and other activities align with our core values and ethical standards," SeaWorld said in its statement. "As always, the security and well-being of our employees, customers and animals remains at the forefront of our business practices."

Shares of SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE: SEAS) fell more than 9 percent in trading Thursday, although analysts suggested the stock drop was likely unrelated to Manby's acknowledgement of the company's spying.

"Our near term priorities remain clear: execute our strategy with a focus on operational excellence and deliver the consistent and sustainable financial performance expected of our great organization," Manby stated in Thursday's earnings report.

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