Theme park operator SeaWorld has admitted its employees posed as animal-welfare activists to spy on its critics, confirming allegations by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
PETA last year accused SeaWorld employee Paul McComb of spying on its protests against the company by posing as an activist named Thomas Jones. SeaWorld hired a law firm in July to conduct an investigation.
SeaWorld’s board has “directed management to end the practice in which certain employees posed as animal-welfare activists,” CEO Joel Manby told analysts Thursday in a conference call. “This activity was undertaken in connection with efforts to maintain the safety and security of employees, customers, and animals in the face of credible threats.”
McComb was placed on administrative leave during that internal probe. According to Manby, he is back at work at the company, though in a different department.
“The tawdry orca sideshows and despicable spying tactics are sinking SeaWorld’s ship,” PETA said in response to the company’s announcement.
As the Orlando Sentinel reports, SeaWorld’s admission “comes at a difficult time for the company,” which has been trying to rebrand itself in the wake of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” that raised questions about its treatment of marine animals.
SeaWorld’s fourth-quarter earnings report released Thursday showed improving attendance and revenue but the company said bad weather and a slowdown in Brazilian visitors have hurt attendance this year.
Revenue rose 1% to $267.9 million, compared with the fourth quarter of 2015, and SeaWorld lost $11 million, compared with a $25.4 million loss a year earlier. Attendance increased by about 43,000 guests, or 1%, as a result of a favorable operating schedule for the company’s fall events and the favorable weather.
“It will be a bumpy road. It’s not going to be a straight line, but I think we’re making progress,” Manby told investors.
PETA said McComb tried to incite its members to break the law, posted inflammatory messages on social media such as “burn [SeaWorld] to the ground” and “drain the new tanks at #SeaWorld,” and urged other SeaWorld protesters to engage in “direct action.”