SeaWorld CEO admits workers spied on animal-rights activists

By Lindsey Bever

SeaWorld reported its first-quarter 2016 attendance and revenue was "soft" and reported larger-than-expected losses, its shares fell by more than 10 percent. Photo / Getty Images
SeaWorld reported its first-quarter 2016 attendance and revenue was "soft" and reported larger-than-expected losses, its shares fell by more than 10 percent. Photo / Getty Images

SeaWorld's chief executive has admitted that employees have posed as animal-rights activists and vowed that the company will end the controversial practice.

"We recognise the need to ensure that all of our security and other activities align with our core values and ethical standards," SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment Chief Executive Officer Joel Manby said Thursday in a statement. "As always, the security and well-being of our employees, customers and animals remain at the forefront of our business practices."

The admission - and promise - came months after a prominent animal welfare organisation accused the entertainment company of sending a worker to infiltrate its group and incite violence among protesters.

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Manby made the announcement during an earnings call, saying that the company has hired an outside firm to assess its security policies.

"Following the completion of an investigation conducted by independent outside counsel," SeaWorld said in the statement, "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 that the company had received."

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said last year that SeaWorld San Diego worker Paul McComb had been a double agent inside the organization.

PETA spokeswoman Lindsay Rajt told the San Diego Union-Tribune at the time that McComb "seemed to be trying to incite confrontational and illegal actions against SeaWorld and distract from SeaWorld's own wrongdoing and smear people that may reflect poorly on our cause."

SeaWorld executives said that McComb, who was suspended during the uproar last summer, is still an employee at the company.

SeaWorld's finances continue to flop as animals continue to be found dead in its tiny tanks, with one death every single month since November.

The entertainment company said all personnel matters "have been handled internally," but added that McComb "has returned to work at SeaWorld in a different department."

As The Post's Yanan Wang reported late last year, SeaWorld has faced increasing scrutiny since the 2013 documentary "Blackfish," which detailed the circumstances of orcas that live and perform at the company's parks. The film focuses on the life of Tilikum, an orca at SeaWorld Orlando that killed one of his trainers and is associated with two other deaths.

SeaWorld's San Diego location announced in November that it will phase out its trademark Shamu shows, and a month before that, the California Coastal Commission banned the breeding of killer whales in captivity at the same time that it approved an expansion of SeaWorld San Diego's killer whale habitat.

The new regulations also restrict the sale, trade or transfer of orcas, though SeaWorld can still house beached and rescued animals approved by the government.

Following the release of "Blackfish," SeaWorld's revenue and attendance fell, leading to the resignation of then-CEO Jim Atchison near the end of 2014.

If SeaWorld was business savvy or common sense, it would modernize its business with coastal sanctuaries and virtual reality displays instead of building more dolphin prisons. The tawdry orca sideshows and despicable spying tactics are sinking the ship.

On Thursday, SeaWorld reported that fourth-quarter attendance and revenues were up over the same period in 2014. But after the company said first-quarter 2016 attendance was "soft" and reported larger-than-expected losses, SeaWorld shares fell by more than 10 percent.

"SeaWorld's finances continue to flop as animals continue to be found dead in its tiny tanks, with one death every single month since November," PETA's Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman said in a statement. "If SeaWorld had business savvy or common sense, it would modernise its business with coastal sanctuaries and virtual reality displays instead of building more dolphin prisons. The tawdry orca sideshows and despicable spying tactics are sinking SeaWorld's ship."

SeaWorld's admission that its employees spied on animal activists, Reiman said, "confirms . . . 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."

SeaWorld officials did not speak further on the issue.

PETA and other animal rights groups have been known to send workers to spy on the opposition as well. In the past, PETA has publicized undercover operations and called on the government for reform.

One undercover operation attempted to expose conditions at a Butterball factory farm, where PETA claimed workers "punched and stomped on wild turkeys." Another at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus seemed to show workers "beating, whipping, and hooking elephants," among other things.

Timeline of events:

February 2010 - SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau was interacting with a killer whale called Tilikum before a live audience at SeaWorld Orlando when it pulled her from a platform by her arm and held her under the water. While an autopsy report said Brancheau drowned, she suffered severe trauma, including multiple fractures and a severed spinal cord.

January 2013 - The highly critical documentary film "Blackfish," which focused on Tilikum, premiers at the Sundance Film Festival. Rights to the film were acquired by Magnolia Pictures and also CNN for broader release.

November 2013 - Protesters descend on Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which features a SeaWorld float depicting rolling waves, tropical fish, penguins and Shamu.

December 2013 - The rock bands Heart and Barenaked Ladies along with country singer Willie Nelson cancel performances at SeaWorld in Florida, citing "Blackfish."

July 2014 - Southwest Airlines ends 25-year marketing partnership with SeaWorld under pressure from animal rights activists.

August 2014 - Under sustained criticism over its treatment of killer whales, SeaWorld vows to build new, larger environments at its theme parks and fund additional research on the animals along with programs to protect ocean health and whales in the wild.

December 2014 - CEO Jim Atchison resigns and the company lays off more than 300 workers.

March 2015 - SeaWorld opens a marketing campaign to counter mounting damage to its public image from "Blackfish."

May 2015 - SeaWorld is cited in California for not adequately protecting its killer-whale trainers at its park in San Diego.

July 2015 - SeaWorld suspends an employee accused of posing for years as an animal-rights activist and trying to incite violence among peaceful protesters.

August 2015 - SeaWorld reports falling profits as animal activists protest the company's treatment of whales.

October 2015 - California Coastal Commission approves a $100 million expansion of the tanks SeaWorld uses to hold killer whales in San Diego -- but bans breeding of the captive orcas that would live in them.

October 2015 - SeaWorld challenges Coastal Commission ruling that banning the breeding of captive killer whales at its San Diego park.

November 2015 - SeaWorld announces it will end orca shows at its San Diego park by 2017.

December 2015 - SeaWorld files a lawsuit claiming that a California commission overreached when it banned the breeding of captive killer whales at a $100 million planned exhibit at San Diego's SeaWorld.

January 2016 - SeaWorld agrees on proposed settlement over allegations that the park failed to train workers to safely interact with killer whales.

February 2016 - SeaWorld acknowledges that it orchestrated the infiltration of an animal rights group, sending its own workers for what it describes as security purposes. The company reports a fourth-quarter loss of $11 million.

- with additional reporting from AP.

- Washington Post

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