At SeaWorld, employees work underwater — and undercover.
The theme park operator admitted on Thursday that its employees had posed as activists and infiltrated prominent animal rights groups, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). And Joel Manby, the company's president and CEO, said it had adopted a policy ending the practice.
"We recognize the need to ensure that all of our security and other activities align with our core values and ethical standards," Manby said.
PETA blocked a SeaWorld float during the 2014 Rose Bowl parade. All of the demonstrators were arrested, except one: Thomas Jones, later revealed to be Paul McComb, a human resources employee at SeaWorld.
"This was really our first clue that something wasn't right," said Ingrid Newkirk, the president of PETA. The group filed a lawsuit against the Pasadena Police Department, demanding the release of police records related to McComb's arrest. "We believe that the suit is what has lead to this admission," said Newkirk.
SeaWorld characterized the practice of sending employees undercover as part of the company's efforts "to maintain the safety and security of company employees, customers, and animals in the face of credible threats that the company had received." The statement did not elaborate on the nature of the security threats, and the company declined to provide clarification.
"They were trying to incite people to commit crimes," said Newkirk, dismissing the company's claims. "But these are peaceful protestors, so no one took the bait. That's not part of our practice."
PETA claims that undercover spies like McComb, encouraged activists to commit crimes, including setting SeaWorld on fire or draining water from animal tanks.
The company placed McComb on administrative leave, which has been lifted, according to the company statement. It also said he has been reassigned to another job.
SeaWorld ran into stormy seas with the release of the documentary film Blackfish, which took a critical look at the theme park's treatment of it's animals. Senior employees, including the company's chief of parks operations and the chief zoological officer, recently left the company.
Thirteen animals at SeaWorld have died in the last 13 months.
"Almost as many animals have died as the number of executives that have left," Newkirk said. "SeaWorld is just drowning. Their stock is down. They've lost corporate sponsors, celebrity endorsements, attendance. Former trainers and staff are coming forward and telling horror stories about the treatment of these animals. Unless they release these orcas, their business model is finished."
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