SeaWorld admits employees posed as activists, citing security concerns

The company has vowed to end the practice, but defended its use as a means to protect its staff and animals.

Chris Park/AP/File
Four killer whales leap out of the water while performing during SeaWorld's Shamu show in San Diego, Nov. 30, 2006. SeaWorld is acknowledging that it sent a worker to infiltrate animal rights groups that opposed the theme park. SeaWorld Entertainment CEO Joel Manby said Thursday that the company will no longer use the practice to spy on opponents.

SeaWorld dropped a bombshell during an earnings briefing on Thursday, admitting that employees had posed as animal rights activists.

The embattled theme park company posted the full statement online Thursday, saying it will end the practice of having employees pose as animal rights activists critical of the park. The decision is based on advice from a third-party company that completed a security investigation for SeaWorld, according to the press release.

“We recognize the need to ensure that all of our security and other activities align with our core values and ethical standards. As always, the security and well-being of our employees, customers and animals remain at the forefront of our business practices,” said Joel Manby, president and chief executive officer of SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc., in Thursday's release.

The admission follows accusations from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in July 2015 that alleged SeaWorld was spying on animals rights activists that opposed its theme parks by embedding employees disguised as activists. At the time, Mr. Manby said, "These allegations, if true, are not consistent with the values of the SeaWorld organization and will not be tolerated."

On Thursday, SeaWorld announced it would end the practice of posing employees as activists, but defended it as an effort to “maintain the safety and security of company employees, customers, and animals in the face of credible threats that the company had received.”

SeaWorld also said that those involved with the program have been dealt with internally. Paul McCombs,  one of two employees that PETA alleged was a SeaWorld employee posed as an activist in July, was put on administrative leave during an investigation, but will return to work in a different department.

PETA described SeaWorld's refusal to fire Mr. McCombs as a de facto approval of corporate espionage, in a statement to the Associated Press.

SeaWorld refused to comment further, citing internal security concerns and confidential business practices, in a e-mail to the Monitor.

When the PETA allegations surfaced in July, the news was seen as another huge public relations blow for the theme park company, if true.

The company has suffered a string of setbacks, from the documentary “Blackfish,” which argued it is inhumane to keep killer whales in captivity, to boycotts from the public. Attempts to appease public outrage over the iconic orca shows in November did little to raise public opinion.

Three SeaWorld parks currently operate in the United States, according to the company's website.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.