SeaWorld says it spied on animal activists

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SAN DIEGO -- SeaWorld said Thursday that some of its employees posed as animal rights activists with the intent of spying on protesters and critics rallying against the water theme park's treatment of animals.

This is the first time SeaWorld has publicly acknowledged espionage after it was accused of spying by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals last year.

In an earnings call on Thursday, CEO Joel Manby said the undercover employees were used to "maintain the safety and security of company employees, customers and animals in the face of credible threats."

He also announced that the SeaWorld board of directors ordered the company's management to end the practice of employees posing as animal rights activists.

Allegations of espionage

Last year PETA singled out Paul McComb, then a SeaWorld human resources department employee, who posed as an activist named "Thomas Jones" and posted "inflammatory messages on social media" to "incite illegal actions."

"SeaWorld knows that the public is rejecting its cruel orca prisons and is so desperate that it created a corporate espionage campaign," PETA Senior Vice President Lisa Lange said at the time.

Manby responded: "These allegations, if true, are not consistent with the values of the SeaWorld organization and will not be tolerated."

The employee in question, McComb, was initially put on administrative leave and remains employed by SeaWorld, the company said Thursday, and has since transferred to another department.

"SeaWorld's corporate espionage campaign included trying to coerce kind people into setting SeaWorld on fire or draining its tanks ... in an attempt to distract from its cruelty and keep PETA from exposing the miserable lives of the animals it imprisons," PETA said in a news release.

A sea of troubles

SeaWorld's reputation was damaged in part by "Blackfish," a 2013 documentary co-produced by CNNFilms.

"Blackfish" begins by showing the practice of capturing orca babies in the 1970s and casts SeaWorld in a harsh light for the conditions in which the whales are raised.

The film blames SeaWorld for causing one whale, Tilikum, to become a killer. Tilikum, who has sired 21 calves, has killed three people, including SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau.

The film generated criticism from lawmakers and advocacy groups like PETA.

Before the film was aired, SeaWorld issued a statement calling the documentary biased and said it failed to discuss the company's "commitment to the safety of its team members and guests and to the care and welfare of its animals, as demonstrated by the company's continual refinement and improvement to its killer whale facilities, equipment and procedures both before and after the death of Dawn Brancheau."

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