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Beleaguered SeaWorld admits workers spied on animal-rights activists

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

“We recognize 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 organization accused the entertainment company of sending a worker to infiltrate its group and incite violence among protesters.

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

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.

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 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 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.

© 2016, The Washington Post

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