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SeaWorld admits workers posed as animal-rights activists

USA TODAY USA TODAY 25/02/2016 Nathan Bomey
People watch through the glass as a killer whale passes by while swimming in a display tank at SeaWorld in San Diego. © Chris Park, AP People watch through the glass as a killer whale passes by while swimming in a display tank at SeaWorld in San Diego.

Amusement-park operator SeaWorld (SEAS) admitted Thursday that employees have posed as animal rights activists to spy on critics and that the company will end the practice.

The acknowledgment came after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals last year accused San Diego park worker Paul McComb of spying on the organization's anti-SeaWorld protests.

It also comes less than a week after SeaWorld announced a shakeup in its executive ranks, including the departures of the company's chief parks operations officer, chief zoological officer and San Antonio park director.

SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby told analysts on a conference call Thursday morning that the company's board has "directed management to end the practice in which certain employees pose as animal rights activists."

He said McComb had been transferred to another department and returned to work after a period of administrative leave.

"All personnel matters pertaining to those involved have been handled internally," he said. "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 remains at the forefront of our business practices."

The company said it would not comment further on personnel issues.

"SeaWorld's latest report confirms not only that the company has employed more than one spy to infiltrate and agitate at PETA but also 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," PETA said Thursday in a statement.

The group added: "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. If SeaWorld had business savvy or common sense, it would modernize its business with coastal sanctuaries and virtual-reality displays instead of building more roller coasters and dolphin prisons."

SeaWorld said in a statement that it had hired consultancy Freeh Group International Solutions to "evaluate current controls and develop new policies and standards to ensure best practices company-wide."

The announcement also comes amid a tumultuous financial period for SeaWorld, whose stock plunged about 10% to $17.85 by late Thursday afternoon as the company struggles to rebrand itself in the wake of a 2013 documentary that damaged its reputation for how it treats marine life and trainers. 

Manby, who joined the company last year, decided to end live-orca shows at the company's San Diego park following regulatory pressure. He has approved new exhibits and rides to boost attendance, authorized a marketing campaign to improve the company's image and ordered a simplification of pricing.

The company's revenue was flat at $1.37 billion for the year, while net income fell 1.6% to $49.1 million. In the fourth quarter, revenue rose 1% to $267.9 million, compared with the fourth quarter of 2015, and the company lost $11 million, compared with a $25.4 million loss a year earlier.

"It will be a bumpy road. It’s not going to be a straight line, but I think we’re making progress," Manby told investors.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.

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