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SeaWorld Parent Firm Admits Spying on Animal-rights Activists

Leaders of Florida-based SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. have admitted that some of its employees posed as animal-rights activists to spy on critics of the company, a claim made last summer by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

During SeaWorld’s earnings call Feb. 25, CEO Joel Manby announced that the company is taking steps to alter its security policies after a probe by outside independent counsel confirmed the spying claim.

A SeaWorld statement said its Board of Directors has directed the company’s management team to end the practice in which certain employees posed as animal-rights activists “in connection with efforts to maintain the safety and security” of employees, customers and animals.

The board has also directed management to strengthen oversight and controls “to guide operations and security practices.” SeaWorld has retained Freeh Group International Solutions LLC, led by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, to evaluate current standards and develop new companywide policies and practices.

In July 2015, PETA officials said SeaWorld employee Paul McComb, using the name Thomas Jones, infiltrated the group in Florida and tried to incite members to break laws and otherwise take aggressive actions against SeaWorld facilities.

SeaWorld officials said McComb was placed on administrative leave during the internal probe, but as of Feb. 25 was back at work in a different department, which was not disclosed.

SeaWorld has been battling critics, and has dealt with declining attendance and revenue, since the 2013 release of a documentary called Blackfish, examining the company’s treatment of killer whales.

Also on Feb. 25, SeaWorld Entertainment reported a net loss of $11 million for its fourth quarter ending Dec. 31, compared with a net loss of $25.4 million in the same period of 2014. Total revenue for the quarter was $267.9 million, slightly above the $264.5 million posted in the year-ago period.

For the full 2015, SeaWorld reported net income of $49.1 million on total revenue of $1.37 billion, down from 2014’s $49.9 million net income on $1.38 billion in total revenue.

Attendance at the company’s parks was up slightly for the quarter – 4.41 million versus 4.37 million in 2014; and also for the full year – 22.47 million versus 22.4 million in the prior year.

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