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SeaWorld Employee Who Infiltrated PETA Actions Put on Paid Leave as PETA Plans to Expose More Spies

When People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) exposed a SeaWorld employee as a corporate spy who had infiltrated the organization’s meetings and protests, the theme park’s initial response was to accuse PETA of hypocrisy. SeaWorld pointed to the fact that PETA encourages undercover investigations, as if the two were somehow remotely similar.

But, as this story has gained traction and as PETA prepares to expose more alleged SeaWorld spies, the theme park has had to adjust its response and place the employee accused of infiltration on paid leave.

On July 15, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby announced an investigation led by Ron Olson of the law firm, Munger, Tolles, & Olson.

“The allegations made yesterday against a SeaWorld employee are very concerning,” Manby said in a statement. “These allegations, if true, are not consistent with the values of the SeaWorld organization and will not be tolerated.”

How come this was not SeaWorld’s initial response when media organizations were asking for comment on PETA’s accusations, which included clear evidence of infiltration? Is it because SeaWorld has encouraged some of its employees to engage in such dirty tricks?

PETA alleged Paul T. McComb claimed to be “Thomas Jones” and showed up at PETA protests against SeaWorld. He operated a Twitter account as “Thomas Jones,” where he posted messages attempting to incite protesters to “burn” SeaWorld “to the ground” or rush the gates at a future action.

During a protest where PETA activists engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience and blocked a float in the 2014 Rose Parade, “Jones” was arrested with other activists. He subsequently disappeared, and there is no record of charges ever being filed against him.

PETA contends it has been targeted by more SeaWorld spies in addition to McComb and does not believe the suspension and investigation will amount to anything more than a cover-up.

“Suspending your own agents is an old trick, which usually comes with a backroom deal of compensation and a promise to bring them back when things die down, which is unlikely to be the case with this beleaguered business,” PETA President Ingrid E. Newkirk said in a statement. “Furthermore, we do not believe that SeaWorld limited its espionage efforts to McComb’s activities. It has hired protesters to attend SeaWorld rallies, and PETA is currently looking at two more men we believe were SeaWorld agents hired to infiltrate PETA as ‘volunteers,’ and the list may grow.”

Newkirk indicated more names and photographs of other people it believes infiltrated demonstrations and “volunteer activities” will be released.

“SeaWorld could face scrutiny by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and other bodies now, but chances are that the McComb affair is just the tip of the iceberg in SeaWorld’s dirty tricks department. We are dealing with a SeaWorld infestation, and it is likely to get much uglier,” Newkirk declared.

PETA has also sued the Pasadena Police Department to uncover information on any role the police department may have played in espionage against activists. The lawsuit alleges the city of Pasadena failed to comply with the Public Records Act and release records related to “Thomas Jones.”

The 2013 documentary, Blackfish, on SeaWorld’s mistreatment of orca whales has had a devastating impact on SeaWorld’s image. Fewer celebrities and businesses are willing to have their names connected to SeaWorld.

The consciousness of Americans has shifted, with people who normally would have visited the theme park far more reluctant to go to SeaWorld. That has made educational campaigns and protests by organizations like PETA more of a threat to SeaWorld’s business.

On “Democracy Now!” on July 15, Matthew Strugar, director of litigation for PETA, recalled how he had called McComb to talk to him about his arrest at the Rose Parade:

…He gave me just some really incredible stories, saying that he stayed at a local city nearby before the Rose Parade, but couldn’t name any city nearby, including the one that he stayed in; said that after he was arrested, he simply—he broke down crying in a holding cell, and the police had pity on him and released him, as if that’s something that ever happens. And then when I asked him, you know, where he worked and some basic pedigree information and told him I might have to call him as a witness in connection with the criminal trials, he got incredibly defensive, told me to lose his number, eventually hung up on me, said there was no way he was ever going to testify. So, that’s when we knew that something was up.

Will Potter of argued, “When people make a lot of money by abusing animals, they don’t like having that abuse exposed, because it means they lose profits, and consumers don’t like that very much. And that’s exactly what’s happened with SeaWorld, and especially with Blackfish.”

“I mean, it’s really unprecedented how quickly the tides have turned against this company. In just a couple of years, there’s been a groundswell of public opposition and just a cultural change in how we regard these animals and using animals for entertainment at places like SeaWorld. And I think these types of tactics, that I’ve reported on extensively, from corporations are truly an act of desperation, when activists become incredibly effective at changing cultural values, cultural discussion, and also threatening corporate profits. I think, if anything, the example of this infiltration and attempts at provocation show the lengths to which these companies are willing to go, rather than change their business practices and respond to consumer pressure.”

Image from PETA of Paul T. McComb or “Thomas Jones” being arrested at 2014 Rose Parade 

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."