Although its entertainment value remains high — what kid doesn’t thrill to the sight of killer whales and dolphins soaring through the air, then executing gigantic belly flops? — SeaWorld’s reputation, and fiscal performance, has taken some serious hits over the past 10 years.
An overview of the company’s problems includes the following incidents:
- In 2006, a trainer was hospitalized after one of the performing whales grabbed him during a show at the Orlando, Fla., SeaWorld and held him underwater.
- In 2010, trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by an orca named Tillicum in an apparent training accident at the same Orlando facility.
- In January 2013, a documentary film titled “Blackfish” alleged that the stress orcas experienced in captivity were killing them prematurely.
- In November 2013, protestors disrupted the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City to protest the inclusion of a SeaWorld float.
As a result of the activist pressure, SeaWorld officials announced in November 2015 that they would begin phasing out the performing orcas at its signature San Diego park by the end of 2017.
All that’s bad enough, but now comes another disclosure that is at once disturbing, yet reeking of justifiable payback.
According to USA Today, Joel Manby, SeaWorld CEO, admitted to analysts on a conference that the company’s board “has directed management to end the practice in which certain employees pose as animal rights activists.”
You read that right: SeaWorld employees were told to “go undercover” and infiltrate animal rights demonstrations protesting the confinement of orcas and dolphins.
In fact, according to a Bloomberg report, Paul McComb, who apparently was employed in the firm’s Human Resources department, spent eight years pretending to be “Thomas Jones,” providing a fake address and using fake social media accounts to try to incite to violence the protestors conducting demonstrations against the company.
Supposedly, Jones-McComb has been relieved of his undercover assignment, Manby assured reporters.
Over the years, Jones-McComb actually joined PETA, participated in numerous protest demonstrations against his employer and was active on social media with such posts as, “Burn #SeaWorld to the ground!” and “Let’s drain the new tanks at #SeaWorld” and “Grab your pitch forks and torches!”
He even allegedly organized a “direct action” protest against the company, then failed to appear at the demonstration.
It’s called karma
As you can imagine, our pals at PETA were less than thrilled with the news that someone they most likely welcomed into their ranks of born-again believers turned out to be a paid corporate spy.
“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 in a statement released last year when rumors of Jones-McComb’s underground mission first began to circulate. “Instead of creating a dirty tricks department, SeaWorld should put its resources into releasing the orcas in coastal sanctuaries.”
H-m-m-m . . . a dirty tricks department. Now, let’s see. Who else do we know that’s gone down that road?
I find it deliciously ironic that a group that exists solely to foment protest, whose leadership had stated on numerous occasions that “anything goes” in the effort to stop animal suffering, and whose founder Ingrid Newkirk has flatly stated that what PETA does is explicitly designed to generate not change, but outrage.
When confronted with the proverbial dose of their own medicine, however, the standards suddenly flipped. Now, it’s straight-up foul play for someone to masquerade as a fellow traveler, then try to gather intel while creating as much mischief as possible.
And this much is guaranteed: PETA and its allies won’t consider for a single nanosecond the possibility that maybe they should also abandon the practice of undercover spying on the opposition.
No, no, no. When it comes to their cause, the show must go on.
In the end, the burning question I have to ask is this: “Hey PETA — how does it feel to get seriously punked?”
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator