SeaWorld suspends employee accused of infiltrating animal rights group

By Marty Graham
Visitors are greeted by an Orca killer whale as they attend a show featuring the whales during a visit to the animal theme park SeaWorld in San Diego, California March 19, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Marty Graham

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - SeaWorld said on Thursday that it has suspended a San Diego-based employee while the theme park's lawyers investigate accusations that he infiltrated an animal rights group in a bid to undermine its work.

People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claims that SeaWorld deployed a man identifying himself as Thomas Jones to masquerade as an activist in the San Diego area, taking part in protests and organizational meetings.

"These allegations, if true, are not consistent with the values of the SeaWorld organization and will not be tolerated," Joel Manby, CEO of SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., said in a written statement. "We have placed the employee in question on paid administrative leave pending the findings of the investigation."

"We will take all appropriate actions based on the results of the investigation to ensure that the integrity and values of the SeaWorld organization are upheld," he said.

PETA, which says that the man known as Thomas Jones is actually Paul McComb, a human resources employee at the San Diego theme park, blasted SeaWorld's response in a written statement and said it was prepared to expose two more SeaWorld infiltrators.

"SeaWorld is scrambling to distance itself from something that it cannot talk its way out of," PETA President Ingrid Newkirk said in a written statement. "Chances are that the McComb affair is just the tip of the iceberg in SeaWorld's dirty tricks department."

For years, PETA has campaigned against SeaWorld over its treatment of killer whales.

PETA filed a lawsuit on Thursday in Los Angeles County Superior Court against the Pasadena Police Department and the city of Pasadena for failing to release records of its dealings with "Thomas Jones" when PETA activists were arrested for blocking the SeaWorld float at the Rose Bowl Parade in January 2014.

The arrests triggered PETA's suspicions about "Jones" because he was never charged and was released separately from the other 16 protesters, according to PETA Vice President Kathy Guillermo.

PETA's internal investigation found that "Jones" first connected with PETA in August 2012, according to the complaint, which describes him as an "agent provocateur." The court filing includes social media messages to other anti-SeaWorld activists that appear to advocate violence.

PETA itself has a long history of recruiting and using infiltrators to obtain evidence of alleged cruelty to animals, as long ago as 2004 when its operatives documented cruelty to researchers' monkeys and at a chinchilla breeder.

(Reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Sandra Maler)