SeaWorld Entertainment (SEAS) may face legal action from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) after the organization claimed that one of the company's employees participated in several protests using a bogus name.
PETA has accused the Orlando, Florida, theme park operator of mistreating killer whales, a claim the company has vehemently denied. In a statement regarding the spying allegations, SeaWorld declined to discuss specific "security operations," but it noted, "this is a responsibility that we take very seriously, especially as animal rights groups have become increasingly extreme in their rhetoric and tactics."
SeaWorld is referring to PETA's history of sending activists undercover to expose mistreatment of animals at farms, slaughterhouses and circuses. Lisa Lange, a PETA senior vice president, rejected any comparison between SeaWorld's "undercover operation" and its own activities, which are designed to uncover illegal mistreatment of animals. Lange called the company's action a "dirty trick."
"What SeaWorld is doing is trying to stop us from exposing them," she said in an interview with CBS MoneyWatch. "What we do next -- we are still deciding. If there is a legal option, we will consider it."
According to PETA, SeaWorld human resources employee Paul T. McComb began a ruse in 2012 when he signed up for PETA's Action Team under the name "Thomas Jones." He attended PETA protests in New York and California and got arrested at the 2014 Rose Bowl parade along with other activists.
"I was arrested with him, and when we all got out of jail later in the afternoon that day, he was nowhere to be found," Lange said. "We had someone there who was waiting to make sure all of the protestors got out of jail. She kept checking to see where he was and why he was being held so long."
Police in Pasadena, California, eventually said they had no record of "Jones." The organization became even more suspicious when, they say, he ducked calls and texts inquiring about his whereabouts. McComb eventually contacted PETA and explained that police released him even though he didn't have a photo ID.
"That had us scratching our heads a little bit because typically the police just don't let you go if you forget your ID," she said.
PETA says it discovered McComb had provided it two suspicious addresses: One was nonexistent and the other was a post office box in San Diego, California, registered to Ric Marcelino, director of security at SeaWorld San Diego. When Bloomberg questioned McComb about PETA's allegations, he hung up the phone.
If PETA's allegations are true, they could be problematic, according to an expert in corporate investigations.
"I would not advise any client to penetrate an opposition organization," Daniel Karson, chairman of private investigation company Kroll, who has more than 40 years experience investigating business crimes, told CBS MoneyWatch. "Once you take an active role in the organization, you are inducing people to trust you, interact with you ... then you have probably crossed over the line, ethically, legally ... and most likely you are going to make your employer look awful bad, too."
Shares of SeaWorld, which also owns Pennsylvania's Sesame Place and the Busch Gardens parks in Florida and Virginia, have plunged more than 35 percent over the past year amid growing concern about the company's treatment of killer whales, which was first raised by the 2013 documentary "Blackfish." SeaWorld launched an ad campaign earlier this year to counter those perceptions.