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Any positive news in SeaWorld's results Thursday was overshadowed by the CEO's admission that the company used employees to spy on animal rights groups.

Seven months after he called allegations that a SeaWorld employee had gone undercover with an animal rights group “very concerning” and “not consistent with the values” of the theme park company, president and CEO Joel Manby said on Thursday that the operation was actually a practice known to management — and that it will end.

The board of directors of SeaWorld Entertainment “directed management to end the practice in which certain employees posed as animal rights activists,” Manby said. “This activity was undertaken in connection with efforts to maintain the safety and security of employees, customers and animals in the face of credible threats.”

His comments were tacked onto the end of an hourlong call with analysts to discuss fourth-quarter and full-year earnings. The statement was also posted on the company’s blog.

A spokeswoman for the Orlando-based company declined to answer questions about the role of management in the undercover operation involving People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which allegedly continued for years, or whether that was the only infiltration effort.

“As noted in the statement, the report contains confidential business information related to the company’s security practices and we will not comment beyond this statement,” the spokeswoman said.

In a statement Thursday, PETA executive vice president Tracy Reiman said the report was confirmation that the company had sent more than one person to pose as activists within the organization.

“SeaWorld’s corporate espionage campaign tried to coerce kind people into setting SeaWorld on fire or draining its tanks, which would have hurt the animals, in an attempt to distract from its cruelty and keep PETA from exposing the miserable lives of the animals it imprisons,” Reiman said. “When we send an observer in to look, we do what decent journalists do: We seek the truth. When SeaWorld spied, it had no interest in the truth, but only in creating illegal activity. We caught them in their dirty tricks.”

The employee accused of posing as an activist, Paul McComb, was placed on administrative leave in July. He is still employed with the company in another department and no longer on leave, Manby said. Personnel matters related to the situation have been “handled internally,” according to the CEO.

PETA said in July that it believed a man known as Thomas Jones who joined the group in protests for years was actually a SeaWorld employee.

After the allegation was made public, Manby said in his statement that the actions would not be tolerated and an investigation had been ordered.

“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 in July.

On Thursday, Manby couched the announcement as a measure to “strengthen security and risk management policies and controls” after that investigation was completed.

“The board also has directed that management strengthen oversight and controls to guide operations and security practices,” he said.

His admission sparked a fresh round of negative headlines for the company, which has been in defense mode since mid-2013 when the documentary Blackfish was released. The film was highly critical of the company’s treatment of killer whales.

Animal rights groups have used the film to mount an attack on SeaWorld, which has seen attendance and revenues shrink. Manby replaced the former CEO last year; just last week, the company announced an shuffling of executives, with a new chief parks operations officer, chief zoological officer and presidents of the SeaWorld parks in San Diego and San Antonio.

Thursday’s results showed performance might be stabilizing — in fact, executives uttered a version of that word nine times during the call.

Attendance for the fourth quarter grew by 43,000 to 4.41 million people and revenue jumped slightly to $268 million. The company, which has 11 parks, posted a net loss of $11 million for the quarter, which was an improvement over the same time in 2014.

For the full year, attendance climbed by 72,000 to 22.47 million. Revenue was down from $1.38 billion to $1.37 billion, and profits fell slightly to $49.1 million.

Manby told analysts Thursday he believes the company is heading in a positive direction by focusing on experiences for families, unique guest experiences, strategic revenue growth, brand image repair, and financial discipline.

“It will be a bumpy road — it’s not going to be a straight line — but I think we’re making good progress,” he said.


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Tags: earnings, seaworld, theme parks

Photo credit: Visitors are greeted by a killer whale as they attend a show featuring the whales during a visit to the animal theme park SeaWorld in San Diego, California in 2014. Mike Blake / Reuters

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