A SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. employee posed for years as an animal-rights activist, joining protests against the company over its use of captive killer whales, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Peta, based in Norfolk, Virginia, said that a California activist who identified himself as Thomas Jones has been taking part in the group’s activities. He protested a SeaWorld float at New York’s Thanksgiving Day parade in 2013, held anti-SeaWorld signs outside the company’s San Diego theme park, and got hauled away by police at the 2014 Rose Parade in Pasadena, California, Peta said.
Peta officials said they believe Jones is another man: 28-year-old Paul McComb, who has worked in a number of positions at SeaWorld since at least 2008, including as a human resources representative, according to a job history posted on the website Jresume.com.
The claim, if true, could mark another public-relations black eye for SeaWorld, which has faced withering criticism of its marquee attraction -- trained killer whales performing for guests. The company has endured a critical documentary, boycotts and the loss of sponsorships. Attendance and revenue have suffered.
“We are focused on the safety of our team members, guests and animals, and beyond that we do not comment on our security operations,” Fred Jacobs, a SeaWorld spokesman, said in a statement Monday. “This is a responsibility that we take very seriously, especially as animal rights groups have become increasingly extreme in their rhetoric and tactics.”
SeaWorld didn’t respond to other questions, including whether McComb works for the company. McComb, reached by mobile phone using the number at the jresume.com site, declined to say if he was a SeaWorld employee and hung up when asked if he used the name Thomas Jones.
Jones used social media to contact other protesters for information. “What is the big surprise for the upcoming protest. Are we going up the gates or something,” he asked another activist in a March 2014 message provided by Peta. He also urged activists on. “Grab your pitch forks and torches. Time to take down SeaWorld,” Jones said in comments on Facebook before a July 4, 2014, SeaWorld protest.
Photos of Jones posted on his Facebook page resemble those of McComb on the page of his wife, Brittany McComb. Reached by phone, she confirmed she is married to Paul McComb, while declining to answer other questions.
The Facebook page of Brittany McComb, which was available Monday, has since been taken down. Jones’s Facebook page disappeared Tuesday morning and then reappeared with photos of him removed.
Hal Weiss, an activist who sat next to Jones in a police van after the Rose Bowl protest, said he is certain the pictures of McComb are of the same man. Lisa Lange, a Peta spokeswoman in Los Angeles, said she met Jones three times and that the photos on Brittany McComb’s Facebook page matched those of the activist.
“It’s definitely him,” Lange said in a phone interview.
SeaWorld, which owns 11 theme parks in the U.S., has experienced a public-relations tsunami since the release of the “Blackfish” documentary in 2013. The film, produced by Manny O Productions and aired repeatedly by CNN, argues that killer whales are too big to be kept in captivity.
At the urging of petitioners at Change.org and groups including Peta, artists such as Willie Nelson canceled appearances at SeaWorld’s flagship park in Orlando.
Southwest Airlines Co. ended its marketing relationships with the brand a year ago. SeaWorld’s attendance dropped in 2013 and 2014.
SeaWorld rose 0.5 percent to $18.61 at the close in New York. The shares are more than 30 percent below the $27 they were offered at in April 2013 when the company first sold stock to the public. Blackstone Group is SeaWorld's largest shareholder with a 22 percent stake, based on data compiled by Bloomberg.
In December, SeaWorld said it was replacing Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison. In March, the company appointed Joel Manby, who ran the Dollywood park and the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. The same month, SeaWorld introduced a marketing campaign designed to show off the good work it does for animals, such as rescuing beached sea lions. SeaWorld has said its killer whales get excellent care.
Lange, the Peta spokeswoman, said she saw Jones taken away by police after she and a group of activists tried to stop a SeaWorld float during the January 2014 Rose Parade. The group planned to regroup outside the Pasadena police station after their arrests, but Jones never reappeared, she said.
Lieutenant Mark Goodman, a spokesman for the Pasadena police, said he couldn’t find a record of a Paul McComb being arrested. He also didn’t have a record of a Thomas Jones close to McComb’s age.
With suspicions growing, Peta activists wrote down Jones’s license plate number at a June 6 protest in San Diego and traced it to McComb, according to Kathy Guillermo, another Peta spokeswoman.
There were other reasons Peta suspected a connection between Jones and SeaWorld. Jones gave two addresses when registering with the group. One is on a street in Jamul, California, that doesn’t exist. There is such a street in El Cajon, where McComb lives, according to a Nexis search of public records. Jamul, where he lived previously, is nearby.
The other address provided by Jones, a post-office box in San Diego, comes up in a Nexis search as used by Richard Marcelino. Ric Marcelino is SeaWorld’s head of security in San Diego, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Marcelino didn’t respond to a request for comment sent through LinkedIn. McComb held a security guard’s license in California that expired in March, according to state records.
SeaWorld, in its statement, provided a link to a Peta job posting for an undercover investigator.
“Peta itself actively recruits animal rights activists to gain employment at companies like SeaWorld, as this job posting demonstrates,” company spokesman Jacobs said. “Safety is our top priority, and we will not waiver from that commitment.”
Peta has encouraged activists to use drones to capture footage of hunters. The group put a hidden camera in a Kentucky horse trainer’s barn to record what it said was mistreatment. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission said there were no violations by the stable.
Peta’s Guillermo said it never uses false names in its investigations.