Delaware Public Media

PETA Says Undercover SeaWorld Employee Posed As Animal Rights Activist

Jul 19, 2015
Originally published on July 22, 2015 10:28 am

In recent years, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has waged a protest campaign against SeaWorld, saying that the U.S. theme parks' treatment of trained orcas is cruel. Now, PETA says it has identified a SeaWorld "agent" in its midst.

PETA believes that a California volunteer who went by the name Thomas Jones was actually a SeaWorld employee named Paul McComb. PETA says he joined its network of volunteer activists, infiltrated its planning of SeaWorld protests, alerted police to one protest and tried to incite other PETA volunteers to "illegal actions."

Many volunteers joined PETA after the release of the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which was critical of SeaWorld's treatment of orcas, also known as killer whales.

"A lot of people got involved with PETA because they feel very strongly about SeaWorld and wanting to get those [orcas] out of those tanks," says Lisa Lange, PETA's senior vice president of communications.

She became suspicious of Thomas Jones during a PETA protest of SeaWorld's float at last year's Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif. He'd been taken away by police, along with other PETA protesters that day — but failed to reappear after they were released.

"We kept checking ... to make sure we didn't leave anyone behind," Lange recalls. When a concerned colleague got in touch to ask where Jones was, "He said, 'I got out early. ... I forgot my ID, so the police just let me go.' And we were like, that doesn't happen."

Their suspicions aroused, they began to investigate. "We looked at his addresses that he gave us when he signed up for a conference and when he signed up to be on the activist network," Lange says. "And one of the addresses he gave us didn't exist. The other one was a P.O. box that belonged to the director of security for SeaWorld San Diego."

Social Media Clues

PETA got in touch with Chris Palmeri, an investigative reporter for Bloomberg News, who reported on the story last week. Palmeri scoured Jones' social media accounts.

"In hindsight," Palmeri says, "you can see so many obvious clues that [Jones] was really prodding for information from these people. And he was also goading them into more action."

Lange notes that on social media, Jones "would say things like, 'Everybody grab your torches and your pitchforks — we're gonna go protest SeaWorld!' or 'Who's gonna help me drain the tanks?' "

This was unusual behavior for a PETA supporter, Lange emphasizes. "We watched him trying to incite illegal — and frankly, violent — activity."

"You go to his Facebook page," Lange says. "Most people, even if they're activists for a certain cause, they may have posts about, in his case, SeaWorld, but they'll also say, 'Look! Here's the bagel I had for breakfast!' You know, that's social media. He had nothing on his Facebook page except for SeaWorld this, SeaWorld that. 'Look at me at SeaWorld!' "

Using a private investigator, PETA tracked Jones' license plate number "to an entirely different individual than the name they had," Palmeri says.

The vehicle belonged to someone named Paul McComb, a SeaWorld employee.

Palmeri kept digging: "I was able to see photographs of Paul McComb on his wife's Facebook page, which has since been taken down, and I showed those photographs to three other people who had met him personally over the years. And they confirmed to me that this was the same guy — Tom Jones, the activist that they knew."

SeaWorld's Reaction

SeaWorld declined to make anyone available for this story, and NPR was unable to reach McComb for comment.

In a statement released on July 15, CEO Joel Manby said, "These allegations, if true, are not consistent with the values of the SeaWorld organization and will not be tolerated. The SeaWorld Board of Directors and I have initiated an investigation into this matter. ... In addition, we have placed the employee in question on paid administrative leave pending the findings of the investigation."

SeaWorld has pointed out that PETA runs undercover operations of its own. But Lange says there are differences between McComb's actions and what PETA does.

"A lot of our investigations come from whistleblower calls," she says. " 'Animals are being abused illegally here every day, and I can't get anything done about it. Can you help?' And because of our investigations, we've been able to get cruelty-to-animals charges against people. We always take our findings and report it to the authorities. And that's the difference here."

Lange says PETA is considering its legal options. For now, the organization has filed a lawsuit against the Pasadena police, seeking records of the arrests made during the 2014 Pasadena parade protest.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

And now a story of activism and espionage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: We learned last week that PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals - discovered a mole in their midst. They believe a volunteer who called himself Tom Jones is actually a SeaWorld employee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: He'd embedded himself within the ranks of PETA volunteers, infiltrated their planning of SeaWorld protests, then called the cops on them. He was part of a surge of volunteers following the release of the scathing documentary "Blackfish."

LISA LANGE: A lot of people got involved with PETA because they feel very strongly about SeaWorld and wanting to get those animals out of those tanks.

RATH: Lisa Lange is a PETA's senior vice president of communications. She became suspicious of this Tom Jones guy at a SeaWorld protest back in January, this one at the Rose Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

LANGE: Sixteen of us got arrested, including the man who presented himself as Thomas Jones. And we were all handcuffed and put in the police van and taken to the Pasadena Police Department. But then somewhere in the course of that day, while most us were going through the system, as they say, he disappeared. So when we got out later afternoon and we were counting heads to make sure that everybody was accounted for, he wasn't there. And we kept checking and checking on him to make sure we didn't leave him behind. And then a colleague of mine ended up calling or texting him and saying, hey, are you - where are you? And he said, I got out early. And when she pressed him, he said, I forgot my ID, so the police just let me go. And we were like that doesn't happen.

(LAUGHTER)

LANGE: You're not usually rewarded for not carrying an identification.

RATH: Right, that's usually a problem.

LANGE: That's usually a problem. Yeah. So that was the start of it.

RATH: To pull back the mask on Tom Jones, PETA did a little sleuthing.

LANGE: We looked at his addresses that he gave us when he signed up for a conference and when he signed up to be on the activist network. And one of the addresses he gave us didn't exist. The other one was a P.O. box that belonged to the director of security for SeaWorld San Diego. And that was - that was it.

RATH: Once PETA put together enough information on this guy, they called in a Bloomberg investigative reporter Chris Palmeri.

CHRIS PALMERI: In hindsight, you could see so many obvious clues that he was really prodding for information from these people, and he was also goading them into more action.

LANGE: He would say things like, everybody grab your torches and pitchforks. We're going to go protest SeaWorl. Or who's going to help me drain the tanks?

RATH: And that's not typical language...

LANGE: Oh, no.

RATH: ...for you or for your supporters.

LANGE: No, no. We watched him trying to incite illegal and frankly violent activity.

PALMERI: I spent the weekend searching through all of the social media I could find about these individuals.

LANGE: You go to his Facebook page. You know, most people, even if they're activists for a certain cause - they may have posts about, in his case, SeaWorld, but they'll also say, look, here's the bagel I had for breakfast (laughter). You know, that's social media. He had nothing on his Facebook page, except for SeaWorld this, SeaWorld that. Look at me at SeaWorld.

PALMERI: PETA wrote down his license plate number and, using private investigator, tracked that to an entirely different individual than the name they had.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: The car belonged to a Paul McComb, an employee of SeaWorld.

PALMERI: I was able to see photographs of Paul on his wife's Facebook page, which has since been taken down. And I showed those photographs to three other people who had met him personally over the years. And they confirmed to me that this was the same guy - Tom Jones the activist that they knew.

RATH: Busted.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: The world declined to make anyone available for the story, but they released a statement from CEO Joel Manby. Here's part of what he had to say.

These allegations, if true, are not consistent with the values of the SeaWorld organization and will not be tolerated. The SeaWorld board of directors and I have initiated an investigation into this matter. In addition, we have placed the employee in question on paid administrative leave, pending the findings of the investigation.

Now, to be fair, PETA runs plenty of undercover operations of its own, so isn't this just fair game?

LANGE: A lot of our investigations come from whistleblower calls. Animals are being abused illegally here every day, and I can't get anything done about it. Can you help? And because of our investigations, we've been able to get cruelty to animals charges against people. We always take our findings and report it to the authorities, and that's the difference here.

PALMERI: Also, I would argue the other people are doing it defense is (laughter) never a great one.

RATH: Chris Palmeri writes for Bloomberg, and Lisa Lange is PETA's senior vice president of communications. Lange says PETA has filed a lawsuit against the Pasadena Police Department. They're seeking records of the arrests made back at the Rose Parade. PETA is also considering other legal options, and so far, no comment from Paul McComb. He remains as silent and inaccessible as the ocean deep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.