By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Fla. (Reuters) - SeaWorld, the U.S. theme park operator whose treatment of killer whales has sparked criticism, said on Thursday it would no longer send employees undercover to infiltrate the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The company, which operates SeaWorld theme parks in Florida, Texas and California, has been working to stabilize its business after drops in attendance in 2014 amid a shift in American attitudes on the confinement and treatment of orcas, the killer whales that once were the parks' core attraction.
PETA complained last July that a SeaWorld employee, Paul McComb, had posed as an activist and tried to incite the burning of the parks and draining of the orca tanks, the group's senior vice president, Lisa Lange, said.
SeaWorld's chief executive, Joel Manby, announced the change in policy on Thursday.
"The board has directed that the company's management team end a practice in which certain employees posed as animal rights activists in connection with efforts to maintain the safety and security of company employees, customers and animals in the face of credible threats that the company had received," Manby told analysts on a conference call after the Orlando, Florida-based company reported a wider-than-expected quarterly loss.
SeaWorld Entertainment Inc shares on Thursday fell 9.2 percent to $18.01, in their biggest decline on the New York Stock Exchange since November 2014.
Company spokeswoman Aimee Jeansonne Becka declined to comment on what Manby meant by "credible threats" or to say how many employees worked undercover.
PETA's Lange said she was not surprised at SeaWorld's admission.
"This is a corporation that is in free-fall and has been taking some desperate actions of late," Lange said.
SeaWorld reported stable attendance at its parks in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando last year after reporting a 4.3 percent drop in 2014.
The company said it will not fire McComb, who had been on leave since last summer.
SeaWorld has cut jobs and lost promotional deals with Southwest Airlines Co and Mattel Inc since the 2013 CNN documentary "Blackfish" presented a critical view of how the company treats killer whales.
The company said it has retained a consultant to evaluate current controls and develop new policies and standards to ensure best practices company-wide.
(Editing by Scott Malone and Leslie Adler)