Did SeaWorld Pressure State to Fire Employee for Removing Park From Education Website?

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is openly questioning whether the state is succumbing to pressure from SeaWorld, who happens to be a big Rick Scott donor, and wants to peruse government emails and records to find out. Last week, PETA sent the state's Office of Open Government a letter requesting access to internal emails relating to the recent firing of a Florida Department of Education (DOE) employee after the removal of SeaWorld promotions from the department's website. 

Back in September, PETA had called on the DOE to remove SeaWorld from a list on the department's website that helped teachers plan field trips with discounts. SeaWorld, which has run into a massive public relations nightmare since the release of the documentary Blackfish, was eventually removed from the list.

Not long after it was learned that deputy communications director after Jennifer Hartshorne, who approved the removal, no longer worked for the agency. 

Harthorne no longer working for the agency came soon after PETA announced that the DOE had removed SeaWorld from the website. 

"A SeaWorld lobbyist, and former aide to the governor, also reportedly communicated with the DOE, while the governor's office contacted the DOE's communications director shortly after PETA's announcement of the DOE's decision to remove the promotions," PETA spokesperson David Perle said.

Now the animal rights group is questioning if the state was pressured by SeaWorld to push Harstone out. SeaWorld has contributed $30,000 to Scott's political committee.

"Reports suggest that the governor's office may have deliberately interfered with the previously agreed-upon removal of SeaWorld's promotions," says PETA President Ingrid Newkirk. "The DOE staff made the right call by removing SeaWorld from its website, and PETA is calling on the governor's office to come clean about its financial relationship with SeaWorld now and to reinstate the employee whom the department fired."

PETA lawyer Jared Goodman sent out the letter, saying that the request is in the public's interest. 

"We respectfully request that production of the responsive documents be fulfilled without charge in light of PETA’s nonprofit status, PETA has no commercial interest in the information, and releasing the requested records is in the public interest," a portion of the letter reads. 

The releasing of emails and records has not been easy to come by during Scott's administration. But, Perle tells New Times, the state is cooperating. 

"They did acknowledge the request and told us that they will initiate a search and be back in touch with us soon," Perle says.

The documentary Blackfish, which premiered in 2013 and has been a popular film to stream on Netflix, interviews former whale trainers and exposes the harm done to orcas in captivity. The film shows footage of orcas attacking trainers and reports on the death of one SeaWorld trainer who was killed by an orca bull. The film specifically targets SeaWorld, claiming that captivity makes the otherwise docile mammals crazed.

Attendance at SeaWorlds across the United States fell by 2 percent, according to  the park's second quarter report in August, while net income dropped 85 percent to $5.8 million, and revenue declined 3 percent to $391.6 million.

Back in May, the theme park announced a net loss of $43.6 million in the first quarter of the year, despite saying that attendance to its parks had gone up. And while the company continues to refuse to acknowledge the impact the documentary Blackfish has made, for the second-quarter report, it used the term "brand challenges" when talking about the dip in profits at its San Diego-based park. 
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Chris Joseph
Contact: Chris Joseph