TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - A tussle over the website used by the Florida Department of Education has resulted in the ouster of an agency employee and an animal rights group’s questioning whether state education officials are buckling under pressure from one of the state’s theme park operators.
The department this month pushed out its deputy communications director after Jennifer Hartshorne approved removing references to SeaWorld from the agency website. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in September asked the agency to remove SeaWorld from a department website list of fun field trips and discounts made available to teachers.
Emails show that several agency officials, including Hartshorne’s direct supervisor and an executive assistant to Commissioner Pam Stewart, were made aware of the request from PETA. The group is highly critical of SeaWorld for holding killer whales captive at its theme parks including one located in Orlando. SeaWorld has been under fire since the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” suggested the treatment of captive orcas provokes violent behavior.
Agency emails show that Hartshorne on Sept. 25 told PETA officials the department had removed references to SeaWorld. The decision went largely unnoticed until PETA heralded the decision in an Oct. 6 press release. Within hours, DOE reinstated the links after getting press inquiries.
Meghan Collins, the communications director, told The Associated Press that same day that the agency was looking into what happened. Collins acknowledged on Friday that while she knew about the PETA request she did not know her own employee had approved the removal of the SeaWorld references.
“I was aware that there was a request, I was not aware any action had been taken until we got the press release,” Collins said.
Collins, who called SeaWorld “a valuable education partner,” said that Stewart was also unaware that the SeaWorld links were removed.
Internal agency emails show that the same day that PETA hailed the decision a former top aide to Gov. Rick Scott who is now a lobbyist for SeaWorld asked the department about the issue. Collins, whose husband is a deputy chief of staff for Scott, also got emails from Scott’s office regarding SeaWorld. SeaWorld has donated to both political parties and previously gave $30,000 to Scott’s political committee.
Hartshorne, whose departure from the department was first reported this week by The Orlando Sentinel, was not available for comment. She had worked at DOE since 2013 and was earning nearly $59,000 a year.
PETA officials meanwhile blasted DOE’s decision to reinstate the SeaWorld links.
“The Florida Department of Education (DOE) did the right thing for the orcas confined to SeaWorld’s concrete tanks, and then, as most people would be disgusted to hear, politics played a role in the DOE’s reversal,” said PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman in a statement. “We are again calling on the DOE to keep its word and pull the SeaWorld promotions now, because having a government educational agency supporting SeaWorld sends kids the dangerous message that it’s OK to abuse animals for entertainment and certainly gives the perception that the agency is being told what to do by those who can pay to play.”
Collins said that SeaWorld did not request any action to be taken against Hartshorne. A SeaWorld representative did not return a phone call request for comment.
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