Petition targets KHS leader

LIHUE ­— A group of employees at the Kauai Humane Society is calling for the dismissal of KHS executive director, Penny Cistaro.

Brandy Varvel, KHS outreach and services manager for the last two and half years, said some employees presented the board with a 70-page binder full of documentation outlining employee complaints.

Those ranged from Cistaro hiring unqualified friends to fill positions, creating a hostile work environment and being too quick to euthanize animals.

“Saving lives is not her No. 1 priority, euthanasia is,” she said. “For the last two and a half years, saving lives is a battle.”

Several donors got wind of the employees unhappiness and got involved, Varvel said. They presented the binder to the Board of Directors at the end of April. The board then implemented an employee survey, without a third party, that basically asked how happy the employees were.

“We want the quality of annual care to improve,” she said. “We want a happy staff. It’s difficult to go into work everyday and see it continue.”

A meeting is scheduled today between the KHS board and employees to review results of that employee survey. Varvel said they plan to turn in a petition at that meeting calling for Cistaro’s dismissal.

The petition comes just weeks after the annual KHS fundraiser, “Paws for Celebration,” that raised about $80,000. Then, it was a night of smiles and laughter and music. Not so Tuesday.

Cistaro came on board two years ago to lead the nonprofit that was battling red ink. While she has her critics — some say she’s too quick to euthanize animals and staff morale has fallen — the board has continued to support Cistaro.

“We’re disappointed to see that staff has chosen this method to speak,” said Emily Larocque, KHS board president on Tuesday.

The board met with community members and staff earlier this year to listen to concerns. Then, the board spent the last month doing its due diligence, Larocque said, “and that was looking at facts and looking at numbers.”

“We came to the conclusion that we remain in strong support of Penny,” she said.

According to the documents, the group claims the shelter is euthanizing more animals than the 50 percent reported by KHS. The group also says the numbers of animals coming to the shelter is down because people don’t want to surrender their pets for fear they will be put down. They say the number of animals being adopted and transferred to the Mainland or returned to their owners has dropped.

Larocque disagreed.

“The information that’s being put out there is misinformation,” she said.

She said the board has reviewed the numbers. She said euthanasias from 2013 to 2014 were down 7 percent, and from 2014 to 2015 through April, they were down 14 percent.

She said the transfer program, the field trip program, the pet help hotline and pet food bank program are all helping toward the goal of finding new homes or keeping pets in their homes.

“Programs we have in place are really starting to gain traction and move forward,” Larocque said. “The programs are having the desired effect.”

She said when Cistaro came to the shelter, programs were driving KHS toward insolvency. That is no longer the case. Cistaro, she said, has helped turn the shelter’s finances around by making smart decisions while at the same time improving efforts and outreach to place animals in homes.

Operating a kill shelter, Larocque said, sometimes leads to decisions that not everybody is going to be pleased with at all times.

In the board’s experience, she said, “that’s what’s going on.”

Larocque believes that it is a small number of employees, the shelter has about 30, that are behind the move to oust Cistaro. “The majority of employees are happy,” she said.

Varvel said the euthanasia statistics KHS puts out isn’t accurate.

The website states the past year they reduced euthanasia by 7 percent and 28 percent since 2010. Varvel said that the formula used isn’t correct, and that when it puts out those numbers, KHS doesn’t subtract out the number of animals that were returned to the owner. Basically, the number of animals that didn’t stay in the shelter’s care for long. Those animals should be subtracted from the number of shelter “intake” population.

If you did that, the shelter actually took in less animals but increased euthanasia by 2 percent in fiscal year 2014 from the year before, Varvel said.

Basil Scott works with Kauai Community Cat Project, a no-kill organization and helps cat lovers who want to take care of stray and homeless cats. KCCP also rescues adoptable cats and kittens.

He said Cistaro has been difficult to work with.

“We can’t do cooperative programs like we’d hope to with an organization this size,” he said.

He spoke of the instance of an effort to save and place several kittens at Salt Pond, but when KHS became involved, the kittens ended up being euthanized.

“This is the norm rather than the exception,” he wrote.

He said other animals groups, mainly dog rescue, are afraid to speak out because they fear there would be retaliation.

Jonathan Fisher, manager of community services, supports Cistaro.

“There are some personality conflicts and certain staff couldn’t handle the personality conflicts and so they fabricated a lot, lied a little, trying to make it look like Penny is lying about the numbers, which she is not,” he said.

“We have run the numbers every which way from Sunday, and it all shows that euthanasia rate is down, it shows that intake is down,” he said.

Fisher said there has been a lot of bullying at KHS.

“So if you don’t dislike Penny, then there is lots of seclusion, bullying, people just plain being mean to you if you aren’t in the group of people trying oust Penny,” he said.

He believes she is doing a good job.

“I am very happy there with Penny, I support KHS and Penny Cistaro,” Fisher said.

The board will reaffirm its support of Cistaro during its meeting with KHS employees today, Larocque said.

“We see things moving forward in a very positive fashion,” she said.

•••

TGI reporters Ryan Kazmirzack and Tom Hasslinger contributed to the article.

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