Accountability lacking at KHS under Cistaro

With Kauai Humane Society (KHS) in the news, this newspaper and several prominent residents have urged support for Penny Cistaro. But there are a lot of questions: about her leadership, about the accuracy of information she has released, and even about compliance with county ordinances.

KHS is too important an institution to simply ignore these issues. Now is the time for accountability to ensure that KHS represents our island’s values and that it’s working well — even though holding someone accountable is always uncomfortable.

The fact that 12 employees signed a petition asking the KHS Board of Directors to remove Cistaro as director has been well publicized. But you may not know that in late April, the board was presented with over 50 pages of information containing signed, first-person statements about management issues. Dozens of specific instances, citing date and time, were documented, and these all point directly at Cistaro.

These management issues caused great personal hardship in the lives of many people, but they also impacted animal operations. That’s because some employees who enjoyed a favored status didn’t do their jobs very well, resulting in substandard cleanliness, lack of food and water, and potential disease issues.

These management problems have been ongoing since Cistaro arrived over two years ago. Since then, about 70 percent of the staff has been fired or has resigned! That’s called gutting the organization, and it means a loss of decades of experience representing the heart and soul of KHS. Even after gutting 70 percent, still one-third of employees signed the petition to remove her.

There is also the very important matter of truth and accuracy: incorrect statistics were released; these were defended after the errors were known; corrected statistics were released only after public pressure; and KHS continues to insist that things are better when they’re not. The proof? Under Cistaro, the live release rate dropped from 48 percent in 2013 to 39 percent in 2014. This is the percentage of animals that leave KHS alive and is the accepted measure of animal shelter performance.

Director Cistaro’s statements on euthanizing two kittens caught at Salt Pond in February are especially disturbing. There have been many complaints about inappropriate euthanasia at KHS, but in this case, there are multiple witnesses, an audio recording, and medical records indicating that the director has falsely justified her actions. The truth is these kittens were six to seven weeks old, in good health, foster care was available, and they were unnecessarily euthanized.

An especially troubling aspect of the Salt Pond kittens incident is that they were euthanized within 24 hours, as publicly stated by Director Cistaro and also as indicated by the KHS records. And yet, Kauai County code 22-24.4(c) requires that animals must be held for 48 hours and there are no exceptions listed. KHS employees have stated that policy guidance is to euthanize all kittens weighing less than one pound and to euthanize kittens up to two pounds depending on circumstances. These policies appear to systematically violate the ordinance. This is particularly serious because we depend on KHS and its director to ensure that animal control ordinances are implemented correctly.

Supporters have argued that the director’s job is a tough one — one of the toughest on the island — and for this reason, we need to support Penny. I believe we need to support the position, but respect for that position demands the highest standards of personal conduct and professional competence from the person who holds it. Director Cistaro has failed to demonstrate this. The evidence is overwhelming: good managers don’t create a “Mutiny on the Bounty” situation; you don’t get repeated complaints about factual misrepresentation unless something is really going on; and finally, it is the duty of the director to ensure that all KHS operations comply fully with the law.

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Basil Scott is president of Kauai Community Cat Project, a no-kill organization.

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