Group protests firing of KHS employees

LIHUE — Nearly 20 picketers outside the entrance to the Kauai Humane Society Tuesday protested the firing of two employees and called for the removal of KHS Executive Director Penny Cistaro.

Former field service manager Mana Brown and customer service manager Brandy Varvel were terminated at KHS Monday afternoon and joined the 90-minute protest along Kaumualii Highway.

“We wanted the community to really get involved,” Brown said. “We wanted to let everybody know that what’s going on here is not right. There’s a lot of problems with KHS and we hope that it gets resolved.”

The firings come about a month after Brown and Varvel went public with concerns about Cistaro’s leadership and management practices.

Brown and Varvel were placed on paid leave June 3 while the board conducted an investigation. When they were fired Monday, Brown said the release papers indicated that Hawaii is an at-will employment state, therefore employees can be fired for any number of reasons.

“I’m upset and I’m saddened by it,” Brown said. “I’ve worked here for over five years and I’ve dedicated a good portion of my career to animal causes and it’s very frustrating and very saddened that they would just terminate me like that. I guess I’m a little lost right now.”

Varvel was also displeased with her termination but happy with the support she and Brown received.

“The outpouring of support from the community and from my co-workers has been awesome,” she said.

Cistaro, who has been at the helm of KHS for two and a half years, declined to say why the employees were terminated.

“Whatever’s been going on in the past few weeks, we’re going to keep moving forward,” Cistaro said. “This is not going to stop us from doing what we need to do to take care of animals.”

A dozen KHS employees — about a third of the staff — signed a petition calling for Cistaro’s dismissal that was delivered to the Board of Directors on May 27. The board, which unanimously supports Cistaro’s leadership, also received a 70-page binder compiled by staff and donors outlining employee complaints.

Among the accusations was that the shelter was euthanizing more animals than had long been reported by KHS.

Board president Emily Larocque later confirmed that KHS had been underreporting its euthanasia numbers over the last five years due to a math error.

The animal shelter took in 2,886 cats and 1,494 dogs in fiscal year 2014, according to the corrected KHS data.

All told, 2,599 of them were euthanized, the data shows. When subtracting the 680 strays that were returned to their owners, that’s a euthanasia rate of 70 percent. It had been previously reportedly at 52 percent.

Roughly 50 percent of dogs that end up at the shelter are euthanized, while about 80 percent of the cats are put down, according to KHS statistics.

Cistaro said Tuesday the shelter’s euthanasia rate is on the decline.

“We are on an upward spiral with the number of animals that are getting out of here,” she said. “We are sinking resources into changing that.”

“We can only compare ourselves to ourselves,” Cistaro said. “We are not a Mainland shelter. We do not have the network or the resources that the Mainland shelters do.”

Larocque said she and the board are pleased with Cistaro’s work as executive director.

“We are saddened that some community members have chosen to protest in this manner,” Larocque said. “We are very interested to maintain dialogue with the community to address concerns community members have in a constructive manner.”

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Staff writers Brittany Lyte and Alden Alayvilla contributed to this report.

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