PUHI — Penny Cistaro announced Wednesday her plans to retire as the head of Kauai Humane Society.
Cistaro will finish her tenure as executive director of KHS around the end of October, but she’ll keep working with KHS remotely on the business and reporting end of things for an undetermined amount of time.
“I’m not walking away, I’m phasing out,” Cistaro said.
The decision that brings her 42-year career to an end is all about timing, both with her personal life and within the realm of the humane society, she said.
“I’ve been talking to the board about retiring for a while — about what are we doing and what do we need to accomplish,” Cistaro said. “I’ve looked at the open projects I have out there and the timing is now.”
In addition, Cistaro celebrated her 62nd birthday recently, and her significant other, who lives in a small coastal town in California, turned 63 this year.
Cistaro said she’ll be moving to California sometime around the end of October.
“It’s going to be hard to leave,” Cistaro said. “I’ve had a really good time here, even with the, we’ll call it a little blip.”
That “little blip” came in March 2015, in the form of 12 KHS employees and some community supporters and society donors demanding Cistaro’s resignation, claiming animal care had worsened under her leadership. Euthanasia numbers at KHS were a main point of contention.
In June of that year, two of the employees that complained about Cistaro’s leadership were fired.
“Working with people who don’t understand what a shelter is and everything that we do has been a challenge,” Cistaro said.
Emily Larocque, president of the KHS Board of Directors, said the challenges Cistaro faced during her tenure aren’t new to KHS, and aren’t exclusive to the shelter.
“She’s faced it with grace and a steady hand on the rudder to put us in the right direction, even with the challenges and a certain amount of criticism,” Larocque said. “Her greatest asset is her ability to move forward with the animals on Kauai.”
Cistaro began her career in 1974 at the Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society and has also been involved in shelters in Massachusetts, California and Washington, in addition to her tenure at KHS.
She’s a nationally recognized speaker and spent much of her career focused on training shelter workers in euthanasia, stress management and compassion, and adoption.
For a few years, she really focused on the training piece of her career by starting her own business and consulting with the Humane Society of the United States.
Eventually, she needed to be involved in humane societies and shelters in a more hands-on way, and went back to direct work with a shelter, but Cistaro said her consulting work was a major highlight of her career.
“We could affect change for staff members, for the community, and for the animals,” Cistaro said. “It was helping shelter workers and staff that were feeling beat-up and help them cope with the pain and stress that can come with working in a shelter.”
Not only was Cistaro able to help shelter workers in the United States, she made it to Israel twice to lend a hand in improving conditions. She was there in 1999 and in 2000.
“There I was helping with general care of animals, euthanasia, and helping with staff training,” Cistaro said. “I was all over the country.”
She joined KHS as the executive director in March 2013. Just prior to joining the KHS team, Cistaro was working in Sacramento, California, with the SPCA and Animal Care Services. She was chosen from more than 50 applicants for the job.
Larocque said Cistaro has proven to be a valuable asset to KHS.
“These are challenges that exist for every open intake shelter here and on the Mainland,” Larocque said. “The specific challenge here is being the only open take shelter in the closed community with the feral cat situation and the large amount of hunting dogs.”
She said on the topic of euthanasia, KHS is moving toward being a no-kill shelter, but “it’s not an overnight solution.”
As for Cistaro’s legacy, Larocque said: “In every year since she’s come on board, she’s left us in a better place — you can see the improvement in the live release rate.”
For this past fiscal year, KHS’s leave live rate increased 6 percent, from 45 percent in 2015 to 51 percent in 2016.
Those percentages are calculated from a combination of adoptions, return to owner and transfers, and then based upon the numbers of animals received.
For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016, KHS took in 2,999 dogs and cats, down from the 3,698 dogs and cats taken in the previous year. Overall — through adoption, return to owner, and transfer — KHS placed 942 dogs and 583 cats.
The leave live rate increased for dogs from 72 percent to 76 percent, year over year. For cats, that rate increased from 25 percent to 33 percent.
Cistaro said the leave live rate increase is due to an increase in the number of animals transferred to the Mainland, a strong microchip program, and safety net programs like the food bank, which served 518 families with 1,209 animals last fiscal year. The food bank distributed a total of 23,895 pounds of food last fiscal year.
Those programs are a feather in Cistaro’s hat, according to Larocque, and something of which she should be proud.
“The number of animals released each year since she’s been on has grown,” Larocque said. “The field trip program and the transfer program blossomed in her tenure.”
Cistaro is particularly proud of the “safety net programs,” like the food bank, and the spay and neuter program.
“These programs are to help the community,” Cistaro said. “And the community, it’s been amazing.”
County Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura said she’s worked with Cistaro on several animal-related bills, which are currently at various stages of the legislative process. Those bills focus on things like requiring cat licensing, barking dogs, feral cats and dangerous dogs.
“She has been knowledgeable, accessible, reliable and helpful,” Yukimura said. “I’m aware that it has been a challenging job. I am grateful for her service.”
Larocque said the board hasn’t found a replacement for Cistaro, but “we’ll be working on that very heavily from here moving forward.”
“We’ve been talking about this on and off, so we’ve been thinking about our process, but we don’t have anybody in mind yet,” Larocque said.
Cistaro said she’s still figuring out her next move, but she’ll be dabbling in gardening and may devote some of her time to horses in her retirement.
“What’s next? I don’t know,” Cistaro said. “That’s the beautiful thing about this.”