EXCLUSIVE: 12 employees call for ouster of Kauai Humane Society head

EXCLUSIVE: 12 employees call for ouster of Kauai Humane Society head
Published: May. 26, 2015 at 9:49 PM HST|Updated: May. 26, 2015 at 10:30 PM HST
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LIHUE, KAUAI (HawaiiNewsNow) - Twelve employees of the Kauai Humane Society along with former employees and some longtime supporters and donors to the society are calling for the firing of the facility's executive director.

They claim animal care has worsened under the leadership of Penny Cistaro, who has headed the shelter for a little more than two years.

The 16-year veterinarian at the society, its outreach manager and the field services supervisor are asking the nonprofit's board to terminated Cistaro, but the board president said she has their "100 percent support."

"I'm concerned about the care of our animals and the decline that I've seen in the quality of care," said Brandy Varvel , who's the outreach manager at the Kauai Humane Society.

The group claims the shelter euthanizes 70 percent of its animals, not the 52 percent the society lists in public figures.

Critics said the number of animals adopted, transferred or returned to owners has dropped 11 percent in the last year and the percentage of animals that people turn over to the shelter has gone down by more than one third in the last year, an indication, they claim that people are worried the shelter is killing too many animals.

Kauai Humane Society's board of directors' president Emily Larocque told Hawaii News Now, "The board stands 100% behind our executive director."

Larocque said the complaints are coming from a "strong vocal minority" that's spreading "misinformation." She claimed euthanasia rates fell seven percent in Cistaro's first year at the helm and are predicted to drop another 14 percent this year.

Hollywood movie actor Pierce Brosnan and wife Keely wrote a letter to the board, saying they've supported the humane society for years and adopted two dogs and a cat from there. But the Brosnans, who have a home on Kauai, said, "… Kauai is losing faith in our local Humane Society. The focus of the Kauai Humane Society should be adoption and innovative spay/neuter programs, not euthanasia."

Varvel, who has worked at the animal shelter since August 2012, said "Euthanasia is her (Cistaro's) first option, even when there's transfer available, adoption available, foster care, medical treatment."

Mana Brown, a five-year employee who is the chief humane officer and field services manager told Hawaii News Now, "Animals aren't being fed, cages aren't being cleaned. A lot of things are being left undone and we at the Kauai Humane Society and any animal organization, we are supposed to hold ourselves to a higher standard than anybody else."

"As to animal care, I invite you and anyone to come visit our facility and see for yourself," said Laroque.

The group of critics claimed Cistaro needlessly killed kittens found at Kauai's Salt Pond area that had an appropriate foster home and then lied about it to major donors.

Hawaii News Now called and emailed Cistaro for comment, and she did not return our messages but asked Larocque, the president of the board, to speak to us.

'We have reviewed programs and policies being implemented by her and believe that she is moving KHS in a positive direction for the animals on Kauai," Larocque said.

Larocque pointed to what she called a "highly successful transfer to the mainland program," in which dogs are taken to West Coast cities with a higher demand for adopting dogs. Larocque also touted the society's "adopt a dog for a day" program, food bank, behavior hotline, low-cost vaccination clinic, spay/neuter program.

Larocque said all those programs have grown under Cistaro's leadership "which includes managing limited resources to grow the potential for all programs."

"Prior to her tenure the programs that were started were being managed in a way that was driving the organization to insolvency. She not only turned that around but managed to start additional new programs. The board finds that to be significant," Larocque said.

But critics point to problems in some of those same programs as reasons the executive director should be removed.

Cistaro is "directly responsible for the mobile spay/neuter clinic not running for over a year due to staff mismanagement and also for taking away the low-cost spay-neuter certificates from the veterinarians," said a fact sheet prepared by her critics.

Previous employees of the society have taken their concerns to its board of directors, with the previous lead vet technician, previous accountant and previous development director among those complaining about the situation at the nonprofit.

The group of current and former employees as well as donors and longtime supporters of the facility said the board and Cistaro have "scrambled in the past three to four weeks to cover and correct some of the major transgressions" presented to them on April 28.

"They have ignored the recorded concerns of the staff and community for over a year," the group said in a statement. "They have failed to act responsibly by at the very least putting the executive director on administrative leave while hiring a neutral third party to investigate."

Asked about the high number of key employees who are complaining about Cistaro's leadership, Laroque said "it is inappropriate for us to comment on internal staff issues other than to reiterate that our recent employee survey indicates the majority of staff are happy and highly motivated towards the KHS mission."

It was unclear if an unbiased third party completed the survey and how anonymity was assured. Some employees said there is an atmosphere of fear and intimidation about speaking up about problems.

A group of 12 employees directly involved in animal care submitted a petition to the board calling for Cistaro's ouster, a fairly large percentage of the roughly 30 employees at the shelter.

Laroque said the board has developed an "action plan" to address communication issues at the facility as a result of the survey.

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