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Back Story: Upheaval at the Hawaiian Humane Society

It’s been a tumultuous few years for the 135-year-old organization, stunned by the departure of 62 employees and the CEO’s resignation. With a new CEO in place, we look back at the issues that rocked leadership.


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Sarah Worth worried about the litter of tiny kittens that came into the Hawaiian Humane Society during her shift. She lay in bed unable to fall asleep, thinking about their fate. The kittens were going to be euthanized, but she says they were healthy. She finally got out of bed around 11 p.m., left her apartment, and with the help of a co-worker, snuck the four kittens out of the shelter and took them home.

 

Originally from Seattle, Worth was an attorney before following her passion for animal care to work at the Humane Society as an admissions representative starting in September 2017. For roughly six months, Worth says she operated what she dubbed the underground kitten railroad, in which she and about 20 others temporarily fostered hundreds of kittens slated to be put down after being brought to the Humane Society. Her reasoning was simple: “Why would you kill a baby?” she asks. She was fired in December 2018 for “forging company documents.”

 

Lisa Fowler

Former president and CEO of the Hawaiian Humane Society, Lisa Fowler.

Worth is one of 62 employees to resign or be fired under the organization’s former president and CEO, Lisa Fowler. Fowler’s tenure lasted just over 16 months from November 2018 to March 2019. The last few months made local and even national news when a group of current and former employees asked the Humane Society board to fire her, then protested in front of the shelter. In March, Fowler stepped down, citing personal reasons.

 

To piece together the story behind the headlines, HONOLULU Magazine spent a month talking with former Humane Society staff, the board chair and community partners. The magazine also received more than 100 pages of documents, including more than 18 personal statements from current and former employees, that had been submitted to the Humane Society board. We also reached out to Fowler, for weeks corresponding first via LinkedIn, then email and text. Repeated requests for an in-person, phone or email interview were made; she even received questions. Ultimately, Fowler decided to provide an emailed statement.

 

This month, the Humane Society is expected to announce a new CEO, after conducting its first nationwide search. The Humane Society board has also become a frequent presence in the organization’s daily operations, meeting with staff, assessing all policies and hiring an interim CEO and COO from the Mainland. Will it be enough to repair the damage from the past two years? Here’s what happened and how the organization is moving forward.

 

“People Quit Because They Didn’t Want to Work With Her”

 

Located at the end of South King Street in Mō‘ili‘ili, the Humane Society was formed in 1883. The organization has a $3.7 million city contract for animal welfare services, including sheltering, sterilization, cruelty intervention and euthanasia. As O‘ahu’s only open admissions shelter, the organization has faced its share of criticism through the years. But, according to interviews with employees, the past two years have been some of the most dramatic and the most difficult.

 

For 27 years, the Humane Society was headed by Pamela Burns. The organization grew in staff, budget and campus size during her time. Her death in September 2017 left a void in the organization and even today her impact looms large. “We still think, ‘What would Pam think?’” says Sue Sylvester-Palumbo, veterinarian and owner of the Cat Clinic who has consulted with the Humane Society since the ’70s.

 

Two months after Burns’ death, in November 2017, Lisa Fowler was appointed president and CEO of the Humane Society. She was no stranger to the organization. A Punahou alumna who received her bachelor’s from UH Mānoa, Fowler first began at the Humane Society as a special events volunteer. She went on to serve as a board member, the organization’s director of development and the director of operations. (She left for about five years to serve as executive director of the Hawai‘i Island Humane Society.) As she received promotions over the years, some Humane Society staff say she also acquired a reputation as someone who was difficult to work with, manipulative and paranoid.

 

“We were scared about her becoming CEO,” says former IT manager, AJ, who worked at the Humane Society for more than four years and agreed to be identified by his initials. “They gave the announcement on the lānai and we were all in a circle. We were shocked and a few weeks later, people started to quit because they didn’t want to work with her.”

 

Ultimately, 62 of the organization’s roughly 100 employees were fired or resigned during her 16-month-plus tenure. According to numbers sent to HONOLULU from the group People for Animals First, around 16% who left were management, including the chief veterinarian, development director and adoptions manager. For about eight months last year, the organization was also without a human resources manager—that person quit in April 2018. Fowler says via email that many positions were entry level and attributed the high turnover to low unemployment. “This is common among most companies in Hawai‘i.”

 

“Day after day I was put in the position of lying to the Society’s supporters, and even worse, asking my staff to compromise their own integrity by lying as well.” — A former Humane Society staffer

 

But several staff members told us that it wasn’t about Hawai‘i’s economy, and the ratio of entry level to management was irrelevant. In interviews for this feature and in statements of current and former Humane Society employees sent to the board, the workplace was described as unstable and hostile. These staff members say they feared Fowler and when they spoke up, they were targeted.

 

“She micromanages every department and does not let her directors do their job. … I finally got to the point where I felt belittled by Lisa every single day,” wrote one staff member in a personal statement submitted to the board by People for Animals First. Another former employee, who worked in the development department for more than five years, says Fowler asked them to lie in Humane Society marketing materials about a fundraising campaign. “Day after day I was put in the position of lying to the Society’s supporters, and even worse, asking my staff to compromise their own integrity by lying as well.”

 

Within a few weeks of starting her job as manager of annual giving, Jana Moore, now a member of People for Animals First, says she knew she wouldn’t be there long. Moore, who is a filmmaker, had no orientation or training. She says her boss, the director of development, quit after one week because of his experiences with Fowler. He was the third director that year. “I’m just chugging along, meanwhile, people are quitting and telling me they’re quitting because of Lisa,” she says. Moore quit last December, after three months.

 

Some employees first notified the board of what they say was an increasingly hostile work environment in 2018, less than a year after Fowler became CEO. Bob Armstrong, a board member for eight years, says the board had a third party investigate employee complaints and handle them accordingly. He declined to elaborate further. (Certain employees involved declined to be interviewed.) Armstrong also declined to discuss Fowler’s time as CEO. He was chair—his term expired in June—when Fowler was hired and resigned.

 

Even after the investigation, AJ, who was working at the Humane Society at that time, says the organization remained dysfunctional. “Nothing came of it,” he says. “It was frustrating.”

 

“If you tried to save animals, you got fired.” — Sarah Worth

 

They say the work environment also affected the roughly 65 animals brought into the shelter every day. Employees say there were inconsistent policies and procedures when it came to evaluation and euthanasia. According to one licensed veterinary technician who used to work there, there was no written standard operating procedure for completing animal assessments, which meant some animals were killed instead of being cleared for adoption.

 

In her statement, however, Fowler said that during her tenure, “We updated and improved our policies and procedures within the constraints of the budget,” adding that each animal received an individualized treatment plan.

 

The Humane Society’s policy has been to euthanize kittens weighing under 1.5 pounds, mainly due to lack of resources and to help curb the island’s feral cat population. But staff who worked at the organization say when Burns was CEO there was wiggle room. They could foster kittens and call upon reliable volunteers to assist until the felines were ready for adoption. When Fowler became CEO, they say staff and volunteers were prohibited from fostering and two veterinary technicians—who no longer work at the Humane Society—mandated the kittens be euthanized. Another former employee says it was hard for staff to intervene because of “the refusal of Lisa Fowler to allow employees or volunteers to take them to a private vet for treatment at their own expense.”

 

“It was inevitable that I was going to get caught,” says Worth. “If you tried to save animals, you got fired.”

 

Becoming Whistleblowers

 

The staff turnover, the work environment and the company policies all inspired the creation of People for Animals First in January. Moore says the group started with seven people, including herself and Worth. The now 30-member group comprises current and former employees, some who had left the Humane Society a year ago. “They still care about it that much to invest this much time—like a part-time job—to make changes,” Moore says. “This [had] been a long time coming.”

 

Their plan was straightforward, says Moore. They wanted the board to know in detail how employees felt working at the Humane Society, inspire policy changes and ultimately oust Fowler. “We’re like whistleblowers but also want to collaborate and help,” she says.

 

“They’re listening to our concerns and they want to make improvements because they did have room for improvement,” adds Jennifer Kishimori, a member of People for Animals First and president of the nonprofit Cat Friends.

 

The first step was submitting a packet of testimonies and information to the board, and Worth says community members joined their February protest, galvanized by the euthanasia issues.

 

“It was kind of a real wake-up call for us,” says Armstrong. “We were focused I think as a board on saving as many animals as possible but not really examining some other things that over the last few months we’ve very critically examined.”

 

In her statement emailed to us, Fowler says that People for Animals First spread misinformation about the Humane Society and its staff and that its protest, and the ensuing media coverage, tarnished the organization’s reputation. “I deeply regret that vicious attacks and false accusations against HHS negatively impacted this wonderful organization and [its] good work,” she says.

 

One month after the board received the packet from People for Animals First, Fowler resigned.

 

headquarters

The Hawaiian Humane Society’s headquarters in Mō‘ili‘ili.

 

What’s Next for the Humane Society

 

This month, the Humane Society board plans to announce a new president and CEO for the organization. It hired the executive search firm Noetic, which specializes in nonprofits, to conduct a nationwide search. Armstrong says the board wanted someone who’s forward thinking, has a track record of team building and has experience at multiple shelters, as it plans to break ground on its new West O‘ahu campus next year.     

 

Following the flurry of bad press, the Humane Society board had three Mainland animal welfare experts assess the organization’s animal evaluation and euthanasia policies and procedures. The evaluators found them in line with national guidelines, says Armstrong. “At the same time, the report found that a few areas of the society’s policies and procedures should be updated or revised to ensure staff safety and that euthanasia of animals is being carried out in the most humane way possible,” he says. “This includes having two veterinary technicians in the room when euthanasia is being conducted and the way in which the anesthesia is administered.”    

 

The board also brought on an interim CEO and COO, Martha Armstrong—no relation to Bob Armstrong—and Victoria Cowper, respectively. Each are longtime animal welfare experts, and Martha Armstrong had previously consulted with the Hawaiian Humane Society. Cowper was CEO of the Western Arizona Humane Society for more than 15 years before being unanimously terminated by that organization’s board in 2014. News reports in Arizona only said the board wanted to “go in another direction.”

 

Martha Armstrong says one of her first priorities was talking with employees to get feedback about their jobs and ways the organization could improve. Since she came on board in April, she says the Humane Society has implemented clearer evaluation procedures, including multiple assessments and adjusting the times animals are evaluated. They’re also focusing on the kittens. “We are rapidly expanding our foster home program as we are currently in the middle of kitten season and have more than 150 young kittens in our care,” she says.

 

She adds the Humane Society “has a great future in front of it,” and says the organization’s legacy is still intact. Jacque Vaughn, who worked as the organization’s communications director from 2010 to 2016, agrees. She says these past two years were a “skirmish in a very long history. … The board, staff and the community have proven that all are committed to continuous improvement [of the] organization.”

 

It’s been nearly a year since Sarah Worth left the Humane Society. She’s currently volunteering with other animal  nonprofits. She says she would go back to working at the Humane Society, although she’s not sure if that’s possible. “HHS’ image has taken a lot of hits, but it’s an amazing organization and it does so much good for this island. … I still have dreams about the ones I couldn’t save.”

 

 

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