Amid harsh public criticism of the Hawaiian Humane Society’s CEO by former and current employees, interim Honolulu City Council Chairwoman Ann Kobayashi says she will be calling for a performance audit of the city’s $3.7 million contract with the venerable 135-year-old organization.
Kobayashi said she was stunned by the high number of employees quitting, including some in key positions, after president and CEO Lisa Fowler took over the organization in 2017.
“I was surprised when I was told about all the unhappiness and so many people leaving the Humane Society in such a short period of time, especially in the development department where almost the entire office has left,” said Kobayashi.
“I would like to find out what’s going on.”
The critics, who have formed a protest group called People for Animals First, have called for Fowler’s ouster, alleging the CEO is a bullying manager under whom they can’t work. They also allege that under Fowler’s management adoptable animals have been euthanized.
They picketed the Humane Society’s Moiliili shelter Feb. 18 and have mailed information packets to each member of the society’s board of directors with detailed criticism of Fowler, whom they say has created a “toxic work environment” at the shelter.
In years past, outside animal rights groups have attacked the Humane Society, but the level of internal criticism appears unprecedented.
Fowler became president and CEO of the Humane Society in November 2017 after longtime CEO Pam Burns died in September of that year. Before that, Fowler was the organization’s director of development and in 2017, she stepped in to become director of operations.
The HHS website says that under Fowler’s direction the development team completed an $18 million capital campaign to fund the Moiliili campus expansion and help pay for HHS’s proposed new West Oahu shelter.
One of Fowler’s defenders is veterinarian Rebecca Rhoades, former director of the Kauai Humane Society, who has known and respected her as a colleague for 25 years.
“It is difficult to be a new CEO following a long-term leader like Pam Burns who was there for 27 years,” said Rhoades, who now works at the ASPCA Spay-Neuter Alliance in North Carolina “And even more so when it was due to Pam’s sudden death with no transition period.”
Robert Armstrong, Hawaiian Humane Society board chairman, and Fowler declined to be interviewed.
Armstrong initially brushed off the critics in an email to staff last month as “disgruntled former employees” and said the public criticism of Fowler was “false, misleading and irresponsible.”
The Humane Society has also denied charges that adoptable animals were euthanized.
However, Armstrong has formed a committee of board members to investigate employees’ allegations of mistreatment by Fowler. The investigating committee has met with People for Animals First and has told the group it will meet with them again.
As part of the process, HHS board member Becky Ward is interviewing current and former employees and volunteers about their claims that Fowler belittles and shames employees, unfairly fired some staffers and forced others to resign.
“It is difficult to look the other way when you have more than 30 employees who have quit, saying they can no longer work for Lisa Fowler — some of them leaving jobs that pay more than $100,000 a year,” says Jana Moore. Moore was the former manager of annual giving for the Humane Society.
(Civil Beat was unable to independently verify the number of employees who’ve quit after Fowler took over, since many declined to be interviewed.)
Moore is one of four fundraising executives who left the Humane Society’s development department in less than a year.
Moore called Fowler a hard worker who is pleasant to community leaders but tyrannical to employees. “I never worked for anyone in a high leadership position like Lisa who was so reactive and had no respect for employees whom she blamed and belittled at every turn,” she said.
Three development directors left their job between March and December 2018. They include Jessie Saunders, Mary Steiner and Kevin Takamori. Takamori lasted only five days.
“When I saw how Lisa was treating Kevin I decided then and there I had to quit. I realized I didn’t want to work for someone who makes people leave,“ said Moore.
Takamori declined to be interviewed about his brief employment as Humane Society development director.
Among the others who resigned during the same time were adoptions manager Val Palumbo and chief veterinarian Dr. Kelly Dowdall Garberson. Garberson signed a nondisclosure form when she departed and is legally constrained from speaking about Fowler.
Meanwhile, Joe Adarna, former admissions manager and later field investigator, was fired by Fowler. He said Fowler objected to his suggestions for different ways of doing things and that she was always falsely accusing him of talking about her behind her back.
“She would yell at me. It was very tense. I have never been in a situation like that as an employee before,” Adarna said.
As admissions manager, Adarna said he oversaw the intake of 20,000 animals a year at the shelter or about 65 each day in an office that was open 24/7 every day of the year.
When he was fired, he was offered one month’s severance worth $4,500 and the right to say he had resigned if he signed a nondisclosure form, Adarna said. He said he refused, thinking it was more important to speak freely about what was happening at the shelter.
He said he was fired for not stopping an employee under his direction from running an underground kitten mill in which she found willing foster parents for kittens she knew were going to be euthanized.
“There is no policy or procedure to say that cannot be done. It is our job to save the lives of animals,” said Adarna.
“I had worked for the Humane Society for five years and I got escorted out like a common criminal. Before Lisa took over, it had been my dream job. I never wanted to leave it,” said Adarna,
Adarna’s boss, operations director Harold Han, quit Jan. 24, abruptly leaving without giving notice. But after he resigned, he texted other employees saying he was “sick of the BS.” Civil Beat was emailed a copy of Han’s text.
Han did not respond to requests for an interview.
Kobayashi, the interim City Council chairwoman, said she wonders how well the Humane Society, with its staffing turnover, can still handle the services it is under contract to provide to the city.
The Humane Society’s city contract this year pays the organization $3.7 million for animal control services including picking up and sheltering stray dogs and cats, providing spay-neuter sterilizations and responding to complaints about animal cruelty.
The last time the city hired a private auditor to do a performance audit of its contract with the Humane Society was in 1997.
Fowler’s management style previously came under fire when she was CEO of the Hawaii Island Humane Society.
Some employees of the Kona branch of the organization took their concerns to the Big Island County Council in 1998.
The Hawaii Island Humane Society that Fowler ran was in charge of three shelters, including the Kona shelter and shelters in Hilo and Waimea.
Critics of Fowler and the way she was running the Kona shelter wanted the county to have the animal control duties for Kona awarded to a different shelter in the area.
Madelyn Barrea, the manager of the operation’s Kona shelter, provided written testimony to the council noting that she quit ahead of being fired by Fowler because she did not agree with the way Fowler was running the operation.
“Anyone who had a different opinion than the executive director was considered to have a ‘negative attitude’ and was accused of insubordination,” Barrea wrote.
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.