The Hermitage Cat Shelter sits along a hushed boulevard, removed from the hustle of nearby 22nd Street. But behind the scenes, life here has been anything but peaceful. Instead, this 44-year-old refuge has become a battle ground of bitter reprisals and mismanagement.
Considered Arizona's first no-kill cat shelter, the Hermitage has euthanized dozens of cats in recent months. Its executive director has banned scores of volunteers, and replaced most of the experienced staff. Basic services had so declined over the past two years that the Hermitage was forced to report itself for animal cruelty and neglect.
Yet despite this record, Tom Tulowitzki remains president of the Hermitage board of directors. And Mary Jo Spring--a fundraiser Tulowitzki helped hire, despite her lack of shelter experience--is still executive director after more than two years on the job.
Spring's office is just a few short skips from the shelter. And Tulowitzki claims to have made regular Hermitage drop-ins. But both now claim to have been oblivious as a crisis simmered under their noses. While Spring even uses her inexperience as a defense--"I guess ignorance is bliss," she told the Weekly in an earlier interview--critics suggest it doesn't take much experience to recognize conditions described as "filthy" by Dr. Karter Neal, medical director for the Humane Society of Southern Arizona.
The Humane Society now provides veterinary services for the Hermitage, and Neal's characterization is contained in review documents from the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board. That board met in October to address complaints, raised by Spring, concerning the shelter's previous veterinarians. Spring had attempted to blame those vets for the poor condition of cats under her care, but both complaints were dismissed.
Spring and the Hermitage board have also lashed out at former employees with threats and lawsuits. If the goal is to intimidate, they've succeeded; many former Hermitage staffers and volunteers are afraid to speak out publicly.
"They're trying to shut us up," says one.
"Everyone is so scared," says another, "because we can't afford to fight a lawsuit."
However, some are already in that fight. Among them is Rosalie Torske, a former assistant director who, along with office manager Paula LaRue, left the Hermitage last October.
"I worked at the Hermitage for 13 months, and most of it was a very miserable time," Torske says. "But I wasn't there because of Mary Jo Spring. It's the cats that were very important."
Torske recalls steadily deteriorating conditions, as fundraising dwindled to a trickle. At one point, she says, cats were threatened with malnourishment because of dwindling food budgets. Some with mouth problems were forced to painfully eat dry food, and medications were withheld to save money.
According to Torske, Spring ordered that animals lacking bowel control be removed from public view. But many of those cats were also partially paralyzed, requiring that they drag themselves around. That proved disastrous in their new quarters, which had rough cement floors.
"Often, we would have to bandage up the cats, because they got rubbed raw," says Torske. Still, those were the lucky ones; others were routinely dispatched to Dr. Neal, and scores were euthanized.
Torske says that Spring grew increasingly abusive, until finally she'd had enough. She and LaRue quit on Oct. 23, 2008. Four days later, Mary Jo Spring called the police, accusing them of taking computer files. By Nov. 3, she'd also accused them of embezzlement.
Those charges are ridiculous, says Torske, and based largely on the fact that Spring was unfamiliar with the shelter's bookkeeping program. Regardless, the Hermitage has refused to pay Torske about $2,200 still owed in back wages.
Numerous attempts to contact Hermitage board members for this story, including Tulowitzki, were unsuccessful. We did reach Spring, and asked for a comment. "I'm not having this conversation," she said before hanging up.
Spring and the Hermitage board have subsequently filed lawsuits against Torske, LaRue and another former staffer named Katy Heck, who operated the SavetheHermitage.org Web site.
In an earlier interview with the Weekly, Spring labeled her opponents--including 68-year-old Torske--as "terrorists." (See "No More No Kill," Currents, Dec. 18, 2008.) Some observers say that rhetoric is quite calculated, as part of a possible Hermitage strategy to lump Torske, LaRue and Heck together under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Passed in 2006, the law was aimed at prosecuting radical animal-rights groups such as the Animal Liberation Front.
Spring has also filed those animal cruelty and neglect charges against another former employee, shelter manager Paula Smith.
There may be other twists as well. Last summer, Torske attended a meeting with Spring and Dr. Neal to finalize service arrangements with the Humane Society. According to Torske, Neal remarked that she herself would have filed cruelty and neglect charges against the Hermitage, had the Humane Society not been hired.
This raises obvious conflict-of-interest issues. And according to Jenna Jones, executive director of the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Board, veterinarians must report such situations within 30 days of encountering them. The Weekly left several messages with Neal to ascertain how long she'd been aware of conditions at the Hermitage, and whether she ever reported them. Neal never returned those calls, but we did receive information from Marsh Myers, a Humane Society employee and spokesman for the Animal Cruelty Taskforce of Southern Arizona.
"Our medical director, Dr. Karter Neal, and members of her staff were invited to the Hermitage and found very substandard conditions consistent (with) a hoarding-type operation," Myers writes in an e-mail. "Dr. Neal and her team worked several days on the rescue of the affected animals. As part of this process, discussions were held between HSSA and Hermitage staff about reporting this situation to law enforcement. In the end, the Hermitage was the reporting party with the Tucson Police, although Dr. Neal was in attendance at that meeting with TPD, and met directly with the animal cruelty detective and her sergeant.
"Dr. Neal also gave copies of all her medical reports to TPD as part of that process," Myers continues. "Vets who suspect cruelty or neglect are required to report within 30 days under state law, but in this case it would have been redundant since the situation was already reported by the Hermitage, which is the entity alleging to be the victim."
In other words, Neal and Spring claim the Hermitage was victimized by its own employees, who carried on their mayhem mere feet from Spring's office for nearly two years.