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Open and Shut 

Has the troubled Hermitage Cat Shelter finally turned a corner?

Animals loll on handmade shelves and lounge among feline furniture at midtown's Hermitage Cat Shelter. And on a warm morning in early July, there are few signs that this place was once a war zone of accusations, litigation and unfortunate euthanizations.

Still, hints of that bitterness linger. (See "Resignation Blues," The Skinny, Aug. 6, 2009, and "Tables Turned," Currents, July 2, 2009.)

While the Hermitage does boast amiable new management, a couple of key players from those old days remain on the nonprofit's board of directors. And it seems that at least one of them isn't quite ready to give up the ghost of antagonisms past.

Monica St. Clare is development director for the new Hermitage. She was hired in November 2008, and under her tenure, the shelter has purportedly balanced its books. (The 2009 tax returns are not yet complete.) The Hermitage has also undertaken an ambitious new trap-neuter-release program for feral cats, and now houses about 200 felines in a cheerful, tidy atmosphere. They include old cats, young cats and sick cats that may have been dispatched to the great yonder under the old regime.

In other words, it seems like the Hermitage has returned to its venerated roots as Arizona's first no-kill shelter.

If all goes as planned, that revitalization will soon be boosted by a celebration of the shelter's founding more than four decades ago by a Russian Orthodox nun named Sister Seraphim.

The party is meant for looking forward as well as looking back. St. Clare assures me that this is a new day for the old shelter. "There's an about-face in attitude," she says. "This shelter was founded 45 years ago, and we're moving forward."

But perhaps the past also provides a cautionary manual in what not to do—such as "firing" some 70 volunteers and filing lawsuits against former staffers that ultimately—and expensively—crashed in court.

That chapter began about four years ago, when a professional fundraiser named Mary Jo Spring was hired as the shelter's executive director. During her tumultuous three years in that post, Spring sacked most of the shelter's employees and banished scores of volunteers, while also apparently failing to raise much money. When board meetings became predictably contentious, the public was banned from them.

Spring brought no previous shelter experience to the Hermitage—and was nearly a year into her job when she said she began to realize that many Hermitage cats were in poor health. The shelter then hired the Humane Society of Southern Arizona to provide veterinary services. Within weeks, Dr. Karter Neal, the society's medical director, had authorized the euthanization of several dozen animals—many reportedly for diseases widely considered to be treatable.

Meanwhile, Spring blamed her staff for nearly all of the shelter's troubles, and the board went so far as to file lawsuits against three former employees—a strategy that backfired in court, when she admitted that a cleaning solution used at the shelter may have sparked a health crisis and resulted in the mass euthanizations.

In court, the shelter's financial straits also became clear, with its once plump nest egg—reported at $350,000—having apparently dwindled to little more than $30,000. And at least $7,500 was paid out in a legal settlement with one of the defendants.

Today, according to St. Clare, the shelter is intent upon leaving that ugliness behind. For instance, she says all of those exiled volunteers who clashed with Spring will be welcomed back. "Nobody's banned. We don't have that many coming back, but we've had a few. Everybody would be welcome."

Another point of contention—allowing the adoption of cats by those former volunteers—also gets a green light from St. Clare. Perhaps most importantly, she says that board meetings will be "absolutely" reopened to the public. "The doors will be open. We're not leaving anybody out."

But it seems that not everyone got that memo.

While Spring is gone, two of her most vigorous backers remain on the board of directors. As board president, Tom Tulowitzki was Spring's greatest champion. Today, he serves as treasurer. And Taylor Heidenheim—also a Spring advocate—has since replaced Tulowitzki in the president's post.

Tulowitzki didn't return a phone call seeking comment. But Heidenheim wastes little time in hedging on all that newfound openness. "There is no requirement," he says, "that we have to have our meetings open to the public."

Nor is he enthusiastic about welcoming back the legions of spurned volunteers. "There's probably some bad blood between us," he says.

Heidenheim quickly backtracks, however, when told about St. Clare's pledges of transparency. He then suggests that those banned volunteers can go through the application and screening routine, just like everyone else. "If they are accepted through that process, then yes, they'll be welcome back in," he says.

To skeptics such as Katy Heck, it sounds like déjà vu all over again. Heck is a former Hermitage staffer who was taken to court by Spring. Heck wound up collecting a $7,500 settlement as a result, and now runs a Web site called SavetheHermitage.org.

"I think their hope is that, if they just refuse to acknowledge what went on, and they wait long enough, people will forget, and things will just magically go back to normal," Heck says. "But Taylor Heidenheim is still president.

"Here's my trust issue: They tell you all these really good things, but for anyone to actually know all these really good things, they would have to actually make them public. I can certainly tell you that I haven't been contacted, and no other former volunteer that I know has been contacted.

"They have a list of everyone who was banned," Heck says. "If they really want to put out an open hand, maybe they can contact those people, and invite them in to sit down and talk."

But somehow, that conversation still seems a long way off.

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