Tables Turned

The legal crusade by the Hermitage Cat Shelter's executive director backfires

When the Hermitage Cat Shelter imploded last year, Mary Jo Spring went on a rampage.

Before it was over, Spring, the executive director, had banned most of the shelter's 70 or so volunteers and fired much of its staff. Some she accused of theft, others of plotting against her. These actions culminated in lawsuits targeting three of those former employees.

One suit singled out former vet technician Katy Heck for defamation. But instead of Spring's actions leading to revenge, the Hermitage found its collective dirty laundry revealed for public view. It spilled out last week, as Judge Michael Miller of Pima County Superior Court considered a preliminary injunction against Heck. The measure would have stopped her from criticizing Spring and the board on her Web site, But before the hearing was over, Spring's missteps—seemingly encouraged by her attorney—had left her legal crusade in tatters.

A day after that hearing, Judge Miller denied her injunction request. And a day after that, Spring dropped all of the lawsuits.

But Heck, a science teacher, has not likewise abandoned a counterclaim against Spring, who has taken to publicly calling her detractors "terrorists."

The hearing also revealed the Hermitage's dire financial situation nearly three years after Spring—who had no previous shelter experience—was hired to raise money. Particularly damning was testimony by Vernon Alexander, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and aerospace executive who served on the Hermitage board from August to October.

"There was $350,000 in the Hermitage account when Spring was hired," Alexander told the court. "But when I left, they were down to $32,000. ... She had done no fundraising activities." He even recalled talk of dipping into the shelter's endowment fund, "which, to me, was unethical," he said. To help turn that around, Alexander used his experience to design a detailed fundraising campaign. When his work was ignored by Spring and the board, he quit in disgust.

But the fiercest criticism of Spring's management centers around the mass cat euthanizations at Arizona's first no-kill animal shelter. (The Hermitage has quietly removed "no-kill" from its name.) Many of those felines were killed for medical conditions that some believe may have been caused by a harsh cleaner called Husky arena disinfectant. One former volunteer was so upset about Husky's use at the Hermitage that he photographed what he claimed were puddles of it on the floor, next to cat food.

Spring has steadfastly argued that Husky is safe, and was never allowed to puddle where cats could drink it. But her attorney, Adam Weisman, seemingly goaded her into contradicting that stance. Weisman showed Spring several photos showing puddles at the Hermitage, which she repeatedly identified as monsoon rainwater.

"How do you know that's not disinfectant?" Weisman asked.

Spring looked befuddled. "Is that a puddle of disinfectant?" Weisman asked again.

"Yes," Spring said finally, to the audience's astonishment.

Perhaps realizing that he'd just helped obliterate his client's case, Weisman glanced up at Judge Miller. "I'd like to take a short recess, your honor," he said, and the crowd dispersed into the lobby.

That was a key moment for several reasons. First, it offered evidence that Spring was hardly the hands-on manager she'd claimed to be. Second, it vindicated the allegations of former volunteer Sean O'Connell, who had taken those photos with his cell phone. Spring booted O'Connell from the Hermitage's volunteer pool after he'd raised concerns about the solvent in an e-mail to the shelter. Third, it justifies much of the criticism raised by Heck and others.

Spring had blamed the death of so many cats on inept staffers and the Hermitage's longtime former veterinarian, Dr. Tim Ireland. In a complaint filed last year with the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board, Spring accused Ireland of being negligent "in not reporting abuse and neglect, and not recommending euthanasia of suffering cats."

In May 2008, Spring terminated Ireland's relationship with the shelter, and contracted with the Humane Society of Southern Arizona for veterinary services. The society's medical director, Dr. Karter Neal, subsequently euthanized more than 50 Hermitage cats, many of them for stomatitis (mouth inflammation).

By October, the state had dismissed complaints against Ireland. In an earlier interview with the Tucson Weekly, Dr. Ireland opined that Husky cleaner—rather than neglect—was a prime suspect for health problems among the Hermitage cats.

"They were using cleaning agents that were hard on the cats," he said. Husky "does a very good job of sterilizing the environment. But if ingested, it causes very severe oral ulcers and other problems. It certainly can worsen stomatitis."

As the hearing preceded, other parts of Spring's case began unraveling as well, such as her claims that former staffers Rosalie Torske and Paula LaRue stole the donor database and other information from the Hermitage computer system when they left. Spring alleged that they then used the information to harm the shelter's reputation and fundraising abilities.

Judge Miller didn't buy it. In his decision, he wrote that the criticism of Spring—who did not respond to requests for comment from the Weekly—has come from a variety of sources, including former board members. Regarding the data that Torske and Larue were accused of taking, "As a nonprofit corporation that relies upon unpaid volunteers and donors," he wrote, "information about the activities and goals of the organization is made available in a variety of contexts."

A couple of paragraphs later, Miller denied the injunction request. And now the Hermitage's other lawsuits have disintegrated.

In the meantime, Heck's countersuit is still lurking—even as Mary Jo Spring runs out of "terrorists" to blame.