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A Story of Feline Friends Getting Fired

A look at why several Humane Society volunteers were let go
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Sue Johnson and Alida Labia, both volunteer 'cat socializers' at the Humane Society of Truckee Tahoe (HSTT) for nine years, were terminated last spring. 'At first we thought they were joking,' Alida says in describing the events the day they were fired. Once the reality set in, however, the women became very distressed. 'Caring for the cats (at the Humane Society) was a huge part of our lives,' Alida admits. Months have passed, but the wounds still hurt.

Alida and Sue, plus six other former volunteers who made their own decisions to leave the organization, gathered one evening to tell their stories. In a warmly lit Truckee living room, they sat sipping wine as an assortment of fuzzy felines alternately prowled and frolicked among the carpeted scratching posts and furnishings. Several of these women describe themselves as 'major players' in the Humane Society from the very beginning more than 10 years ago. All of them have witnessed the organization grow from its humble beginnings as an all-volunteer, grassroots group into the nonprofit it is today. The women spend a few minutes reminiscing about how they used to raise money for shelter animals by having thrift sales at the dilapidated old barn on West River St. There is a consensus that the organization changed when paid staff took over.  

While the years and depth of experience varies, one thing holds true. 'We are all volunteers who took care of the cats and we did it from the bottom of our hearts,' Johnson said.

Stephanie Hiemstra, Executive Director of the Humane Society for the last five years, has clearly been troubled by the situation in question, but wouldn’t disagree about the volunteers’ deeply heartfelt devotion to the shelter animals. 'All of our volunteers are so committed and so passionate,' she said. When asked if volunteerism is on the wane at HSTT, she’s quick to respond, 'the number of volunteers continues to grow and many are very actively involved.'

She explained that Sue and Alida and one other cat socializer were let go because they weren’t following established policies for the shelter cats. Keeping the doors closed between the rooms to keep cats from intermingling and closing the cage doors behind cats after they are let out, are standard practices. The rules are in place to prevent the spread of disease among the cat population. Stephanie said the volunteers were reminded about the rules often, but continued to disregard them.

Sue and Alida said the cats needed more time and space to move around and that their confinement was more detrimental than any potential risks they faced. (HSTT recently converted an office into new cat rooms with plenty of space and light, and the felines are benefitting from much improved facilities.)

Hiemstra admits that when she was hired and began the task of shifting the Humane Society from a volunteer group to a full-fledged, staffed nonprofit, there was some tension in the organization, especially between the cat and dog volunteers. She says she did her best to 'keep the lines of communication open. Change is hard sometimes…the cat volunteers felt like they didn’t always get a fair shake.'

Some of the former volunteers maintain that dogs coming into the shelter are favored over cats and that the quality of cat care has gone downhill. They were discouraged about a cat death and a few cats contracting diseases which they felt were avoidable.

But Hiemstra is emphatic about the quality of care. 'Our cats are better cared for than any other place I’ve worked, including Best Friends.' (Best Friends Animal Society is a well-known animal sanctuary in Utah).

Wendy Robinson, a local vet who visits once a week to check on the animals feels the staff and socializers manage to 'keep everything clean and meet the needs of the animals and address any concerns there might be. I feel like they truly do care and are doing the best they can do.'

That’s an important point. Everyone interviewed for this story is doing the best they can do on behalf of animals, despite the fractures which have occurred.

They say that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. If that’s true, then there’s a lot of lemonade getting made when it comes to animal welfare in Truckee/ Tahoe. Alida and Sue may not be working at the Humane Society anymore, but they’re working harder than ever, on behalf of animals. Maybe you had a chance to read the Moonshine Ink article in September about their efforts in support of Proposition 2, calling for the humane treatment of farm animals, which was passed by two-thirds of the state’s voters.

And they continue to help cats. Sue and Alida are the type of people who don’t think twice about waking up at 3 a.m. and driving 100 miles to pick up a litter of cats in need. Other former volunteers like Carol Merjil continue their heroic efforts as well. They are rescuing animals from Sierra County and Plumas County and continue to step in anywhere they are needed. They work individually and with organizations like Wylie Animal Rescue.

Stephanie, always upbeat and positive, is gearing up for the Humane Society’s capital campaign to raise the funds to build a new shelter on land donated by the Town of Truckee at their new corporation yard. With the goal of breaking ground in 2010, the facility is desperately needed. Not only will it provide a permanent headquarters for staff and volunteers, it will build a modern, functional and properly sized shelter for animals in need. As an added bonus, it will be open and accessible to the public on a regular basis, a vast improvement over the constraints of the current location.

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Reader comments so far...

Sue (not verified)
How can you say you give your animals better care than Best Friends animal sanctuary? I have been there many times over the last eight years and have friends who work there. I have spent two weeks at a time volunteering at Best Friends and can say this is a HUGE overstatement. The animals not only have free access to indoor/outdoor enclosures (with only sick animals in cages), they also get the best, prompt medical care and training available. They get tons of attention daily. There is no comparison to the Humane Society of Truckee Tahoe. If HSTT is so much better then why did you ask Best Friends to take some of the HSTT animals in the past? Stubby? Along with at least one dog I know of who went to BF. Anyone who has ever seen Dogtown on National Geo channel can see how much time and effort BF puts into the animals to rehabilitate and make well again.

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March 14, 2019