Another shakeup rocks the SPCA of Niagara

In this 2016 file photo, Amy Lewis, executive director of the Niagara County SPCA, shows off some snakes seized by the agency. Lewis has returned to lead the SPCA.

WHEATFIELD — Not quite one year after an animal shelter expert asked the current and former staff and members of the SPCA of Niagara board of directors to stop the “poor communication, mistrust and dysfunction” that was then plaguing the agency, turmoil has returned to the Lockport Road shelter.

As a result, five of the shelter’s 12 board members, including its president, resigned last week. And on Thursday night, the remaining board members sacked the agency’s shelter director and re-hired its former executive director, who had guided the organization out of a scandal that included reports of mismanagement and animal maltreatment.

Those reports were highlighted in a 2012 Gazette investigation of shelter operations.

On Friday, a terse statement released by the board’s attorney said that the board, now numbering seven members, had convened a “special meeting” Thursday night and “voted to relieve Timothy Brennan, the director of shelter operations, of his duties and responsibilities, effective immediately.”

The attorney, Bradley Marble, told the Gazette Friday night that six of the seven board members meeting virtually had voted to fire Brennan. Marble declined any further comment, describing the decision as “strictly a personnel matter.”

With Brennan relived of his duties, the board then voted to re-hire the shelter’s former executive director, Amy Lewis. She will hold the position of executive director and chief administrative officer. 

The board said it expected that Lewis would “ensure stability and the continuity of care for the animals entrusted to the SPCA.”

“The board of directors can assure the public and its partnerships and volunteers that the animals have been and remain properly cared for and our mission to provide this necessary service to Niagara County remains our top focus and priority,” the statement concluded.

An attorney for Brennan, Vincent Miranda, wrote in an email to news organizations that questions for the former SPCA executive should be directed to him. Efforts to reach Miranda Friday evening were not immediately successful.

Brennan had previously expressed, that while serving as the SPCA’s executive director, he had been frustrated by what he believed was inappropriate interference in shelter operations by board members. That position was supported by the then-board president, Susan Agnello-Eberwein, one of the five board members who resigned last week.

Three long-time board members, who had shepherded the shelter out of its previous troubles, however, accused Brennan of a lack of transparency and a dysfunctional relationship with staff and volunteers. Those board members then resigned their seats in the fall of 2019.

Lewis, who had been retained as a consultant, also quit in a dispute with Brennan over animal treatment. 

In November 2019 the shelter board asked shelter expert and former Erie County SPCA Executive Director Barbara Carr, who had authored a damning 2012 review of the shelter, to once again take a look at its operations, In a report released just days before Christmas 2019, Carr concluded that there had been no systemic mistreatment of animals.

But she found that “poor communication, mistrust and dysfunction, stemming from the agency’s tortured history, have combined to create yet another crisis for the SPCA of Niagara.”

In her report, Carr wrote that trouble began brewing at the shelter in January 2019 after a dog in a kennel was euthanized in violation of the agency’s practices and procedures. What followed over the next 10 months were more charges of violations of the shelter’s No Kill policy, accusations of the maltreatment of a number of cats at the facility and claims that Brennan and then Shelter Manager Lauren Zaninovich were blocking members of the board of directors from carrying out their fiduciary functions.

Zaninovich, according to Marble, left the shelter “sometime around November.” In December, Brennan was demoted from executive director to director of shelter operations.

Carr determined that Brennan had addressed the 2018 and 2019 charges and accusations quickly and appropriately, but that the incidents “fueled suspicion and mistrust” among shelter volunteers, past and present employees and current and former board members.

Carr said that those on both sides of the shelter’s divide needed to understand that the “interest of the animals” was falling victim to a desire to “win the argument” with their opposition. She also renewed a call for a new or expanded shelter on the Lockport Road property, bluntly saying in her report, “Dog and cat housing are not adequate at the NCSPCA.” 

In a discussion of her observations of the shelter’s operations, Carr noted that “the staff at the shelter has an executive director without an animal welfare background, a manager that has no management experience, a veterinarian whose background is in private practice, not shelter medicine, and front-line staff with no customer service training.” 

Carr lamented what she called “a lack of curiosity” by shelter staff on how to educate themselves in current best practices for shelter operations.

In her conclusion, Carr wrote that the core principal in shelter operation is; “Be Kind.” Yet, she said, “One would have to look hard to find an individual in this crisis who has embraced this core belief. In trying to be humane advocates for animals, they have forgotten how to be humane to one another.”

Carr said to the shelter board, staff, volunteers, “You are all wrong (and you are all right). About something. Now please stop. Your concern for the welfare of animals means you have to learn to work together.”

Lewis and current board members declined to comment on the shakeup Friday night.

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