Fighting like cats and dogs

Curt Essiambre has his work cut out for him, as the new manager of the Mae Bachur Animal Shelter. "He has 15 years' experience in dog rehabilitation, as a certified dog trainer," said Marta Keller, president of the Yukon Humane Society.

Curt Essiambre has his work cut out for him, as the new manager of the Mae Bachur Animal Shelter.

“He has 15 years’ experience in dog rehabilitation, as a certified dog trainer,” said Marta Keller, president of the Yukon Humane Society. “So to have someone like that on board is very exciting for us, to ensure adoptions are even more effective than they are now.”

He also better be good with people, because the organization he joins has been riven by infighting. In the last month, or so, volunteers and staff have been fighting like cats and dogs.

Essiambre will be the sixth person to hold the job of shelter boss in two years.

His predecessor, Marjie Klein, quit one month ago, unhappy with how she was treated by the current board of directors. She accuses them of meddling with the day-to-day operations of the shelter and of flouting long-established procedures.

Staff have had similar concerns. Briefly, many threatened to strike en masse.

Now unhappy members are threatening to turf the current board, which was elected in August.

But, to do so, they’d have to advertise a special meeting in the newspaper for several weeks. And, so far, that hasn’t happened.

The disputes appear to be as much about personality conflicts as disagreements over policies. One former boss describes a “virulent rumour mill” at work among staff and volunteers.

Meanwhile, the shelter continues to hold more dogs and cats than it was built for. And the society continues to bleed cash, having run consecutive deficits in recent years.

And, as no shelter story would be complete without a cameo by Trevor the dog, Yukon’s most famous canine celebrity duly played a role in the current saga.

Trevor, the star of a lengthy court battle last year, was being returned to the shelter one evening last month after a walk with volunteer Mike Greico, who found the shelter unlocked and unattended.

The only worker on duty had left because of a family crisis. This prompted a snitty email exchange between Keller and Klein.

Both agreed it was unacceptable for the worker to abandon duty without alerting anyone. But Keller insisted it was Klein’s fault.

And she asked that any punishment of the AWOL worker be vetted by her first. This, Klein replied, was meddling with her job as administrator.

Subsequently, the board rejected a pay raise for Klein that had been recommended by the previous president. Instead, they extended her six-month probation and changed her job description.

So Klein quit.

Former president Jordi Mikeli-Jones, who helped train Klein, is outraged by the current state of affairs.

She helped get Klein elected as president. She regrets it now.

“What happened to helping the animals?” she asked the board in a letter. “I will tell you what happened – in a short, four-week timeframe, your abuse of power and inflated egos got the best of you.”

Beyond interpersonal power struggles, Klein cautions the board is changing shelter rules in ways that may harm the animals.

Several board members regularly volunteer at the shelter to make up for a staffing shortage. At times, they have adopted out animals still under quarantine, said Klein.

“The animal could potentially have a virus. Or the person coming in could be spreading something to the animal. And when it’s adopted out, it could very well become sick in that person’s care.”

And the board has ended home checks, performed to ensure animals are being adopted into the right home.

Keller wouldn’t comment on whether quarantined animals are being adopted out.

“I don’t know too much about that, so I’d rather not comment on it,” she said.

Home checks may be reinstated, she said. That policy, like all others, is currently being reviewed. “We’ve been debating doing follow-up checks,” said Keller.

And, once the new manager is settled, the board plans to take a more hands-off role in the shelter operations. “That’s why we’ve been micromanaging,” said Keller. “Otherwise, who’d be running the shelter?”

But staff haven’t appreciated the help. A letter, signed by five workers, complains board members who volunteer at the shelter “don’t follow the policies that they’ve created” and “are completely disdainful of the staff who try to remind them of these rules.”

Workers also complain board members have made “inappropriate, unprofessional and disrespectful” comments about staff.

Keller insists the board has followed proper procedures, and they’re the victims, rather than purveyors, of rumours. And she touts projects underway.

The board is drafting new strategic and business plans. And members have new ideas to help restore the shelter’s finances to order.

“I’d like to see a major fundraiser, at least once a year,” said Keller. “Maybe a gala, and we bring a fancy guest speaker into town.

“We want to focus on fundraising, making the shelter a more positive place, enhance our community partnerships. We want to do big things. But we’re constantly dealing with the other issues.”

Keller hopes having Essiambre on board will change all of this. In the meantime, one small change has already been made: the shelter’s hours have changed.

It is now closed on Monday, rather than Sunday, to better accommodate clients who work during the week.

New hours are Tuesday to Friday from noon to 7 p.m., Saturdays from noon to 6 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m.

Contact John Thompson at