Tanner was an eight-month-old pitbull at the Cheyenne Animal Shelter who was recently euthanized after biting a shelter employee. The story of Tanner’s final days has spurred a public outcry about animal abuse, it led to a 60-day suspension for the shelter’s director, and it has threatened to erode support for an organization that depends on public volunteers and donations for much of its success..
The employee who Tanner attacked has been identified as Marissa Cox. Cox has told news outlets that she feared for her life. An incident report of the bite, written by an Animal Control officer whose name has been redacted from the report, describes a scary scene where Cox suffered multiple bites while trying to get away from the dog.
The next day, CEO Bob Fecht used Tanner in what he has called a “training exercise” to show shelter employees and volunteers how to use pepper spray in the event of an attack. A shelter employee, Jay Klapel, accused Fecht of animal abuse, saying the “training exercise” was retaliatory in nature.
After the story broke in local media, a Laramie County Community College student, Taryn Lackey, created an online petition that calls for the animal shelter to clean house and charge Fecht and anyone else involved with animal abuse. As of 5 p.m. Sept. 19, the petition had 31,630 signatures.
Fecht has told news media that he stands behind his actions and that he doesn’t regret what he did to Tanner. Fecht said the exercise was held to train employees on how to protect themselves so that they did not have to fear coming to their job.
The board announced on Sept. 18 that Fecht had been suspended 60 days without pay. The shelter board also said that Fecht must present a plan to win back the trust of the Cheyenne community within 30 days in order to keep his job.
There’s a lot to be concerned about here, but let’s start with anger toward the animal shelter. Many supporters of the shelter, who have donated thousands of dollars each year, have threatened to cut their financial ties. But the shelter is the only option for animal control in Cheyenne. If the shelter were to close, where would the animals go? Withholding donations of time and money to the shelter only hurts the good employees who continue to care for animals during this controversial time and the animals themselves.
But how does the shelter earn the trust of the community again? We have a few suggestions for what we’d like to see in Fecht’s proposal.
- Fecht needs to step down. In a letter to the community after announcing Fecht’s suspension, the board said that it felt that Fecht made a rational decision in wanting to protect employees but that he did not consider other training methods. In media interviews, Fecht has not demonstrated remorse or uncertainty for how he handled the situation. Does that mean if the same situation were to rise again, would he just go with his training exercise again and pepper spray another dog? To get rid of a temporary problem, sometimes a permanent solution is needed.
- The board needs to be more transparent. The board held a closed-door, meeting to discuss the results of its internal investigation and decision about Fecht. Prior to the closed-door meeting, the only public comments from board members were largely in support of Fecht before the investigation even took place. For many of us, this creates the impression that the board isn’t interested in an investigation but rather just want to protect the director. One way to promote transparency going forward would be to host open board meetings. There is no law in the state of Wyoming that requires non-profits to host open meetings, but the public would be encouraged to have the chance to voice their opinions straight to the board.
- Expand educational efforts. Another way the board can promote transparency with the public is be more proactive in educating the public about operations and policies. In the board’s statement about Fecht’s suspension, the board announced a new policy to no longer use pepper spray on animals for training purposes. That’s a great first step in ensuring something like this can never happen again. The board should take the next step and actively work to educate the public on its operations and policies to ensure there is a clear protocol in place and that the public understands that protocol before the next time an employee or volunteer face danger.
- Keep an open mind. Chloe Illoway, the president of the board, was very defensive when Klapel made the initial complaint about Fecht. Illoway seemed more interested in smearing Klapel’s name than to investigate the complaint, calling Klapel a “disgruntled employee” in an interview with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. Employees and volunteers need to know that someone will listen if they see something immoral happening at the shelter, and Illoway’s comments send the opposite message. The board should adopt measures that will give employees and volunteers a way to report concerns without fear of retaliation.
The Cheyenne Animal Shelter should be a source of pride for the whole city. By re-committing itself to openness and transparency, and by starting fresh with a new director, the Cheyenne Animal Shelter can, over time, win back the trust of the community and continue to serve the pet population.