Humane Society boss resigns after petition demands her removal
February 5, 2016 2:53 PM
By Madasyn Czebiniak and Anya Sostek / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The head of the Western PA Humane Society has resigned, days after she was put on administrative leave.
Joy Braunstein had been under pressure after an online petition demanded her removal was circulated.
Statement from Joy Braunstein:
In a statement this afternoon, Ms. Braunstein said: “Given the present circumstances, I have made a personal choice to step away from The Western Pennsylvania Humane Society and resign my position effective immediately out of respect for my family and out of respect for the organization. I wish the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society well and will continue to be a supporter of the organization. At this time, I have not decided what I plan to do next professionally. Before I do, I plan to take some time with my family. I want to thank the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society for my time there and everyone else for their concern, but I have no further comment.”
Former employees estimate that in Ms. Braunstein’s 13-month tenure as executive director of the Western PA Humane Society, more than a third of the roughly 60-member staff was either fired or quit.
Those seeking to get her fired say that exodus is part of the driving force behind an online change.org petition demanding her removal. The petition, which has attracted more than 1,400 signatures, also describes Ms. Braunstein’s decision “to purchase a collie puppy from a breeder who charges $1,000 per pup as opposed to adopting one of the dogs at her own shelter or another dog in need of rescue” as “the height of hypocrisy.”
Earlier this week, Ms. Braunstein was placed on paid administrative leave — a decision that she told the Post-Gazette was made to “get me out of the direct line of fire.” Against the advice of her attorney, she spoke to the Post-Gazette late Wednesday, saying that she was the victim of an online bullying and character defamation campaign and had received violent threats.
Two women, Diane Bandy and Tara Vybiral, were charged Tuesday with harassment for making threats on social media against Ms. Braunstein, who could not be reached for further comment Thursday.
Ms. Vybiral, reached Thursday night, denied that she had harassed Ms. Braunstein and said she had an attorney. Ms. Bandy could not be contacted.
Ms. Braunstein’s supporters on Wednesday started their own counter-petition in which they laud her efforts at the society, including increasing donations, outreach and community awareness, and advocacy. It also had about 1,400 signatures by Thursday.
Kristen Lane, former director of marketing and public relations at the Humane Society, said she was one of several high-level administrators — including the chief operating officer, the director of volunteer and foster programs, the director of human resources and the director of adoption, admissions and animal care — who have left since Ms. Braunstein arrived.
“A lot of people have referred to it as a mass exodus,” Ms. Lane said. “The staff as a whole was very demoralized. To see it decline so rapidly in such a short period of time, it’s hitting people emotionally.”
Ms. Lane also said that Ms. Braunstein’s decision to change the way dogs are evaluated behaviorally had led to a smaller percentage of dogs being available for adoption -- and a higher euthanasia rate. As of Thursday, seven adoptable dogs were listed on the shelter’s website. The shelter’s capacity, said April Minich, the fired director of adoptions, admissions and animal care, is for more than 30 dogs.
Multiple board members reached Thursday said questions about why Ms. Braunstein was placed on administrative leave should be directed to board President David Grubman, who did not return calls.
The allegation in the change.org petition that has drawn by far the most attention concerns Ms. Braunstein’s decision to purchase the collie for her family, reportedly for $1,000.
It’s an allegation that is, on its face, “bizarre,” said George Loewenstein, Herbert A. Simon University Professor of Economics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, speaking just as an observer. “Ridiculous conflicts are not generally about the conflict itself, but an internal power struggle,” he said. “When people are really beloved, it’s unbelievable the things they can do and get away with, but if there are people who don’t like them, then any misstep will bring them down.”
From an ethical perspective, what Ms. Braunstein does in her private life shouldn’t matter, he said.
“Should the director of an adoption agency not have biological children? Should an indie filmmaker not go to Hollywood movies? It’s absurd to hold people up to such a rigid standard of behavior.”
But some observers in the field of animal rescue look to those in advocacy positions to set an example through their actions.
“How can we encourage the public to make that decision if our own people are not setting that example,” said Elizabeth Oreck, national manager of puppy mill initiatives for Best Friends Animal Society, an animal welfare organization that runs the country’s largest no-kill shelter.
In her lengthy interview with the Post-Gazette late Wednesday, Ms. Braunstein said she has been a tireless advocate for animals and has worked hard to promote the Humane Society.
That’s why she finds it difficult to understand why some people are trying to push her out.
Ms. Braunstein claimed people were threatening her on social media and questioning her commitment to animals.
“This is insane and ridiculous and scary. I have broken no laws. I have done nothing unethical. I have been a tireless advocate for animals,” she said. “They need to stop bullying, they need to stop defaming my character. There is no real situation.”
The scrutiny has been so intense that Ms. Braunstein went to police on Monday. Afterward, the two women were charged with harassment.
“I have two small children,” Ms. Braunstein said. “The violence that’s been called for … all I’m focused on right now is making sure that my 2-year-old and 6-year-old are safe from harm.”
Ms. Braunstein said, and humane society board member Anthony Pardo confirmed, that she was placed on paid leave “to get me out of the direct line of fire.”
“My understanding of the situation, yes, I am on paid administrative leave in order to be able to figure out from everyone’s perspective how to deal with this situation.”
Anya Sostek: 412-263-1308 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Madasyn Czebeniak: email@example.com or 412-263-1269.
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