Cat sanctuary admits boss misused funds on bawdy books, clothing

  • Article by: PAUL WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 22, 2014 - 9:29 PM

The board of the refuge has hired an outside accounting firm and changed how it handles its donations.

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Tammy Thies, executive director of the Wildcat Sanctuary, greeted one of the tigers outside its enclosure last year. She has admitted diverting funds of the charity-based center for her personal use.

Photo: File photo by ELIZABETH FLORES • eflores@startribune.com,

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The board of a charity-based sanctuary for exotic cats has agreed to change its business practices after its executive director acknowledged misusing thousands of dollars in donations to purchase personal items, including undergarments and bestselling bawdy books.

As part of the agreement filed in Ramsey County District Court with the state attorney general’s office, the Wildcat Sanctuary, located in Sandstone, Minn., must hire an independent outside party for the next two years to monitor its business practices.

Executive Director and sanctuary founder Tammy Thies is repaying all of the donations she misused for an array of personal items, services and $550 in taxes for her house, which is on the facility’s property, a sanctuary representative said. The largest reimbursements cover $4,900 for four years of cellphone service and $3,200 in propane to heat her home.

The sanctuary’s statement Tuesday did not identify the personal items that were purchased. The agreement filed in court, however, said there was “extensive use” of the sanctuary’s credit cards “for personal expenses” by Thies and listed many of them:

Ladies’ underwear, movies and hair-removal products. She also used donated money to buy two books by ribald comedian Chelsea Handler.

She also received “double reimbursements” from the sanctuary for the same expense, had an oil change paid for on her personal vehicle and a dog run built on her property. She also had the sanctuary pay for her husband’s sky-diving lessons.

The allegations against Thies were first made to the board in March 2013 by sanctuary employees. Later that year, the board placed Thies, who is still the executive director, on paid administrative leave for a few months while an investigation continued.

“Our donors have stayed with us even as we have stumbled and made mistakes,” Thies said in a statement. “They deserve a professional and transparent organization that unfailingly meets the needs of the animals they support.”

The fenced sanctuary is located about 90 miles northeast of the Twin Cities. It opened in 1999 with 10 cats on 10 acres and now is home to more than 100 lions, tigers, cougars, bobcats and a host of other exotic species on 37 acres with natural habitats for all of the animals.

The sanctuary has an annual budget of about $850,000, which includes staff salaries and the care and feeding of the wild cats.

“We have been working for several months to grow our business infrastructure to catch up with our tremendous growth,” sanctuary board director Gail Plewacki said in a statement. “Some of these challenges are just the result of a fast-growing organization that used to be small and run by one person [Thies] who didn’t even get paid for years.”

Even before the agreement, the sanctuary said, all bookkeeping had been outsourced to an accounting firm and new policies on how donations were to be used had been put in place.

The sanctuary had been substantially free of controversy since it relocated to Pine County from Isanti County more than seven years ago, after a dispute over a tiger.

Thies has led efforts to ban private ownership of wildcats and to impress on the public the dangers associated with raising wild animals.

Several attacks, at least one of them fatal, have occurred at private locations in Minnesota in recent years.

 

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

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