Pine County wildcat refuge director claims bullying by ex-workers

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 17, 2014 - 7:46 AM

In response to lawsuit, Tammy Thies cited their intrusions and threats.

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Wildcat Sanctuary executive director Tammy Thies, shown in 2013, has responded to a whistleblower lawsuit by six ex-workers.

Photo: ELIZABETH FLORES • eflores@startribune.com,

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Animal keepers bullied the founder of a Pine County wildcat refuge and secretly entered her private residence to probe her computer for information, inspect her personal mail and joke about her bedside journal, court documents allege.

They also threatened Tammy Thies with violence, made offensive comments about board chairwoman Gail Plewacki and organized a donor revolt, attorney Kerri Nelson of Minneapolis wrote.

The account of the animal keepers’ alleged behavior comes in response to a whistleblower lawsuit filed in May by six former employees of the Wildcat Sanctuary, which Thies founded. The former employees claimed they were fired or forced to resign in a “startling example of unlawful retaliation” after they reported illegal activities to the organization’s board of directors.

The nonprofit sanctuary, near Sandstone, Minn., is Minnesota’s only refuge for abandoned big cats such as lions, tigers and cougars. It’s funded with private donations and closed to the public.

“Plaintiffs have collectively engaged in wrongful and threatening conduct toward the TWS board and staff, which make it inappropriate for TWS to employ them,” Nelson wrote, alleging the animal keepers began “ganging up” on Thies.

In addition to responding to the whistleblower lawsuit, Thies and the sanctuary also filed a countersuit against former lead animal keeper Trista Fischer and the five others that seeks monetary damages as well as a permanent injunction against their further contact with donors.

In response, Fischer and the others objected to being portrayed as bullies and denied allegations of threatening anybody and failing to comply with sanctuary policies, court records show.

“TWS’s own conduct, acts, omissions or negligence caused or contributed to the damages, if any, it alleges that it sustained,” wrote Minneapolis attorney Craig Brandt, who represents them.

Some of the plaintiffs acknowledge that they entered Thies’ private home but did so with permission, according to court records. She had told several employees that she was feeling “suicidal and homicidal” and disclosed that she kept a sanctuary-owned handgun beside her bed, the records said.

They searched for the gun “out of a genuine concern for staff safety,” Brandt wrote. In doing so, he said, they came across notes Thies had made that “prominently mentioned” one or more of the plaintiffs.

The former employees’ suit was filed just weeks after a Minnesota attorney general’s report concluded Thies had spent thousands of dollars in sanctuary funds for personal use despite earlier public ­denials by Plewacki and two other board members.

The report said Thies spent hundreds of dollars for such items as underwear, movies, hair-removal products and sky-diving lessons for her husband, $550 in taxes for her house, $3,200 in propane to heat it and $4,900 for four years of cellphone service.

Evidence of “extensive use” of sanctuary credit cards for personal use and “double reimbursement” for some expenses was found, the attorney ­general’s office said. An agreement filed in court specified numerous conditions for the sanctuary to remain in nonprofit status, including hiring an outside auditor and filing regular reports with the attorney general’s office for five years.

However, the sanctuary “did not admit to any of the attorney general’s so-called ‘findings,’ ” according to court documents.

Besides Fischer, former employees who filed the suit are Alicia Kroll, Christine Dietsche, Christina Mastry, Natalie Warnacutt and Holly Whitney. They seek damages, including lost wages and benefits.

 

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037

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