Six former employees of a Pine County sanctuary for exotic wildcats filed a whistleblower lawsuit Tuesday contending they were fired or forced to resign after they reported illegal activities to the organization’s board of directors.

The sudden dismissal of so many employees — all of whom had received positive job reviews — from the Wildcat Sanctuary was a “startling example of unlawful retaliation,” the suit said.

Five firings and a forced resignation came after employees revealed that Executive Director Tammy Thies was spending money donated to the nonprofit sanctuary for her house, dogs and other personal uses, it said.

The suit, filed by attorney Craig Brandt of Minneapolis, also alleged that the sanctuary and Thies violated Minnesota wage laws and that plaintiffs were defamed in public ­statements made by Thies and board members.

Sanctuary officials didn’t respond to inquiries Tuesday, but issued a short statement: “We’re in receipt of the lawsuit. The Wildcat Sanctuary plans to vigorously defend these claims in court.”

The suit comes just weeks after a Minnesota attorney general’s report confirmed Thies had spent thousands of dollars in sanctuary funds for personal use despite earlier public ­denials by board members Gail Plewacki, Peggy Callahan and Sue Schmitt.

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.

Allegations filed

The whistleblower suit filed Tuesday accused Thies and the sanctuary of failing to pay overtime and neglecting to keep accurate records of hours that employees worked. The suit also said that she told them they had to spend a minimum number of overnight stays at the sanctuary each month without additional compensation.

Among other allegations in the suit: Thies told staff to forge her signature on credit card receipts on the advice of board members, she refused to hire certain people “expressly because of their ages,” she ingested prescription drugs intended for wildcats, and she drove drunk in a sanctuary vehicle after a fundraising party.

“You have placed one individual above the entire organization including the people and the animals and it shames me to be a part of it,” Alicia Kroll, a five-year animal keeper who resigned in October, wrote to board members. She also complained of “hostile working conditions and unethical practices.”

The other former employees named as plaintiffs were lead keeper Trista Fischer, Christine Dietsche, Christina Mastry, Natalie Warnacutt and Holly Whitney. Those five employees were fired in November after a summer and fall of turmoil at the sanctuary. Eight board members left, more were added, and the suit said the departed employees were disparaged publicly as troublemakers.

‘Hostile hearsay’

In a news story last fall, board member Callahan referred to allegations by the employees as “hostile hearsay” and said “disgruntled people started rumors that led to upheaval at the sanctuary,” the suit said. In another interview, according to the suit, Callahan said employee complaints amounted to a “witch hunt.”

Plewacki said accusations of theft were “patently false” and “nobody’s stealing money from the sanctuary, period,” according to the suit. Schmitt said an independent audit “disproved the charges,” the suit said.

The attorney general’s report said it was unable to ­verify more than $3,000 in reimbursements to Thies because financial documentation was missing.

The whistleblower suit seeks a jury trial to determine damages for defamation, punitive damages and compensation for lost income and benefits.

The Wildcat Sanctuary, near Sandstone, Minn., is a refuge to more than 100 lions, tigers, cougars and other abandoned exotic cats once owned privately until they became public safety threats. It’s funded entirely with private donations, although many donors withdrew their support last fall after the firings occurred.

The sanctuary has an annual budget of about $850,000.

The suit was filed under Minnesota’s Whistleblower Act, which protects employees from retaliation for reporting suspected violations of law.