In late January, 2012, Sean Compton abruptly departed from his position as Executive Director (ED) of the Kitsap Humane Society (KHS), sending a shockwave across the county’s animal rescue community and leaving many unanswered questions about the reasons for his departure and how it will affect KHS and its base of donor support in the months to come.
Compton, who served as ED of KHS for nearly three years starting in May of 2009, helped implement numerous KHS reforms.
Under his stewardship, KHS increased its rehabilitation and adoption rates, cutting its euthanasia from approximately 25-30 percent down to 5-6 percent. KHS Director of Animal Welfare Stacey Price explained to me that the remaining 5-6 percent of animals who are ultimately euthanized are ones who are unadoptable because of illness or behaviors beyond rehabilitation.
During Compton’s tenure, KHS also expanded the size of its cat cages, which had previously been too small for the cats to stretch into an arch position and lacked privacy, and the organization improved the ventilation system in the cat room to help prevent the spread of airborne disease.
Under Compton’s direction, KHS also improved its vet clinic and moved its staff into offices in a donated modular building to make more room in its main building for its animals. Price added that Compton had other improvements planned at KHS, such as creating a cat free-roaming room with climbing trees and perches, but she wasn’t sure what would happen to those plans with him gone.
Since Compton’s departure it is no exaggeration to say that a storm of speculation and accusation has besieged KHS. A petition written by an unidentified “former board member, dog walker, and donor of Kitsap Humane Society” has circulated and garnered close to 280 signatures so far. The petition calls for the removal of the 9-member KHS Board and declares them to be guilty of “a long line of abuses,” including misusing construction funds, catering to their own businesses or friendship interests, and not touching or adopting KHS animals.
I spoke with Melissa Byrd, who worked at KHS for ten years until 2007 in nearly all areas of operations there, including adoption outreach, animal control, and front desk duty. Byrd told me she thinks the petition doesn’t reflect what she knows to be true of the KHS Board. “I have worked with some of these people side by side rescuing animals, cleaning cages, transporting, fostering. Some are more hands-on than others, but they are unpaid volunteers who are there because they love animals.” Bryd added, “Employees come and go, Board members come and go, Executive Directors come and go, but the one constant is the animals and their need for care.”
A current KHS Board member I contacted for comment on this story explained to me that the Board is legally and ethically bound not to comment on the reasons for Compton’s departure. Although this Board member wanted to be able to speak more candidly, the Board member asked to be quoted as follows: “According to KHS policy, we do not discuss personnel. There will be an official statement released next week regarding the direction of KHS in the future.”
A KHS staff member, who also declined to be named, told me that the Board instructed all staff members not to speak to the public or press about Compton’s break with KHS. She also said that for two days following Compton’s departure only internal KHS email was functioning, leaving staff members unable to send or receive external email. Although the staff was told the situation was a technical problem, this staff member said that she believes the Board was responsible for the email shutdown. She described the Board’s attitude as follows: “Either you’re with us, or you’re out.”
PAWS of Bainbridge Island and North Kitsap Executive Director Mark Hufford had this to say about Compton’s departure: “Under Sean Compton’s tenure at KHS, PAWS was able to expand our cooperative, working relationship with KHS, which absolutely benefited the animals and animal-loving families who we all serve. That working relationship was nurtured and improved not just by Sean, but by both current and former KHS staff, by donors to both organizations, and by both KHS and PAWS board members. Naturally, we are eager to continue building on this cooperative relationship going forward.”
One past KHS Board member I spoke with, who declined to be named, explained that she left because of her frustration with the Executive Director who served before Compton, Don McBurney. She told me that McBurney, who had worked previously as a military officer and did not have experience working in animal welfare before joining KHS, alienated numerous Board members, staff, and donors, some of whom withdrew their support during his brief term as ED. Although she left before Compton’s time at KHS, this past Board member called Compton “a breath of fresh air” and expressed bafflement and dismay over his departure. Teri Cole, who also served briefly on the KHS Board during McBurney’s tenure as ED and left because of her dissatisfaction with McBurney, also told me she had a very positive impression of the work Compton was doing at KHS.
It bears noting that the KHS Board hired Sean Compton in McBurney’s place after an extensive national search for a new Executive Director.
Another former long-term staff member of KHS, who asked not to be named for fear of legal reprisal, explained that the role of the Executive Director at KHS is the most powerful position in the organization—the “go between” between the Board and staff. She pointed out that the ED speaks with the Board privately, without transparency with the staff, and the ED also oversees and directs the staff, without transparency with the Board. In the case of Sean Compton, she said it was her impression that he “manipulated his role, playing the Board and staff against one each other.”
Whatever abuses may have occurred at KHS, the perception of abuse exists, which does not serve the goals of the organization as expressed in their mission statement:
Apparently several days after leaving KHS, Compton wrote a letter to the KHS staff, which surfaced online and has been circulating via email. Here is his letter:
For many of us, the beginning of a path in animal welfare starts with similar elements. Often pain is involved, such as witnessing an act of cruelty or losing a loved one. At the same time the path also begins with gratitude, a sense of wanting to give back and protect an animal after experiencing the joy they gave us.
It is easy to be grateful for the good things in our lives, but can we be grateful for the bad things too? That’s when you know you’re really moving along. I’m so incredibly thankful for the painful memories that pushed me into serving both animals and the people that work for them. (surely there are those I have hurt along the away as well that will celebrate my departure as well)
So, there are no absolutes. One person’s villain is the hero of another. I feel bad if coyotes pull down a deer in the woods, but I am happy their families will eat. It is our attachments that hurt us, I can tell you firsthand because I know how attached to you I am.
Why are you upset? If you know me you know I never want you upset. My job has only ever been to bring out that which is already inside of you. I did not give you this goodness and it cannot be taken away, so my departure really does not mean that much. This goodness inside of you is the only thing in life that is permanent. Even if you disappear, it remains. Everything else in life is temporary. My departure had to come eventually but you are unchanged, so we should look positively to the future rather than regret the past.
I leave with joy, remembering how we have walked together. You each know your own story. We have walked together through your marriage problems, births of children, financial difficulties, animals we lost, quitting smoking, cancer, deployment, court room drama, sick relatives, running out of firewood, car accidents, holiday bonus needs, sons serving in the armed forces, dance recitals, losing a mother, marriage, tattoos, citronella, dog walking, towing outreach trailers, Jorge’s summer grilling, Chihuahuas, turtles, the all staff training day we all snuck out to the park in Bremerton for sun, and sharing lunch.
Truth is, this is why I stayed at KHS at all towards the end. It was hard for me to become your director when I had worked so closely with animals before. It’s hard to trade in scrubs for boring khakis and a sweater. But, by the time I arrived I witnessed too many horrors: a cat put in a microwave, a dog that was raped by a mentally ill person, my medical team that had to euthanize 94 cats in an afternoon because of panleuk, veterinarians not treating animals. It gets old fast and I’ve had over a decade of trauma. This time, it was the people that made the job special.
KHS was in a tough place when I arrived. I remember my first day. After everybody left I stayed and sat in the kennel. I was shocked at what was happening and got upset. That kind of reaction was really self indulgent though. The real reaction was when I got up, said I would never cry again, and that I wouldn’t stop until we helped these animals. Now look what you’ve accomplished! Now that we’re here it’s time for somebody else to lead that doesn’t sleep with the nightmares of yesterday. Now KHS has you. I love so much when new folks arrive, because their eyes only see what can improve from now, not how well we did before or how we fixed the past.
Even more, I have loved the veteran volunteers and staff. You carry the heart of KHS, more so than I ever could. As has always been the case, it is your job to guide and mentor those that are new.
Now, more than ever before, harmony is what is important. Without harmony in a group so diverse, we never would have gotten through the Olalla seizure the way we did. Without harmony we could not have achieved what we did in the ASPCA challenge. If you lose this harmony in your upset at my departure it will be too high a price to pay.
Every director will tell the world how much they love their organization. With my whole being though, I say this was the best group of people I ever worked with and likely ever will. One day if we are lucky enough to become old and gray, we will look back on our time together as one of the greatest things we ever did. We used our lives to save others, sacrificing bigger and better things we could have had. Each of you does this in many ways daily.
At age 36 having done this with you, married the most incredible person in the world, live now in the beauty of Puget Sound, and leave now with memories of each of you to meditate upon, I’m not sure what’s really left for me. Perhaps it is time to go on a special vacation, and remember what life used to be like before 70 hour work weeks. Aimee thinks it’s a good time for me to think about meditating on a new resume soon.
So, the weather is changing and spring will be here soon. Some of you have asked what you can do to not let me go or get me back. So, don’t let me go and instead keep in your heart what we have done and learned together as you create the future. If I may ask anything of you as I leave, please consider these 8 requests:
- Know and do not forget that since 2009 roughly 1800 additional animals that would have
been euthanized instead found a loving home, in addition to all the others we normally
- Always try to show kindness and include those that have special needs. We have them as
staff and volunteers. They more than anybody are closest to my heart, and I ask you to
protect and nourish them. They will enrich you always.
- Show visitors the line in our new clinic that marks where the huge dead animal freezer used
to be, and tell them why we no longer need it.
- Find Wildcard somebody that will love and protect him.
- Put all your differences aside and push together towards a more humane world. Life is short
and we only have little time together.
- Have gratitude for all the things that happen in your life, not just the things we want to
- Get a tattoo, soon.
- Cheer for the Steelers.
I love you my friends. Care for one another and put our animals first always. Thanks for the time of my life.
Compton did not respond to my attempts to contact him for comment on this story.
Images courtesy of KHS and Mark Peters.