CHEYENNE – Cheyenne Animal Shelter President Bob Fecht will be suspended for 60 days without pay starting Friday following an investigation into his decision to have a young dog pepper sprayed during a “training exercise” earlier this month.
The decision to suspend the former police chief was made in a closed shelter board meeting Monday night and discussed during a Tuesday afternoon meeting with the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Editorial Board.
Fecht also will be required to present the board with “an acceptable plan of action to restore the trust of the Shelter community in his abilities as the President and CEO” before returning to the job, according to a prepared statement from the board.
The decision came roughly two weeks after an 8-month-old pit bull mix named Tanner bit a shelter employee as she tried to take him out of his kennel. The following day, Fecht ordered the dog taken outside and pepper sprayed as part of a “training exercise.” The dog was euthanized the next day.
Jay Klapel, then the shelter’s community cat program coordinator, emailed board members the day Tanner was euthanized calling the incident “absolutely abuse.” She further accused Fecht of ordering the training exercise in unprecedented retaliation for the biting incident.
Shelter officials had disputed the allegations. In an interview last week, Board President Chloe Illoway said there was no abuse and called Klapel a “disgruntled employee” frustrated with other issues at the shelter.
An unidentified animal control officer wrote a report saying the dog had “viciously” mauled the employee, leaving her fearing for her life, and outlined the spraying as a relatively harmless training exercise to determine whether the spray would work on the dog and show employees how to use it.
Fecht, for his part, had said people questioning his actions were ignoring his responsibility to the employee who suffered a “very traumatic experience.”
Tuesday’s prepared statement, which summarized the shelter’s investigation, said the test on the dog was wrong.
But they also emphasized the extreme severity of the biting incident, defended Fecht’s motivations and maintained the action had nothing to do with retaliation.
“The decision to use an animal, aggressive or not, in pepper spray training as a way to a simulate a realistic scenario and demonstrate its effectiveness for employee safety is one that the Shelter Board feels was not justified and cannot support,” the statement reads. “After reviewing all of the facts of both incidents, the Board feels confident that the decision to use an animal for pepper spray training was not made with the intent to cause harm or inflict punishment on the animal.”
Board member Richard Mincer confirmed Klapel’s assertions that Fecht told employees in the break room as he passed by not to record the incident on their phones, though, and that the bitten employee was given the opportunity to spray the dog – which she declined – before an animal control officer did.
Mincer also conceded the spraying was not a real training for the whole staff, but a demonstration involving a select group of animal control officers, Fecht, the shelter manager and the bitten employee.
The statement rejects Klapel’s assertion that the spray caused Tanner to cough up blood, though.
The board statement complemented a written apology from Fecht, who wrote that he had not meant to hurt Tanner and stood by his goal of protecting employees “subjected to animals of questionable character every single day” before conceding he made a “personal and emotional” decision to order the pepper spraying and sincerely regretted failing to consider alternative action.
The board also acknowledged unidentified “policies and procedures” were “lacking,” and pledged to make amends.
“The Shelter Board understands that loss of trust has resulted from these incidents and will work tirelessly to do better by the organization and the community, beginning with requesting a best practices audit and improving community input,” the statement says.
In the meeting with the editorial board, shelter board members mostly reiterated the points in the statement, though they expressed frustration with “misinformation” and being persecuted on social media and said not all “segments” of the population were as angry about Fecht’s action as the most vocal protesters.
They also acknowledged it took longer to make a decision than the public preferred, though board vice president Tammy Maas pointed out the shelter’s board is very large, all-volunteer and ill-prepared for such a crisis.
It’s not entirely clear whether people will accept the board’s decision.
One member, Lauri Julian, resigned from the board following Monday’s vote to retain Fecht.
“I cannot support the Board’s decision,” Julian wrote in an emailed statement, “and therefore cannot continue to serve on this Board. I do not condone pepper spray training on a dog, I believe it is contrary to the Shelter’s mission, and as such, the community’s trust has been broken.”
Mayor Marian Orr, who had previously called on Fecht and Illoway to resign, also decried the decision as a half-step. Five other council members agreed.
“I believe that if the board is going to hire a CEO that is charged with taking care of vulnerable animals and our pets with behavior as egregious as this, I stand by the fact that I don’t believe that he’s the right fit for the position,” she said.
Orr also broached the possibility of reevaluating the city’s contract with the organization for animal care and control services given the lack of oversight at the shelter, an independent nonprofit.
Councilman Rocky Case, the city’s nonvoting liaison on the shelter board, was barred from most of Monday’s meeting.
“For hundreds of thousands of dollars to go (from the city) to the shelter and for the city to really have no authority and not be allowed into an executive committee meeting is something we need to take into consideration,” Orr said.
Orr and council members also criticized the board’s handling of the situation in neglecting to hire a private investigator and failing to place Fecht on administrative leave during the inquiry.
Mincer, Maas and fellow board members Jen Hallingbye and Rich Merrill said the board had discussed such actions, but they never came to a vote. They said board members had since considered having an investigator on retainer for the future.
Frustrated community members pushed back after the punishment was announced.
“We will not settle for a 60-day suspension,” said Michele Hodges, a Cheyenne resident protesting the announcement outside the newspaper’s office Tuesday. “We are not going to stop. There is no justification for what Bob Fecht did.”
More than 28,000 people had also signed an online petition calling for everyone involved in the spraying, including Fecht, to be fired and charged with animal abuse as of 8:45 p.m. Tuesday. A city police investigation is expected to be complete this week.