Donna Whitaker steps down after nearly decade at humane society helm

  • Hawaii Island Humane Society Executive Director Donna Whitaker, left, speaks before the County Council Committee on Public Safety and Mass Transit along with veterinarian Kristina Henricks and accountant Henry Chapman in March 2017. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — The search is on for a new executive director for the Hawaii Island Humane Society following Donna Whitaker’s departure from the position last month.

Whitaker, who headed the humane society for nearly a decade, “stepped down” from the executive director position effective Nov. 19, Hawaii Island Humane Society (HIHS) Board of Directors Chairman Adam Atwood confirmed via email.

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“Donna Whitaker has served the animal community on Hawaii Island for many years and we appreciate Donna’s contributions and thank her for her commitment to the Hawaii Island Humane Society’s mission to prevent cruelty to animals, eliminate pet overpopulation and to enhance the bond between humans and animals. We wish her all the best in her future endeavors,” Atwood said in a prepared statement.

The board has initiated a search for a new executive director. In the interim, Atwood is filling in as executive director on a temporary basis until a new executive director is hired, the statement said.

Atwood did not address further questions, including what prompted Whitaker’s leaving the organization.

But, a post on the Hawaii Island Humane Society website wishing aloha to Whitaker said she retired after nine years of leading the organization. It also noted that “a successor is expected to be selected in the coming months.”

Whitaker, who was unable to be reached Tuesday afternoon, took the top spot at the Hawaii Island Humane Society in January 2009, after being selected by the society’s board of directors in December 2008. Her goals, as told to West Hawaii Today shortly after assuming the position, were to improve the Hawaii Island Humane Society’s shelters, image and online presence.

She led the society through an economic downturn and as it faced criticism over euthanasia rates at island shelters in 2015, as well as the suspension of adoptions by the rescue group Big Island Dog Rescue until it would sign a memorandum of agreement spelling out legal responsibilities of its operation that resulted in litigation.

But, she also saw a lot of positive happen during her tenure.

That includes the underway Animal Community Center on 12 acres off Mamalahoa Highway in Keauhou Mauka. Construction of the project, previously estimated to cost $12 million, is ongoing, but in October, the society said it was hopeful to move animals from the Kona shelter to the facility by next summer.

The arrival this year of the Mobile Spay &Neuter Waggin’, which is capable of bringing free, high-quality spay and neuter surgery to remote areas of the island, was also another highlight.

While Whitaker may no longer be at the helm, the organization said no disruption in services including spay and neuter, animal control and adoptions at the Keaau, Waimea and Kona shelters is expected.

In fiscal 2016-17, the Hawaii Island Humane Society took in 12,973 animals, according to its 2016-17 annual report, the most recent available. That year, the shelter said it reunited almost a thousand animals with their owners and adopted out more 3,600, in addition to sending 249 animals to mainland “rescue partners.” The report said no “adoptable” animals were euthanized.

The humane society is also contracted by Hawaii County for animal-control services. In 2017, the humane society was paid $2 million for its service.

Lawsuit dismissed

Also Tuesday, the Hawaii Island Humane Society announced a lawsuit filed against the organization by Big Island Dog Rescue/Second Chance Foundation (BIDR) more than two years had been voluntarily dismissed.

When contacted, Atwood referred the newspaper to a post on the humane society’s Facebook.

“Six of the nine claims filed by Big Island Dog Rescue were summarily dismissed by the Court as a matter of law, and before HIHS could file a motion seeking the dismissal of the other three, Big Island Dog Rescue agreed to dismiss them voluntarily,” the post read. It also noted no monetary payments were made to Big Island Dog Rescue in the litigation.

The exact details of the dismissal were unavailable for perusal Tuesday because the case was located at the Hilo Courthouse, and had to be transferred to Kealakekua for viewing.

HIHS’ attorney in the matter, Peter W. Olson, confirmed the information contained in the Facebook post, adding that Big Island Dog Rescue’s attorney had approached him seeking the voluntary dismissal.

BIDR Attorney Paul J. Sulla, reached Tuesday, said an appeal was in the plans. Among the items that could be appealed, he said, were decisions made in the case, including most recently, a September order denying BIDR’s motion for leave to file a second amended complaint.

“It’s not over at all,” Sulla said. “This lawsuit was just the beginning of the battle.”

The lawsuit was filed by Big Island Dog Rescue in 2016 claiming the society stole credit for the air shipment of dogs off-island, and that several individuals associated with the society conspired to smear the rescue organization.

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The lawsuit is based on a series of emails — allegedly from a humane society board member, the executive director and others — discussing how to discredit Big Island Dog Rescue and turn public opinion against them. The society has said the emails were fabricated.

The matter had been set for trial in April.