Wildcat Sanctuary restructures after fund abuse

Bengal tigers
These Bengal tigers are residents of the Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minn. Residents here are animals that were kept as sideshows or even pets and rescued either by owner surrender or law enforcement action.
Tom Weber / MPR News, file

The Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minn. has agreed to restructure its operations and finances following an investigation into the executive director's misuse of funds, although she remains at the head of the organization.

The agreement with Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson was filed in Ramsey County District Court on Tuesday. Swanson's office began its investigation of the sanctuary, which houses over 100 large cats like lions and cougars on about 40 acres of land, late last year.

State investigators confirmed that founder and executive director Tammy Thies spent the group's funds on personal items like underwear, makeup, movies and hair removal products, as well as books like "Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea" and "My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands." Thies also admitted to investigators that she used the group's funds to pay $550 of her personal property taxes, which she has since repaid.

Photos: Inside the Wildcat Sanctuary

Investigators also found that the group had paid for electricity and at least $3,200 of propane at Thies' home without board approval, built a dog run on her property and paid for maintenance on her private vehicle. Thies also acknowledged using the organization's PayPal account to pay for her husband's $210 skydiving lessons, which she said she paid back, although investigators found no written record of repayment.

The Office of the Attorney General found that there were few guidelines governing how the organization spent money. It also found sloppy and incomplete reporting and bookkeeping.

The organization's governance structure was also called into question. Thies played a dual role as a board member and executive director from the nonprofit's founding in 1999 to March 2013. In a meeting in September 2009, Thies called the meeting to order, as well as made or seconded every motion that was introduced.

Staff told the investigators of an earlier report on the organization by the Dorsey & Whitney law firm that "Tammy openly pronounces that she is untouchable and she can do whatever she wants as Executive Director."

The organization has also been roiled by turnover of staff and board members. Thies was briefly placed on paid administrative leave by the board after an outside report found last year that she had misused funds. When the board voted 6-3 to reinstate her as executive director in October 2013, three board members resigned, according to the report.

In the agreement with the attorney general's office, the Wildcat Sanctuary agrees to reevaluate relationships with all employees and contractors, add new board members and evaluate the executive director's role in the organization.

The group is also required to create financial guidelines to protect donor money and work with an independent accountant to evaluate recordkeeping practices. Thies is required to pay back any money that was misused.

The group acknowledged the agreement with the attorney general's office in a statement to reporters, and said that they've already taken some steps to improve the nonprofit's finances. A spokesperson said neither the executive director nor any board members were available to comment on the agreement.

In a statement sent to supporters, board chair Gail Plewacki outlined some of the report's findings and assured donors that the wellbeing of the cats has always been the organization's priority.

"While the Board of Directors does not agree with many of the findings by the Attorney General, we will be the first to admit we have a lot of improvements to make and are therefore agreeable to all of the terms for improvement set by the [Attorney General]," Plewacki wrote. She did not respond to a request for comment.

In a post Tuesday on the Wildcat Sanctuary's website, Thies said some items like lip gloss that she purchased with the group's funds "may have appeared to have been personal items, but were actually for business use."

"As we strived to be the best at animal care, our operations quickly outpaced the business infrastructure," Thies wrote. "It left us without adequate policies or dedicated staff to manage administration. We are not alone in these challenges, many in the animal rescue field have faced similar scenarios."

The Wildcat Sanctuary's 2011 annual report, the most recent posted on their website, notes that the group received $541,640 in contributions that year. As of 2011, the sanctuary included eight Bengal tigers, three African lions, 18 bobcats and 47 domestic cats. In total, there were 126 animals on the grounds.

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