Under fire from federal authorities, the founder of the Wildlife Waystation has decided to step back from actively running the animal rescue center so that a new management team can take over and reorganize the long-troubled facility, officials said Saturday.
Martine Colette, founder and longtime executive director, “will be repositioned” as an advisor and caretaker as part of an effort to rebuild the operation, said Robert H. Lorsch, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who will become chairman of a new board of directors that he is recruiting.
The management changes were disclosed this weekend after the U.S. Department of Agriculture suspended Colette’s license to run the Wildlife Waystation in the Angeles National Forest because of animal regulation violations. The 160-acre facility on Little Tujunga Canyon Road offers refuge to unwanted or abandoned wild and exotic animals.
In a consent decree with the USDA, Colette admitted to nearly 300 regulatory violations in the last several years and agreed to fix within 30 days any that have not been remedied.
Colette’s attorney, David Krantz, said the reorganization was not part of the decree agreement but that Colette recognizes that the 26-year-old nonprofit facility needs to be run by a skilled team of managers who can mend its problems with Los Angeles County, state and federal authorities and turn it into a more sophisticated operation.
“This settlement is part of a whole process of change that’s going on at the way station,” he said. He and Lorsch hope to see a revitalized way station providing training for veterinary schools and running “the ultimate children’s zoo,” he said.
Colette said Saturday she is pleased to see new management taking over. Splitting her time between caring for the animals and running the office has distracted her from fund-raising and staying in compliance with her licenses, she said.
“The way station has always done wonderful things for animals, but business has not been our strong point,” she said. The facility provides shelter to an average of 4,500 animals a year, offering medical care, relocation, and permanent homes to large cats, primates, bears, birds and snakes, among other animals.
Animal protection groups around the country know Colette as a one-woman tour de force on behalf of wildlife. Her facility is considered the largest and longest-standing of its kind in the nation. Over the years, her dedication has drawn the backing of celebrities, including Bruce Willis, Will Smith, Drew Barrymore and Dyan Cannon.
Because county permits have expired and state permits have been revoked, the way station has been barred for many months from taking in new animals in need of homes, medical care or rehabilitation. Despite regulatory compliance problems, the facility is being allowed by authorities to continue caring for 600 animals that otherwise would have to be euthanized, Lorsch said.
Violations cited by the USDA included poorly trained staff members, missing or inadequate health records, a substandard and unsanitary kitchen and badly constructed cages, Krantz said. The USDA could not be reached Saturday for comment.
All but four of the 299 violations have been remedied, Krantz said. “We admitted the allegations, not because they were right or wrong but because of finances. If we admitted the allegations, we could avoid a civil penalty. If the civil penalty was $50,000, that’s $50,000 that would not go toward caring for the animals.”
The four outstanding violations involve substandard cages for chimpanzees and lack of a rodent-control program, Krantz said. He and Lorsch said they plan to have them remedied in 30 to 45 days, at which time they expect the USDA to reinstate the license.
Lorsch, who is a board director of the California Science Center, said he was asked by Colette several months ago to take the reins of the faltering animal center and put it on a new course with a new executive director and board of directors.
“This is the only board of directors I’ve ever seen that puts on overalls after the meeting and cleans out the cages,” he said. “They love this organization, but they have not been capable of ... relationships that are necessary to raise the millions of dollars that are necessary to take this organization to a higher level.”
He said from $5 million to $20 million will be needed in the next three years. Among the projects awaiting funding is a 700,000-gallon water tank that the county is requiring be built before it will reissue an operating permit that expired a year ago.
In April 2000, Colette lost her state Department of Fish and Game permit because she did not meet standards for caging animals. Lorsch said the county and state problems will be addressed after the USDA license is regained.
“I feel that we have been moving forward in a very, very positive direction,” Colette said