Animal sanctuary again mired in controversy as board members and loyal volunteers are let go; all blame the director
(Part one of a two-part investigative series)
By Eddie Rivera, News Editor
The oft-lauded, but more recently oft-controversial, Wildlife Waystation animal sanctuary in Little Tujunga Canyon is mired in controversy yet again, as board members and numerous volunteers, many of whom had worked at the facility for years, have been fired in the past few months.
According to reports from volunteers and observers, the fired volunteers and board members had all spoken out or disagreed with the way Waystation founder and CEO Martine Colette maintained either the facility, its animals, its expenses, or its personnel. Colette publicly dismissed the complaints and called the firings merely “a change in policy.”
Volunteers interviewed for this report—many of whom asked not to be identified, fearing reprisal—described a management situation at the Waystation that could only be labeled “a cult of personality.” One recently fired volunteer, who spent more than ten years at the Waystation, agreed with the description and added, “It’s founders syndrome.”
Founder’s syndrome is a familiar one to many groups or organizations where one or more founders exercise disproportionate power and influence over a project or company they have created, leading to a wide range of problems for both the organization and those involved in it.
Most of the fired volunteers echoed staff member Michael Rapp’s concerns.
As Rapp wrote in an online posting last month, “As many of you know, I worked for The Wildlife Waystation for nearly seven years, the last four of which I was their head animal trainer, and managed the volunteer animal handling program. It was a place, and a job that I loved very much. While I still love ‘the place’ I have to publicly state that I do not support the way that it is run, and the way the animals are cared for. In my opinion, the management is corrupt, and incapable of looking past their own egos. I don’t believe they have the animals well being as a priority.”
Rapp told The Foothill Record, “It was just the general attitude of how they treat their employees, the type of employees who were hired, especially the ones who are left now.”
Rapp, who was a paid employee, said there was “a lot of animosity from the staff toward the volunteers, which I didn’t understand.” When he would bring up volunteers’ concerns about this to Colette, he said, Colette would “have the same attitude, that the volunteers were not intelligent people, and that they had no place, but it was always the volunteers who would point out problems since they were the ones who worked with the animals every day.”
Former Waystation board member Peggy Summers, who was fired by Colette in February of this year, said in a May letter to former volunteers, “The Waystation has lost sight of its mission and goals.”
Said one longtime, now-fired, volunteer and trainer, “The hands-on experiences the volunteers got was part of what made the place magical for them, truly a one-of-a-kind experience, but for her [Colette], it was just a way to exploit animals and make money for herself.”
Whether labeled “founders’ syndrome” or a “cult of personality”—what sociologist Max Weber defined as a “charismatic authority”—all of the volunteers interviewed for this report agreed that it was an apt description for the ongoing situation at the Waystation. It was for many both a nurturing and an evil totalitarian state.
Martine Diane Colette, born in China in 1939, reportedly to a Belgian diplomat, founded the Wildlife Waystation corporation in April of 1977, after putting $116,000 down and purchasing the property, located in the Angeles National Forest, in 1976. She ran into trouble immediately when, in a personal effort to relax animal-enclosure standards, she ran afoul of California Fish and Wildlife (CFW) authorities after she built cages with no roofs.
Undaunted, the charismatic Colette acquired and “rescued” hundreds of exotic lions, tigers, apes, and other animals, and her wildlife refuge soon became the darling de rigeur charity of Hollywood and its many animal-loving stars and celebrities. Millions of dollars poured in.
But, since the Waystation’s founding, there have been scores of complaints, fines, and suspensions by CFW and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), all directly tied to Colette’s management and leadership of the facility. The facility’s license to operate publicly was suspended in 1997, and the violations have continued to pile up since.
There is a long list of violations and reports against the Waystation, but just a brief sampling is revealing:
Though the Waystation has no breeders’ permit, Colette would, according to Cummins, breed chimpanzees illegally at the facility, with the baby chimps (which she called “oopsies”) proudly displayed at Hollywood events and fundraisers.
From 1994 to 1997, US Fish and Wildlife documented 26 illegal births at the facility. Colette claimed that all animals were neutered, spayed, and separated, but one source close to the Waystation denied this.
In May of 2000, Colette was cited by Arizona’s Department of Game and Fish for illegally transporting a tiger into the state. She was sentenced to probation. The state also denied Colette’s application for a zoo permit in a residential neighborhood. At the time, she had been leading efforts by the Waystation for the possible construction of a zoo, called Wilderness Edge, in that state. The Waystation spent more than $100,000 in that ultimately unsuccessful effort.
More violations were found in June of that year by a nine-agency team including the LA County departments of Health, Public Works, Fire, Building and Safety, Animal Care and Control, Housing and Community Development, and Regional Planning, along with the Regional Water Quality Control Board. Sixteen pages of violations were found in the areas of safety, environmental regulations, illegal housing, and water and septic systems.
“I need to have the opportunity to raise money; we don’t just have it sitting in the bank,” Colette said, at the time.
In 1997, CFW suspended the Waystation’s license because of small, run-down cages, and for the illegal dumping of animal waste in streams. The license has never been renewed.
In April of 2000, after reportedly raiding the facility in Hazmat suits, CFW barred the Waystation from accepting new animals and from giving tours, saying the Waystation is a “roadside disaster.”
In 2002, Colette claimed that the Waystation was in danger of closing if it did not receive new funding, a claim she has made numerous times over the years. But continuous successful fundraising drives have kept the facility operating.
But let’s go back a few years.
In 1990, Dorothy (Dolly) Wellborn Green, a scion to an oil fortune, left the Waystation $2.6 million in a bequest made before her death. Colette immediately asked the board to be “reimbursed for her years of sacrifice” to the Waystation. Until that time, the Waystation, a nonprofit that she started, had been paying Colette’s rent and living expenses, and provided her access to the group’s checkbook.
This new infusion of money changed everything, and this is where the lines between who owns and rents what get blurred. This is also where the story gets more than a little confusing.
The Waystation eventually paid Colette $227,000 in 1992 to reimburse her for the $116,000 she paid as down payment for the 160 acres of land in 1976. The payment included 5% interest. Essentially, Colette owns the land that the animals reside on, and is compensated by lease money.
The Waystation, a nonprofit controlled by a board of directors, owns 22 acres of the approximately 160 total acres. The animals themselves are regulated by CFW and the USDA, who have authority over them, including removal or relocation if necessary, according to a longtime board member.
“They are not Colette’s animals,” says former board member Summers. “She does not own either the Waystation or the animals. Colette greatly oversteps her authority.”
In December, 1993, the Waystation paid Colette an additional $365,000 to cover the mortgage due on the property. Colette continued to accept rent after Waystation paid the down payment and mortgage of $592,000.
In exchange for the payment, the property was to have been turned over to the Waystation at that time, but it was not. Colette continued to be paid rent for a property that was paid for and for which the Waystation owed no mortgage.
The year 1995 saw the first of many mass resignations by members of her board. Six of 14 members resigned, protesting monthly payments to Colette of $6,500 in salary and $4,500 in rent. The board members also questioned why Colette still owned approximately 140 acres of the Waystation’s property.
There also were complaints from the board that Colette used Waystation funds to remodel her bathroom, to add a gun safe to her personal residence, and to buy clothes and jewelry as gifts. Fred Perry, Colette’s executive assistant from 1990 to 1993, told the Los Angeles Times in 1995, “She accuses everyone of having gold fever, but she herself is the one with that.”
Perry provided the receipts to the state attorney general, but there was no apparent follow up.
A report in April of 2000 by CFW stated that two-thirds of the 200 cages inspected were too small, did not have roofs, and were not constructed properly to ensure animals could not escape. It was then that former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan’s daughter, Kathleen Riordan, resigned from the board because of her concerns over animal health issues, and Colette’s management style.
Kathleen Riordan also used the term “founder’s syndrome” in interviews, saying that Colette “believes she is the only person who can run the foundation.” Former board member and longtime volunteer Diana Higashi also told the Los Angeles Times in 2000, “To put it simply, the rules don’t apply for her.” Gail Lippman, a volunteer landscaper for nine years, also added, “Martine is a very difficult person to deal with. She is like a dictator up there. She always felt the rules didn’t apply to her.”
Meanwhile, violations of the Animal Welfare Act continued, and in 2009, the USDA issued a cease-and-desist-order and fined Colette and the Waystation $2,000. Since then there have been at least eight noncompliance citations issued by the USDA.
Violations continue. More board members quit, more volunteers leave or are fired.
Martine Colette responds.