Steve Farley, the CEO of the local Humane Society, has been fired and his second in command pushed out in the wake of more than 250 small animals going unaccounted for after being transferred from the San Diego Humane Society in August.
Instead of being adopted out to Tucson-area families, more than 300 pets were sent to a group associated with a reptile farm in Maricopa County that raises turtles and snakes. The fates of more than 250 are still unknown by Humane Society of Southern Arizona officials.
Farley’s firing was announced Thursday morning by Robert Garcia, the attorney who chairs HSSAZ’s board.
Farley was “terminated” and Christian Gonzalez, the chief programs officer at the private Tucson animal shelter who oversaw the transfer, had his resignation accepted, due to their “terribly negligent actions against the Humane Society” and “failure to follow protocols,” Garcia told reporters.
Garcia said that the HSSAZ board of directors will continue the “formal independent investigation” they began last Tuesday, and said the group will “make public a version of the report, and we’ll include as much information as we can” when it is completed.
“With respect to illegalities, that’s something we’re concerned with,” he said, but didn’t provide any details.
The HSSAZ board doesn’t have any information to verify or disprove the suspicions spread among local animal activists that the animals were used as food for snakes, Garcia told reporters.
“We’re doing everything possible to get as much info as we can,” he said.
“We were not able to verify that those animals were actually adopted out, or what happened to them,” the board chair said.
Farley — a frequent political candidate and public artist in addition to his nonprofit executive work —was hired as the CEO of HSSAZ in February 2020. Gonzales spent 12 years with the organization, the HSSAZ website said.
Farley did not respond to the Tucson Sentinel’s request for comment Thursday morning. He put out a press release in the evening, via a Phoenix advertising firm, saying he “will not be available” for interviews and that “I had no involvement in the transportation or placement of these animals from HSSA to Maricopa County, and subsequent allegations have been very disturbing to me.”
Late in the afternoon, Farley was informed by Pima County Supervisor Rex Scott that he is no longer the District 1 representative on the Advisory Committee for the Pima County Animal Care Center.
At issue are hundreds of small animals that the Humane Society of San Diego transferred to the Southern Arizona organization in early August, with the intention of having them adopted out to permanent homes.
Instead, the animals were shipped to a “private family-run group” in Maricopa County, as was first reported by Arizona Public Media, and staff and supporters of the California rescue group weren’t satisfied with the limited information they got about the placement of the animals.
The business associated with that group, the Fertile Turtle, has not responded to the Sentinel’s requests for comment. The business, which has posted snakes for sale at prices of up to $2,000, has deactivated its social media pages since the controversy began.
There were 318 animals sent from San Diego to Tucson, including rats, mice, rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs. The California organization said on August 8 that they undertook the “mass transport — the largest in San Diego Humane Society’s history” — to alleviate pressure on overcrowded shelters.
The small pets had “a new chance at finding loving families,” the San Diego group said in an August 8 press release touting the move.
“HSSAZ has a low inventory of small pets available for adoption and will also work with their local rescue partners to place these deserving pets into homes,” the California animal organization said,” saying they were “so very grateful” for HSSAZ taking the animals “and giving them a second chance in Arizona.”
But soon after, SDHS representatives began asking for information about the adoptions of the animals. Among the animals were 70 rabbits who were microchipped. But the registration data for those chips was not updated, they said.
On Sept. 15, HSSAZ posted online that “All our pocket pets are finding forever homes so quickly! In the last week we adopted out 55 of the remaining small animals from our recent San Diego transport to loving Tucson families….”
Not being provided with much info, SDHS began to push HSSAZ for more, and by September 18 the San Diego group was using attorneys to demand answers:
We are demanding the following:
Full Accountability: We request an accounting of all animals
transferred out of the care of HSSA to an unidentified rescue, including
the animals that were ultimately transferred back to HSSA. This
accounting must include the names and contact information for the rescue
group(s) and associated individuals that received custody or possession
of any of the animals, as well as an identification of the outcome of
every animal with supporting documentation.
End of Baseless
Allegations: HSSA must cease making unsubstantiated claims that the
transfer aimed to alleviate the suffering of the animals in our care and
that they were at risk of euthanasia. There is no basis for these
claims that have been made to HSSA staff, volunteers, Board of Directors
and the public. To the contrary, since 2015, SDHS has ensured that no
healthy or treatable shelter animal in San Diego County is at risk of
A week later, SDHS said that a response from the Tucson organization “did not meet our expectations in terms of providing the necessary information regarding the outcomes of the small animals in question,” and that the California animal rescue was considering a lawsuit.
Last Friday, the HSSAZ board suspended Farley and Gonzales, after starting a private investigation of the situation on Tuesday.
The Maricopa County organization told the board that 254 of the small animals had been adopted out, HSSAZ said last week. “As people who care deeply about animals, we understand well the significant interest in ensuring the animals are OK,” the group said at the time.
63 animals were returned to the Tucson organization, with 24 of them being returned to California. All but three of the remaining were adopted out in Tucson, HSSAZ said last week.
Thursday, the San Diego group responded to the firing and resignation by calling them “significant steps.”
“We join the HSSA board in recognizing this is not the end of the matter and will continue to pursue definitive proof about the status of the missing animals,” SDHS said. “We appreciate the recognition from HSSA Board Chair Robert Garcia that San Diego Humane Society was not responsible for the actions of HSSA’s former leaders who violated the trust of both communities.”
Farley ‘in the dog house’
While Garcia announced that Farley and Gonzales were no longer HSSAZ employees on Thursday, they both were still listed on the organization’s website — pointing to the abruptness of the move.
Farley served as a state representative and then senator from Tucson, leaving the Legislature because of term limits. He was named Humane Legislator of the Year several times. Known as much for his public art projects — including the tiled photographic murals at the Broadway entrance to Downtown — he pursued unsuccessful primary campaigns for Arizona governor and Tucson mayor.
When he was hired 3.5 years ago, he said he “couldn’t be happier to be in the dog house.”
Gonzales worked for the local Humane Society for 12 years, according to the organization’s website.
As the COO of the group, he was “a driving force over the past 16 months to help find better ways to care for the pets needing temporary shelter,” HSSAZ’s site said.
“His other true passion is spending his time caring for and rescuing reptiles. He has been involved in the rescue and placement of hundreds of reptiles nationwide,” the site said.
Farley and Gonzales were no longer associated with HSSAZ as of Wednesday, a PR representative said. The two were still listed on the organization’s website until following Garcia’s press conference, but were removed by midday Thursday.
A.J. Flick, a former Tucson Citizen reporter who worked on Farley’s political campaigns over the past decade, was brought on last week to work on public relations for HSSAZ. She is no longer with the organization, said Garcia, who declined to comment further. The Caliber Group has been sending out press releases for the board this week.
Flick told the Sentinel that she resigned Tuesday, saying that “I didn’t like what I was seeing there… I was learning things that did not gibe with what was being said.”
Flick, defending Farley and touting his accomplishments at HSSAZ, said that the group’s board quickly cut her out of discussions, and that “there’s been a lot of bad reporting” about the situation.
“Christian (Gonzales) was the only one who arranged this,” she said of accepting the pets from San Diego and quickly sending most of them to Maricopa County. “Steve (Farley) didn’t tell the board because he didn’t know about it until it was done.”
The animals sent north were moved to Humane Society vans almost as soon as they arrived in Tucson, Flick said she was told, due to concerns about the air conditioning in the moving van that took them from California.
“I do believe all those animals are safe,” she said. People “don’t go to shelters to abduct animals to feed them to snakes.”
All of the animals that were returned to HSSAZ were in good shape, she said. “Why would they treat them so well if they were going to feed them to snakes?”
‘We have a lot of work to do’
Garcia said “we can do better” and “we have a lot of work to do” to regain community trust.
The controversy has affected donations to the Humane Society, he said. HSSAZ has a public counterpart in the Pima County Animal Care Center, which has a nonprofit fundraising arm.
“If it costs money to get to the bottom of this, we’re committed to that,” he said.
The brothers who run the Phoenix-area animal adoption operation and Fertile Turtle — Trevor Jones and Colten Jones — have been communicating “to some extent,” but haven’t been fully transparent, Garcia said.
He told reporters that they have obtained some photos of animals, but haven’t been able to determine if they’re of the pets from San Diego, and don’t know the fate of any specific animals.
Garcia said it is “typical to transfer” animals to outside groups, but “we later learned it was not typical to transfer animals in such a large quantity.”
While the Jones brothers told HSSAZ that 254 animals had been placed, they provided “no records of adoption,” he said.
None of the dozens of missing rabbits have been traced, an SDHS spokeswoman told the Sentinel on Thursday.
The HSSAZ board did not learn of the involvement of Colten Jones — the owner of the reptile farm — until Friday, he said. Farley and Gonzales were placed on leave that day, in part to ensure people could provide information without fear of retaliation, the group said Saturday.
The HSSAZ board “discovered that Trevor Jones was merely an individual who routinely facilitated animal adoptions, primarily through personal relationships at his church and in the community and was not a licensed rescue operation,” he said.
Garcia said that the organization’s “passionate staff had nothing to do with” the transfer of the animals to Phoenix, and that there have been “relentless threats to staff’s mental and physical well-being.”
The “poor judgment” of the “former leadership” has “threatened the ongoing work of our organization,” Garcia told reporters.
The San Diego organization said they are “pleased” by Farley and Gonzales no longer being at the head of HSSAZ.
“We hope to gain information about the missing animals as quickly as possible so all parties can move forward in our lifesaving work. SDHS is pleased that the board has held Steve Farley and Christian Gonzalez accountable for their actions. While critical questions still remain, we urge everyone in the animal welfare community to recognize the good work that HSSA has provided for their community and, we expect, will continue to provide. This incident, while deeply disturbing, is not indicative of the work of many of the dedicated staff, volunteers and board members who are there for the animals of the Tucson community,” the group said.
Farley’s press release, sent out by ON Advertising of Phoenix, included him expressing his “deep gratitude and sincere appreciation for the privilege of serving as the CEO of the Humane Society of Southern Arizona for the past three years.”
Farley said that “a significant amount of misinformation has been circulating both from” HSSAZ and SDHS about the animals.
Denying any involvement in the transportation of the small pets, he said “I provided the Board of Directors a 90-page detailed report regarding all communications between SDHS and HSSA but they made the decision to end my employment anyway.”
Farley off PACC advisory group
When Supervisor Scott learned of Farley’s ouster from HSSAZ from a Sentinel reporter Thursday afternoon, he initially declined to comment. Earlier in the week, Scott had rebuffed calls by some animal activists to pull Farley from the Advisory Committee for the county’s public Animal Care Center, noting that the Humane Society CEO had only been suspended pending the internal investigation.
Each county supervisor appoints a district representative to the PACC committee.
Later Thursday afternoon, Scott said he “has no comment” on the move by HSSAZ to fire Farley, but that he “determined that it is preferable that Mr. Farley no longer serve” as the district’s representative on the advisory group.
Scott, who represents the Northwest Side, including Oro Valley and Marana, said he “thanks Mr. Farley for his service to the county, his many years representing Southern Arizona in the Arizona Legislature and his deserved reputation as an advocate for animals and their well-being. “