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A leader with a passion for animals, loyal supporters - and an iron grip

Toronto Humane Society volunteer president Tim Trow at the River Street shelter earlier this year.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Jaxson, a 55-kilogram bull mastiff, had never been to Toronto.

So when his owners, Bree Piccinin and Trevor Perkins, decided they wanted to bring him along for a three-hour drive through a snowstorm from their home in London to the Toronto Humane Society, they decided to bring his prong collar.

They were considering making a $500 donation and adopting another dog, and wanted to make sure the animal would be compatible with Jaxson.

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When they got to Toronto that day shortly before last Christmas, they left Jaxson's flat nylon collar in the car and put on his prong collar, just in case anything startled him inside the shelter. A prong collar is comprised of a series of metal prongs that protrude inward and pinch a dog's neck if it strains against a leash.

But soon after they entered the lobby, a large man began yelling at Ms. Piccinin and Mr. Perkins.

Ms. Piccinin, a 22-year-old bank worker who has worked with pit bull rescue groups in London, said that the man asked whether her dog was wearing a prong collar.

"And then he starts shouting, 'I'm the president of the Toronto Humane Society and you have to get out of here!'" she said.

"He continued to yell at us and call us dog abusers and then had some people escort us out of the building," Mr. Perkins, a 28-year-old construction worker, said.

Ian McConachie, a spokesman for the humane society, said that the couple had refused to remove the prong collar when they were asked to do so, and were asked to leave because the society objects to prong collars as anything other than training devices.

"[That type of collar]should not be used every day because it can cause pain to the animal, it's essentially digging into the animal's skin around it's neck," he said.

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Ms. Piccinin said that if the issue had been raised politely, she would have switched it for the nylon one in the car. Instead, she said, the society lost a donation that day, and one of their dogs lost a chance at a home.

These kind of outbursts occur quite often at the society, current and former staffers say.

In interviews with The Globe and Mail, more than 20 current and former employees and volunteers, and visitors described volunteer president Tim Trow as a combative man with a sharp temper whose iron grip on the Toronto Humane Society has hurt the very animals Mr. Trow strives to protect.

They say the situation is made worse by the fact that Mr. Trow, a former provincial civil servant in his early sixties, controls virtually every aspect of the shelter's operations.

He is volunteer president of the society's board of directors and manages the shelter's day-to-day operations, a job typically held by a salaried professional in non-profit organizations.

Unlike many urban humane societies, Toronto's is not affiliated with the city. No level of government directly oversees the shelter's operations.

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Instead, the society is technically controlled by its membership, approximately 1,800 regular citizens who are voting members.

(A request for a membership application can be made through the society's website. The cost of applying is $30 dollars, an applicant must live or work within a 60 km radius of the society, and all new applications must be approved by the board of directors.)

The latest issue of the society's magazine, Animaltalk, indicates that there are 15 board members and they are elected to three-year terms. (The society's by-laws indicate that there should be 16 directors).

In reality, however, Mr. Trow has created an impenetrable circle of power. If they are approved by the board, members receive a form that provides them with the option to sign their vote over by proxy to Mr. Trow, the secretary-treasurer, or a person of their choosing.

Minutes for the 2008 Annual General Meeting show that only 29 members attended to vote in person, and 742 voted by proxy. According to two members who attended, Mr. Trow appeared to hold virtually all of them.

"If you're pleased with the society, the way we treat animals and the way we care for animals then a proxy vote is essentially an endorsement of the society's mandate and position and direction," Mr. McConachie said.

The Toronto Humane Society's membership list is a closely guarded secret.

Six times over 12 days in April, a process server tried to deliver an affidavit, requesting the names and address of the society's members, to Mr. Trow on behalf of a member, Linda MacKinnon. But Mr. Trow has avoided the delivery twice at his home and four times at the offices of the THS.

"My sense is that Tim and his immediate circle want to keep control," said Ms. MacKinnon, a former education superintendent, who has since joined a group of concerned members and former employees called the Association to Reform the Toronto Humane Society.

Having served on the boards of several charities, including the United Way and the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ms. MacKinnon was surprised at the lack of transparency and accountability on the society's board of directors.

Her inquiries regarding the quality of care provided to the shelter's wildlife and the society's legal costs have been met with curt replies.

Mr. McConachie said that the request for the membership list was under review.

Peter Szmidt and his wife, Donna Ross, said they experienced a similar lack of transparency when they dealt with the board, in the first three years of Mr. Trow's tenure as president.

"There was always a great deal of secrecy over how the voting provisions work and if you wanted to put forward a motion, how you would go about doing that," said Mr. Szmidt, a project manager at Imperial Oil and former Olympic swimmer.

Ms. Ross, who was a lead fundraiser for the shelter's annual Paws in the Park event, said their inquiries about how to run for the board of directors were dismissed.

Educated at Trinity College School in Port Hope, and at Osgoode Hall Law School, Mr. Trow a passionate animal-rights advocate who writes letters to world leaders and corporations decrying whaling and the sale of small animals at PetSmart.

An imposing man with pale boyish eyes, he shows a very compassionate side when he talks about animals. He has always lived around them, as he grew up on a farm in North York, and seems nearly moved to tears when he talk about them.

Twice over the last 30 years he campaigned to keep the horse and carriage industry out of Toronto on the basis that it was inhumane. Mr. Trow helped raise money and build the shelter's Cat Sky House, where better air quality and natural light flood into a space where hundreds of cats are kept. He installed plush green dog parks behind the society's River Street facility where shelter animals can run and play. And the shelter's labour-intensive kitten nursery is often lauded as an ambitious and compassionate undertaking.

His dedication has won him a small, but fiercely loyal, cadre of supporters.

"Tim is a bit of dictator, but he's incredible," said Grant Cowan, who has known Mr. Trow for 30 years, and served on the Toronto Humane Society's board for six.

Mr. Cowan said resentment from shelter staff is nothing new. Dealing with unhappy volunteers and employees is just part of the president's job, said Mr. Cowan, who left the board two years ago. (He said he has served on multiple boards, and believes in leaving after six years, before "it gets personal.")

"[Mr. Trow's]mastery of what he's done running the Toronto Humane Society is creating adolescent, childish resentment," Mr. Cowan said.

Still, Mr. Cowan seems to be in the minority. Mr. Trow has alienated dozens of employees, volunteers and adoptive families who accuse him of turning the Toronto Humane Society into a dysfunctional personal fiefdom.

Since he was elected president of the board eight years ago and moved his office into a staff lunchroom, he has worked full-time at the charity, which was formed 122 years ago by a Globe reporter with the co-operation of the mayor, William H. Howard.

"I was starting to have panic attacks," said Gerri Findlay, a shelter supervisor who was fired last year after 19 years at the society.

"I started calling in sick quite a bit because I just couldn't handle going in any more and handling the pressures that [Mr. Trow]put on people and the way the animals were treated and going in and seeing it was breaking my heart."

Mr. Trow's first tenure as president, in 1982, lasted little more than year. It ended after five directors wrote to then-mayor Arthur Eggleton accusing society officers of "fiscal irresponsibility, improper conduct of society business," and implementing policies causing cruelty to animals, and asking for Mr. Trow's resignation. In 1983, the board agreed to an interim takeover by the city and Mr. Trow resigned.

Barry MacKay has been involved with the Toronto Humane Society nearly his entire life.

He recalled in a recent interview that during his four years as a board member and four more as a wildlife co-ordinator in the 1980s, the society "was very much volunteer and member involved and driven. That continued ultimately up until Tim Trow took over."

Mr. MacKay helped elect Mr. Trow, who no longer practises law full-time, in 1982. Mr. MacKay stills feels some regret for his part in bringing Mr. Trow to power.

"The only go-to between the shelter and the board was Tim," said Amy White, a former communications director.

Ms. White quit in 2004 after 10 years at the society. She didn't have another job. She just walked out of meeting with Mr. Trow one day because she didn't approve of the way she felt he micro-managed the shelter.

Mr. Cowan applauded Mr. Trow's successes in lowering the shelter's euthanasia rates.

"If you have put cage on top of cage, as long as the animal's living, isn't that the whole thing? You can't let interior decorating get in the way," he said.

Though he said he worried sometimes about the toll the stress of running the charity took on his friend's health, he said that Mr. Trow has a gift for keeping the board focused on animal welfare.

"We have a couple of people, and Tim, on our board, who no matter how difficult it gets say, 'Okay, let's just cuddle each other and talk about this and remember it's about animals,'" he said.

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About the Author
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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