Led Michigan Humane recovery post-David Wills
TUCSON, Arizona––Gary Tiscornia, 75, died on October 14, 2021 in Tucson, Arizona, his home for much of his childhood, his university and early professional years, and in retirement after 41 years of leading or helping to lead the Humane Society of Tucson, the Michigan Humane Society, the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators [now called the Association for Animal Welfare Advancement], and the SPCA of Monterey County, California.
“He was one of the good guys,” emailed Warren Cox, a founder of the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators and an animal welfare administrator himself from 1952 to 2012, now living in retirement in Frisco, Texas.
Recalled a Legacy.com obituary, “Gary was an exemplary leader, known for being fair, pragmatic, forward-thinking, unflappable in a crisis, and ethical to a fault.”
Made many foes as well as friends
But responded Showing Animals Respect & Kindness [SHARK] founder Steve Hindi, from his perspective in more than 30 years of animal rights campaigning, “@#$% him and his ghost.”
Hindi was characteristically more blunt than most of the many other people and organizations who clashed with Tiscornia over the years.
Frustrated with Tiscornia over many of the same issues as Hindi, especially pertaining to rodeo, was Action for Animals founder Eric Mills.
The Best Friends Animal Society conflicted with Tiscornia in early 2005 to the point of withdrawing temporarily from the Asilomar Accords agreement on shelter record-keeping and terminology that Tiscornia had helped to broker between the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators and Maddie’s Fund.
Staff revolts & David Wills
Tiscornia at both the Michigan Humane Society and at the SPCA of Monterey County encountered staff revolts from personnel who found his approaches to animal rights and no-kill issues too conservative, though compared to the norms for the humane field when he became involved, he might have been considered––like Warren Cox––a flaming radical.
Most memorably, however, Tiscornia clashed with David Wills, executive director of the Michigan Humane Society from 1979 to 1989. Wills was on September 22, 2020 formally sentenced to serve life in federal prison, after his conviction on October 8, 2019 on ten felony counts pertaining to sustained molestation of a minor female, beginning when she was nine years old.
Had other Michigan Humane Society personnel come forward in 1989-1990 with what they knew then, Wills might have drawn a long prison term 30 years earlier.
Son of industrialist mayor & socialite
The only child of Waldo and Amelia Tiscornia, born on April 13, 1946, Gary Tiscornia was hospitalized at least four times for undisclosed reasons, but otherwise enjoyed a privileged upbringing.
Waldo Tiscornia was the vice president of Auto Specialties Manufacturing Co. and longtime mayor of St. Joseph, Michigan; Amelia Tiscornia was prominent in civic and social organizations.
Living mostly in St. Joseph, the family maintained a second home in Tucson.
A portrait of Gary Tiscornia at age five by a Mrs. Millard Rhoads won multiple awards at local and regional art exhibitions in 1951-1952.
Drove a “Jaguar” at age six
Waldo Tiscornia during the summer of 1952 hired Auto Specialties Manufacturing Co. garage supervisor Roland Dansfield to build Gary Tiscornia, then six, a two-thirds-sized replica of his own Jaguar X-K Supersport at the Ace Body Shop in St. Joseph, with upholstery by the McCoy Auto Trim Shop in Benton Harbor.
The half-ton miniature sports car had two forward gears plus reverse, real headlights, and a top speed of about 10 miles per hour.
When unveiled in September 1952, the car made headlines, with photos, around the U.S., but what eventually became of it seems not to have been recorded. It may still be making the rounds of auto shows.
Pitcher & piano player
Young Gary Tiscornia by 1956 was star pitcher for the Benton Bombers of the Peanut League, as the local Little League circuit was known, throwing a two-hitter, striking out 10, and hitting a triple to put the team into first place.
Two years later, in 1958, Gary Tiscornia pitched the Fair Plain Eagles to a Little League championship.
Between baseball seasons, Gary Tiscornia in 1957 helped to raise $45 at the Tucson Country Day School to help buy beds for the community hospital.
Along the way Gary Tiscornia also learned to play piano, performing frequent public recitals and for school events.
Driving his mini-sports car, baseball, and playing the piano were all left behind, however, when Gary Tiscornia discovered sailing. Partnering with grandfather Harry Day and friend Buz Holmes, on “penguin” and “star” class boats, Gary Tiscornia won seven local races at the St. Joseph River Yacht Club in 1959, and 10 more in 1960.
By 1962 the St. Joseph River Yacht Club was offering a “Gary Tiscornia Cup,” but he finished third in competition for that.
According to Gary Tiscornia’s Legacy.com obituary, “His concern for animals began when he was a very young boy caring for his treasured childhood dogs, as well as wayward gophers and chipmunks in his backyard.”
But humane work was not at the time a career path.
Humane Society of Tucson
Again according to Legacy.com, Gary Tiscornia “received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Arizona,” in Tucson, “and his Juris Doctor from Thomas M. Cooley Law School,” in Lansing, Michigan.
“During his studies,” Legacy.com said, “he also cared for and trained his four beloved pet hounds.
“While practicing as a corporate lawyer,” Legacy.com added, Gary Tiscornia “was asked to serve on the board of directors of the Humane Society of Tucson, where he contributed hundreds of hours of pro bono work. There,” after a failed first marriage that produced two children, Gary Tiscornia “met his future wife Colleen, who shared his deep concern for the welfare of animals.”
They married in 1983.
Clashed with Wills at Michigan Humane
Also in 1983, a year after becoming executive director of the Michigan Humane Society, David Wills hired Gary Tiscornia to become the Michigan Humane Society director of corporate affairs. Wills would live to regret that hiring.
Observing quite a lot in Wills’ conduct that disturbed him, including alleged drug abuse, sexual harassment of female staff and volunteers, and embezzling, Gary Tiscornia resigned from his position at the Michigan Humane Society in February 1989.
Remembering with admiration that his father as St. Joseph mayor had stood up to an attempted organized crime shakedown, Gary Tiscornia returned to the Michigan Humane Society by board invitation as Wills’ successor on June 19, 1989, at the same board meeting that accepted Wills’ resignation after funds were confirmed to be missing from the Michigan Humane Society accounts.
Former Michigan Humane Society bookkeeper Denise Hopkins was convicted of embezzling $65,000; up to $1.6 million was never accounted for. Insurance covered $50,000 of the loss, Gary Tiscornia said.
Wills “left driving a 944 Porsche”
Wills “left driving a 944 Porsche,” Gary Tiscornia told ANIMALS 24-7, a vehicle that Wills’ Michigan Humane Society salary alone would probably not have allowed him to buy, but was not criminally charged, apparently because Michigan Humane Society staff who might have been implicated in serious misconduct themselves refused to testify against him.
Wills was, however, later successfully sued for non-repayment of loans borrowed in connection with starting the short-lived National Society for Animal Protection, which Wills abandoned when hired as vice president for investigations by the Humane Society of the U.S [HSUS].
Brought to a semblance of justice by the combination of extensive exposure by ANIMALS 24-7 with a civil lawsuit brought by Kitty Block, then an HSUS staff attorney and now HSUS president, Wills was fired by HSUS in 1995 and pleaded guilty in June 1999 to embezzling from HSUS.
Gary Tiscornia meanwhile restored donor confidence in the Michigan Humane Society by originating the “Adopt-a-thon” concept, soon taken national and international by the North Shore Animal League America; starting a fundraising telethon; and helping to strengthen the Michigan anti-cruelty laws.
Gary Tiscornia may have first demonstrated humane leadership at the national level after a June 11, 1993 United States Supreme Court verdict overturned a ban on animal sacrifice imposed in 1987 by the city of Hialeah, Florida.
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that although governments do have the authority to enforce prohibitions on cruelty, the keeping of livestock, and violations of zoning, a set of six ordinances enacted in Hialeah were unconstitutional because they were adopted in specific response to the intention of the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye to build a temple, and were drafted in such a manner as to avoid affecting any other group or activity.
Read the whole verdict before responding
Much of the animal advocacy community responded with mixed dismay and fury, but Gary Tiscornia––and, separately, then-Rutgers University animal rights attorney Gary Francione––read the whole U.S. Supreme Court verdict before responding.
“We are concerned,” said Gary Tiscornia, “that this ruling may encourage people to cruelly kill animals in the name of religion. However, we are pleased that the concurring opinion of Justice Blackmun joined by Justice O’Connor seems to clearly indicate that this decision does not preclude the prosecution of these types of cases under existing general state animal cruelty laws in Florida, Michigan, and elsewhere.”
Francione issued a much longer, more detailed response, making the same points.
Tiscornia did not promise what he could not deliver
The parallel interpretations by Gary Tiscornia and Gary Francione, a self-professed animal rights radical, did not quell covert allegations from some Michigan Humane Society staff that Tiscornia was undoing progress made under Wills toward “animal rights” and “no-kill” goals.
Reality was that Wills had often taken popular positions in public statements, and undertook expansive projects before raising the funds to pay for them.
Promising nothing he could not deliver, Gary Tiscornia came under fierce criticism for failing to attract enough veterinary help to keep the in-house dog and cat sterilization clinics at all three Michigan Humane shelters running without interruption, and for endorsing sharpshooting as a response to over-abundant deer in some Detroit suburbs.
“Like shooting my Chevy”
Critics of Gary Tiscornia’s reluctant acceptance of sharpshooting overlooked that Wills was a hunter, while Tiscornia frequently infuriated hunters.
In September 1991, for example, after hunters complained that their hounds were being “stolen,” Gary Tiscornia pointed out that Michigan Humane every fall received an influx of lost and abandoned hunting dogs, many of them obviously dumped rather than strayed while in the field.
Gary Tiscornia in September 1996 endorsed a Michigan state ballot measure that would have banned tracking bears with dogs and shooting bears over bait piles.
“How sporting is it to track bears from the comfort or a warm truck and a thermos of coffee until you know the dogs have stopped?” Gary Tiscornia asked. “It’s like walking out in the parking lot and shooting my Chevy.”
Longtime Michigan Humane Society director of legislative affairs Eileen Liska-Stronczer, deceased in 2017, lobbied unsuccessfully in August 2014 for senior staff member David Williams to succeed Cal Morgan as president, after a 14-year tenure, by mentioning that Williams “was the person who stood up to Gary Tiscornia’s order to not move animals around between shelters to give them extra opportunities to be adopted, for the lame reason that it would spread illness, and went ahead and did it anyway.”
While moving animals around among shelters to give them extra adoption opportunities is now standard practice, hundreds of disease outbreaks occurring in shelters as result of animal movements without adequate precautions have largely vindicated Tiscornia’s concern.
Most notoriously, about 1,000 of the dogs and cats in custody of the Lied Animal Shelter in Las Vegas, Nevada, were euthanized in February 2007 due to outbreaks of parvovirus and distemper among the holding kennels for incoming dogs, and panleukopenia among the incoming cats, along with a bacterial infection never previously found in shelters that caused a fatal hemorrhagic pneumonia.
Gary Tiscornia resigned from the Michigan Humane Society for the second time on June 16, 2000, after 18 years as an MHS employee and eleven years as executive director.
The SPCA of Monterey County hired Gary Tiscornia soon afterward.
Gary Tiscornia’s first two years in Monterey were relatively uneventful, but Monterey County Herald reporter Cristina Medina brought him under fire in May 2002 by erroneously reporting that “The SPCA kills dogs by injecting them with a mixture of sodium pentobarbital mixed with anti-freeze,” and then refusing to correct the mistake––which ANIMALS 24-7, upon seeing the article, immediately pointed out to Medina.
What Gary Tiscornia actually explained to Medina was, “The premixed version of the brand of euthanasia drug we use contains a small amount of propylene glycol, an ingredient in antifreeze. It also contains other ingredients such as denatured alcohol, none of which are active ingredients.
“The article in the Herald,” Tiscornia added, “can be read in a way that would infer that we at the SPCA add to or adulterate the euthanasia drug we use with antifreeze, which is not the case.”
An 11-year Society of Animal Welfare Administrators [SAWA] board member and two-year president, Gary Tiscornia and fellow members regarded the 2005 adoption of the Asilomar Accords, supposedly standardizing how shelter animals are defined and categorized, as “a landmark achievement in the animal welfare industry.”
The supposed goal of the Asilomar Accords, from the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators’ perspective, was to reduce the pressure on open-admission animal control shelters and humane societies to “save them all” by separately tracking incoming animals as “healthy,” “treatable/rehabilitatable,” “treatable/manageable,” and “unhealthy/untreatable,” also separating “owner/guardian requested euthanasia” from euthanasia for other reasons.
The outcome, however, has been that the Best Friends Animal Society, Maddie’s Fund, and the American SPCA, among others, have used data gathered from shelters using the Asilomar Accords reporting formats to popularize a simplistic definition of “no-kill” which allows shelters to call themselves “no-kill” if they have a “live release rate” of more than 90%.
Turning away animals was never the goal
Among the quick, easy ways for an open admission shelter to do this is to find ways to obstruct or prevent receipt of animals in the “unhealthy/untreatable” category, especially dangerous dogs and feral cats, and/or to re-classify animals who formerly would have been considered “unhealthy/untreatable” for behavioral reasons as candidates for adoption.
Among the 52 humans known to have been killed by U.S. shelter dogs, 48 have been killed since the introduction of the Asilomar Accords. Of the 81 shelter dogs who participated in those killings, 77 were rehomed since the introduction of the Asilomar Accords.
Of those 77 dogs, 54 (70%) were pit bulls, five were Presa Canarios or bull mastiffs, and four were Rottweilers. Only one, a golden retriever, would likely have been considered an adoption prospect before the Asilomar Accords put a premium on rehoming every dog regardless of risk.
“Thank you, Paris Hilton”
Tiscornia warned in 2012, however, that U.S. animal shelters were becoming overcrowded and overrun by snappish and dangerous dogs.
“Thank you, Paris Hilton and Beverly Hills Chihuahua” Tiscornia told Monterey Herald staff writer Kevin Howe. “Any dog who appears in movies or social media, everybody wants to go out and buy one. They’re not thinking further than image or vanity. When they see what the temperament is, they say, ‘I didn’t want that,’ and bring it to us.”
Pit bull buyers “buy them for macho,” Tiscornia said. “They can’t carry a gun, so here’s a silver bullet on a leash.”
Tiscornia returned to that topic in 2011, seeking the arrest of a man named Damian Maldonado who allegedly impersonated a veterinarian while cropping the ears of three pit bull puppies and a Doberman in Soledad and Salinas. Despite a $5,000 reward offered by the SPCA of Monterey Count and the Santa Cruz SPCA for information leading to a successful arrest and conviction, available information indicates that Maldonado was never caught.
Hoarding & abandonments
Most of Gary Tiscornia’s public conflicts in Monterey were with alleged animal hoarders, including several who hoarded dogs, cats, birds, other small mammals, reptiles, and hoofed animals in the name of no-kill rescue.
Gary Tiscornia in 2008-2009 coped with an influx of horses following the recession of 2008.
Before the recession, Gary Tiscornia told Leslie Griffy of the Salinas Californian, the Monterey County SPCA took in about five horses per year, but received 28 horses in 2008 and 26 in 2009.
“There are responsible owners who can’t afford to care for them and bring them in,” Gary Tiscornia said. “We are also seeing people who back up their trailers to someone else’s property in the middle of the night and abandon their horses.”
Circuses & cockfights
Gary Tiscornia in 2008 sought passage of an anti-circus ordinance in Monterey County, to exclude performances for entities which had “a record of egregious animal abuse under the [federal] Animal Welfare Act,” or had “employees with criminal histories of animal abuse,” explained Monterey Herald staff writer Dennis Taylor.
Also included, Taylor said, were “provisions to assure public safety” and to “help protect Monterey County from liability stemming from an exotic animal attack lawsuit.”
But Gary Tiscornia conspicuously said and did nothing visible about the prevalence of illegal cockfighting, especially in the Salinas portion of Monterey County.
Cockfighting, a Monterey County Civil Grand Jury found in 2019, three years after Gary Tiscornia retired, appears to have been protected for decades at the administrative level of county government.
Therefore, Gary Tiscornia might have accomplished little to stop cockfighting, even if he had spoken out.
California Rodeo Salinas
But Gary Tiscornia did not speak out. Neither did Gary Tiscornia speak out forcefully about alleged abuses at the California Rodeo, held each August in Salinas since 1911.
Gary Tiscornia, to be fair, was hardly alone in ignoring the California Rodeo.
The Monterey County SPCA, founded in 1905, calls itself “The Heart of Animal Rescue and Protection.”
The Monterey County SPCA was in town and active for five years before the California Rodeo existed, though other rodeos had been held locally since the late eighteenth century.
Despite the Monterey County SPCA having nominal seniority over the California Rodeo, ANIMALS 24-7 has discovered no record of the Monterey County SPCA ever prosecuting, or even attempting to prosecute, California Rodeo participants for anything.
Rodeo abuses documented for decades
But California Rodeo abuses have been thoroughly documented for decades.
Action for Animals founder Eric Mills tallied 16 fatal injuries to animals occurring at the California Rodeo in the 12 years 1983-1995.
SHARK founder Steve Hindi videotaped three calves suffering broken legs at the California Rodeo in 2009.
Gary Tiscornia in August 2012 told Monterey Herald staff writer Dennis Taylor, Taylor wrote, that “Under California law, animal injuries during rodeos are viewed as accidents.
Breakdowns are part of the event,” Taylor paraphrased. “They are not viewed legally as cruelty to animals.”
“Any time you mix money with animals, animals are going to lose, Tiscornia told Taylor. “It’s a universal truth; it’s economics. Horses are bought to be used.”
Glitter spray was not gold
Hindi in August 2013 hoped he had obtained video that Gary Tiscornia and the Monterey County SPCA could not ignore, showing someone applying a glittery hair spray to a bull in a trailer before a performance.
ANIMALS 24-7 cautioned Hindi that the dark video images would not be enough to get an indictment or prosecution, not least because the “hairdresser” was not clearly identified, and because while Hindi contended the bull was sprayed on the face, all the video demonstrably showed was a bull being sprayed exactly as the “hairdresser” might have sprayed herself.
On August 9, 2013, Gary Tiscornia advised Hindi that, “Our investigation has been completed regarding the allegations of material sprayed and glitter thrown on the face and into the eyes of a bull at the California Rodeo and, after examining video you and others provided, contemporaneous still photographs, and reports of eye witnesses based on interviews by our humane officers, we find no substantive evidence to support the allegations.”
“Glitter on bulls’ backs is not a criminal offense”
Responded Hindi, “I would like to be very clear on the reason for your refusal to move this case forward. Are you claiming that the bulls were not sprayed and glittered? Or are you claiming that the spraying and glittering would not constitute abuse?”
Replied Gary Tiscornia, “Let me also be very clear. Neither I nor our SPCA humane officers make claims without factual basis. Your assertions that bulls were sprayed in the face and eyes with a substance and had glitter thrown in their face and eyes is not substantiated by your own video nor, as I stated before, contemporaneous still photographs, and reports of eye witnesses based on interviews by our humane officers. Glitter on the bulls’ backs is not a criminal offense under California Code.”
Fumed Hindi, “This is one of the elements needed for a ‘rodeo town,’ that is, the capitulation of local supposed humane organizations. I consider the Monterey SPCA to be animal betrayers.”
Retiring upon reaching age 70 in 2016, Gary Tiscornia reviewed his tenure in a Monterey Herald guest column.
“Most importantly, there are many more pets than there are homes available,” Gary Tiscornia began. “In addition, SPCA pets must compete for homes with pets imported by local rescue groups from out of the county. This, combined with the grave medical or potentially dangerous behavioral issues of some unwanted pets, and the lack of value placed on the lives of animals by many people, can result in euthanasia.
“Our euthanasia rate could be reduced to zero,” Tiscornia said, “if, like rescue groups, we chose to accept only the most adoptable pets or, like some shelters, engage in the wholesale shipping of pets to hoarders masquerading as rescue organizations.
“The SPCA accepts without exception the sick, injured, elderly, dying, aggressive as well as the healthy,” Tiscornia continued. “Owners bring us pets who are ill, injured, behaviorally damaged and, too often, those nearing the end of life. Other pets are strays or have been abandoned by owners. We see them in all shapes, sizes, ages and degrees of health. We are the only organization in Monterey County that never turns an animal away.
“Euthanasia is always the last and most heartbreaking option”
“We are very proud of the fact that we haven’t euthanized a healthy pet in seven years,” Gary Tiscornia said. “In fact, we routinely provide the care that makes a sick or injured pet healthy and a behaviorally damaged pet sound,” along with sterilizing more than 3,000 dogs and cats per year at an in-house veterinary clinic.
“Despite our best efforts,” Gary Tiscornia emphasized, “there are pets we cannot place for adoption. Adopters are not looking for an aggressive pet who is likely to bite someone or an elderly pet with multiple chronic medical conditions that require regular and costly veterinary visits.
“We have many pets up for adoption for months before they find a home,” Gary Tiscornia said, “and we drastically reduce or even waive adoption fees to help adopters of these pets.
Euthanasia is always the last and most heartbreaking option.”
Retiring back to Tucson. Gary and Colleen Tiscornia adopted a dog named Ruby from the organization now called SPCA Monterey County on a return visit a week before Gary’s death.
Three days before Gary Tiscornia died, his Legacy.com obituary mentioned, “Gary’s best dog friend Briscoe died.”
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