Companion Animal Alliance names new director, sues former director

    The Companion Animal Alliance of Baton Rouge has named a new executive director, as it moves to end months of controversy and litigation with its short-lived former executive director, Desiree Bender.

    At a meeting with staff this morning, CAABR board chair Christel Slaughter announced Jillian Sergio, who currently manages the Routt County Animal Shelter in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, will return to CAABR to take over as top administrator.

    Sergio served as CAABR outreach team leader from 2015-2018 and is credited with improving the shelter’s save rate, which is approximately 70%, and increasing the number of animal fosters. The open access shelter takes in more than 8,000 animals a year.

    Sergio’s hiring comes as the agency is embroiled in a lawsuit with Bender, who, for months, has targeted the shelter and its administrators on social media, accusing them of being cold-blooded, animal killers.

    Bender ran the agency for just five months in 2018 before being asked to resign by the board last October for incompetence, lying to the board, and inappropriate behavior, among other reasons. The board has also accused her of stealing cash, files and medicine from the agency offices, allegations that are under investigation by the Baton Rouge Police Department.

    In the months since, she has targeted the agency and two of its administrators in particular—director of operations Amanda Pumilia and veterinarian Sarah Hicks—on a Facebook page she created, Companion Animal Alliance: Shocking Truths Exposed.

    The suit, filed April 1 in 19th Judicial District Court, seeks a jury trial and unspecified damages, claiming Bender has been involved in a smear campaign to “harass CAABR and defame the petitioners through posts on social media accounts … that are untrue, hold Petitioners in a false light and defame (their) reputation.”

    It is unclear who is representing Bender in the litigation An attorney, who represented her in her termination dispute with the agency, is not defending her in the lawsuit. 

    The developments come as CAABR has received a bit of good news from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which had notified the agency last fall it may need to obtain a Class B license to continue to work with rescue groups and participate in animal transports with organizations that receive payments for transported animals. PETA and various animal welfare advocates had leveled allegations against CAABR, charging it was “wholesaling animals” to other organizations for profit. After almost six months of investigation, the USDA determined CAABR does not need the Class B license.

    At a meeting later today, board members will discuss recent developments and begin laying plans to move forward. The organization was founded in 2010 by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation to run the city-parish shelter and reduce the shelter’s kill rate plans. As it approaches its 10th anniversary, Slaughter says it is appropriate to bring in an outside expert to review best practices and ensure it is moving forward in the right direction.

    (Editor’s Note: This story has been revised from an earlier correction to reflect that Bender’s former attorney is not representing her in this lawsuit.)

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