NEW PORT RICHEY — SPCA Suncoast's board of directors has fired executive director Martha Murray, a decision that she says left her feeling "totally blindsided."
Murray, 52, held the position for more than two years and presided over major renovations and a cleanup at the Congress Street animal shelter. She had been the public face of the group, appearing on a weekly pet-of-the-week television spot with the shelter's animals.
Murray said that the five directors, when firing her last week, said only that the group is going in a "new direction."
"I feel like I just gave my heart and soul for three years," she said, "and all of a sudden, out of the blue, I'm in a nightmare.
"Yeah, my feelings are hurt. I worked my rear end off."
The board of directors released a written statement that confirmed Murray "is no longer executive director," but declined to go into further details. The board has named Gail Armstrong as the agency's interim executive director.
The nonprofit agency, which cares for stray and abused animals in west Pasco, has had money problems in recent years.
Last year, through a combination of layoffs and attrition, SPCA Suncoast slashed its work force to seven from 22. Murray said then that the agency was still losing money every month.
The agency also lost its animal control contracts with the cities of New Port Richey and Port Richey after asking for more money. New Port Richey officials said SPCA Suncoast wasn't responding quickly enough to calls from citizens.
In the 2007 fiscal year, SPCA Suncoast ran a deficit of nearly $111,000, which it covered with assets worth about $687,100, according to the group's tax returns.
Murray, who said she inherited the financial problems, said Tuesday that the agency has more than $500,000 in the bank, thanks to a large bequest that came in last year as well as a sharp increase in the adoption rates.
Two weeks ago, she said, SPCA Suncoast made $2,400 in one day on adoptions, the highest in the group's history.
She attributes the higher number of adoptions in large part to the spruced-up shelter. She said she helped to clean up the kennels, mow the grass and put up decorative fencing.
Murray, who said she made about $31,000 a year, said directors offered her a "lateral move" as development director in late February. She said she rejected that move because it would have take her away from the daily operations of caring for the animals.
Murray and her husband, Mike, were in the news in 1996 when they adopted a pit bullterrier named Baby Iris, whose former owner had nearly bludgeoned the pup to death with a baseball bat.
The highly publicized case was one of the first in Florida in which someone went to jail for animal abuse.
Murray, a former science teacher, took Baby Iris to schools and began volunteering with SPCA in Pinellas County, where she lived then.
"Baby changed my life," she said.
She started doing the pet-of-the-week spots on television news and decided to feature animals from each of the area shelters.
When she went to SPCA Suncoast's Congress Street shelter for the first time, she said, "I was horrified."
She said the shelter was so "filthy" then that she started volunteering to help clean it up. In June 2006, she joined the board of directors and then got a job at the shelter as an assistant to the executive director.
Four months later, she was hired as executive director.
Murray, who with her husband leases a home in Brooksville but is planning to move to Oldsmar, has eight dogs that she's adopted through shelters. Baby Iris died last year.
She said she has hired a lawyer to look into her dismissal.
"I want my shelter back," she said.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.