Volunteers at LA city animal shelters seek shelter

Volunteers at LA city animal shelters seek shelter

  • US News
  • January 1, 2023
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Beverly Mitchell spent long days helping dogs and cats as a volunteer at the Los Angeles animal shelter in Lincoln Heights. With the trust of the staff, Mitchell was even given keys to hospital rooms not accessible to other volunteers so she could check on the animals.

But Mitchell’s three-year service with the city ended when she was fired in 2016. Today, she and the former Animal Welfare Director disagree over the reasons for her dismissal.

The city relies on an army of unpaid volunteers to care for animals—feed and walk them, arrange adoptions, and other chores. But unlike city employees, who are supported by their union, volunteers often have few resources when they are suspended or fired.

Some former volunteers say they were fired after criticizing the department’s treatment of animals, both in emails to staff and on social media. Some described clashes with city employees.

To strengthen their rights, a group of former and current volunteers formed the Animal Services Volunteers Assn. in the fall and hired an attorney to represent her in managing relations with the city.

“We’re trying to unite the volunteers, almost like we’re a union, so we have a voice,” said Claudio Kusnier, a co-founder of the group who recently returned to volunteering after being fired earlier this year was. The department claimed he did not wear a mask at the shelter and gave a news team an unauthorized tour of the shelter, among other violations that Kusnier denies.

The non-profit organization, which Mitchell also joined, is now seeking to reinstate two recently terminated volunteers. Mitchell said she would like to return to the shelter but has not appealed her termination.

More than 700 volunteers went through the volunteer orientation program or worked at the city’s six animal shelters in October, according to the Department of Animal Services.

Carolyn Almos, who oversaw Animal Services’ volunteer program until February, said in an interview earlier this year that the department’s culture isn’t particularly friendly to employees or volunteers.

She said during the same interview that there are rarely meaningful consequences for the “handful of staff who upset volunteers.”

Conflicts between city employees and volunteers in some government-run shelters are not uncommon, according to shelter experts.

But “volunteers didn’t have many rights,” said Dana Keithly, a former volunteer and former employee of the Rancho Cucamonga Animal Care and Adoption Center, who is making a documentary about retaliation against volunteers by shelter operators.

A city report released in October recommended an arbitration process for conflicts between volunteers and staff.

However, Agnes Sibal, a spokeswoman for the department, said that Animal Services has an “internal disciplinary review process that works effectively and the department does not seek to change the process.”

The report also says the department’s director-general decides on appeals filed by fired or suspended volunteers, while Animal Services employees can appeal to the independent Board of Civil Service Commissioners, made up of mayor-appointed officers.

“It’s an important difference and maybe not a fair one for them [volunteer] complainant,” the report reads.

Juan Rivera, the department’s volunteer coordinator, told a Board of Animal Services Commission meeting last month that the number of volunteers with “problems” is small considering how many come through the shelter.

“We have a lot of volunteer support,” Rivera told the commissioners. “We have incredible volunteers who come every day.”

The department declined to make Rivera available for an interview.

Brenda Barnette, a former Animal Services executive, said problems arise with volunteers when they come to shelters believing they have more expertise than the staff.

“They think they know everything,” said Barnette, who left the department last year.

Mitchell, the volunteer who lives in Highland Park, admitted she was probably an “overzealous volunteer.”

“But I never exceeded my position as a volunteer. I felt like I was helping as part of the team,” Mitchell said. She referenced her work during her time at the shelter, which included running a “living room” for dogs — an empty office that had been converted with sofas and chairs — so the animals could get a break from their kennels.

Mitchell believes she was fired for swearing at an employee. The incident happened, she said, because she tried to adopt a dog at the shelter, only to come the next day voluntarily and found he had been euthanized.

Barnette, the former chief executive, said Mitchell was fired because she was “isolating” in the living room and not letting other volunteers or the public into the area.

Mitchell called Barnette’s claims an “utter lie”.

Animal Services declined to provide records of Mitchell’s termination or any other volunteers who were fired, saying that “disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of volunteer privacy and interfere with the functioning of the department’s volunteer program.”

According to the department, about 19 volunteers have been terminated and about 11 suspended in the past five years.

Court filings and emails reviewed by The Times describe some of the firings. A volunteer was fired in 2018 after he was seen “choking” dogs, an Animal Services worker said in testimony in an unrelated lawsuit against the city.

Two women kneel by a pool with a dog.

Cathy Serksnas, left, and Paula Hsien are former volunteers at the LA Animal Shelter.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Porter Ranch resident Cathy Serksnas has volunteered at the city’s West Valley Shelter for more than a decade and says she still doesn’t know why she was fired.

She said she had gained the trust of the top department staff and would take dogs from the shelter on hikes in Aliso Canyon and let them swim in her backyard pool.

She was terminated in 2019. She later learned that shelter staff had accused her and another fired volunteer, Paula Hsien, of calling the shelter vet a “murderer,” which both deny. “That’s a lie,” said Serksnas. “You owe me an apology.”

In more recent cases, some fired volunteers, including Jan Bunker – who worked at the city’s harbor shelter – had spoken to the media about the poor conditions at the city’s six animal shelters.

Deputy City Attorney Steve Houchin wrote in an October letter to Animal Services Volunteers Assn. Attorney James Frieden said that “the department does not retaliate against its volunteers for exercising their First Amendment rights or take any other adverse action, including for speaking to the media as private individuals.”

Houchin added that Animal Services is updating its volunteer handbook to specify that volunteers can speak to the media as individuals, but must obtain permission if they wish to speak on behalf of the department.

Houchin also outlined instances where volunteers have been terminated or suspended.

“This has happened, for example, when volunteers have refused to follow staff orders, disrupted transactions with the public, yelled at staff, entered a restricted area, or inappropriately touched a staff member,” Houchin said.

Keithly, who directs the documentary about volunteers, said these clashes didn’t meet the needs of the animals at the shelter.

“They will always be the ones who will lose in these toxic environments,” Keithly said.

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