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Former St. Louis Animal Shelter volunteer retains lawyer, demands action

A group of animal advocates and former volunteers at the St. Louis County Animal Care and Control Center might be ready to take their case outside of the halls of government building in downtown Clayton.

For months, shelter volunteers have pleaded with the County Council for what they claim is needed reform in the operation of the shelter. Now, after these same volunteers have been asked to interview and be retrained as part of what the county is calling a “reboot” to the shelter’s volunteer program, many seem to be saying “enough is enough.”

In a Nov. 3 letter addressed to St. Louis County Counselor Beth Orwick, attorney Daniel Kolde wrote: “I believe that the Shelter volunteers have colorable claims against  St. Louis County and its Directors of Public Health, Spring Schmidt and Carole Baskin, arising from  an unlawful and pervasive pattern, practice, and policy of violating their constitutional rights, including unlawful acts of First Amendment retaliation for engaging in protected speech, viewpoint infringements on free speech, prior restraints on free speech, and interference with freedoms of association.”

Jennifer Agnew, former volunteer at the St. Louis County Animal Shelter speaks to the County Council on Oct. 29, 2019. [Source: St. Louis County YouTube Channel]

Kolde has been retained by former shelter volunteer Jennifer Agnew, who claims she was wrongly dismissed.

At a recent meeting, Agnew also told the council she had been suspended from volunteering at the shelter by the county department of public health after Agnew broke up a violent altercation between two shelter dogs. She expressed shock and disbelief to the council that she was suspended for stepping in during a tense situation where, according to Agnew, shelter staff failed to intervene properly.

In his letter to Orwick, Kolde singles out two county officials that he contends are disproportionately responsible for the current dysfunction at the shelter. Moreover, he articulates accusations that several volunteers have hinted at for weeks. Specifically, that some members of county leadership are resorting to extreme measures in retribution to ongoing criticism of the shelter.

“We believe that St. Louis County and Directors Schmidt and Baskin have resorted to the extreme and draconian termination of the entire volunteer staff in order to silence critics and squelch the flow of any information regarding the conditions inside the Shelter and its mismanagement from reaching the local media and public,” he wrote.

Schmidt testified on the shelter and the volunteer program before the council on Tuesday, Oct. 29. She termed the current transition and retraining program as a “reboot” and pointed to an independent audit performed earlier this year as justification for the sweeping changes.

But at the Tuesday, Nov. 5 council meeting, more than one former volunteer stood up to refute this claim. Moreover, they continued to decry current conditions at the shelter and several accused the council of not hearing and understanding what is really going on.

“These volunteers’ blood, sweat and tears are in that place,” local resident Donna Slemmer told the Council. “The animals they love are in that place.”

In his letter, Kolde requested a response from the county by Monday, Nov. 4. It does not appear any response was given and the matter was not addressed formally by any council member on Nov. 5.

Whether Agnew and/or other former shelter volunteers will now pursue litigation against the county is unknown.

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