Norfolk city employee claims she was fired for blowing the whistle on animal shelterBy Nick Ochsner
NORFOLK — The city of Norfolk faces a possible lawsuit after a part-time employee said she was fired for blowing the whistle on wrongdoing at the Norfolk Animal Care Center.
Adrienne Alper said she was fired just a day after she met with representatives at PETA to discuss the shelter’s improper euthanasia practices.
Alper was hired to work at the NACC in July of 2013. She said she quickly realized there were a number of problems with the practices used at the shelter.
The biggest problem was the shelter’s habit of euthanizing animals inside their holding pens.
State guidelines say animals should be sedated in their holding area before being brought back to a separate area to be euthanized.
“It wasn’t fair for those animals to have to deal with that even after they were sedated,” Alper said.
Alper said she took her concerns to the kennel manager and then to the shelter’s director.
“I said, it could affect their behavior, you know, just the environment,” Alper recalled telling her boss. “She said, you know, this is just how we’ve done it.”
Alper was also concerned about medications being improperly stored at the facility, including lethal drugs used for euthanasia.
“The drugs that they’re using, they’re scheduled drugs. They’re supposed to be documented and they’re allowing anyone who wanted to enter that area at that time to do it,” Alper said.
In addition to euthanasia drugs, Alper said other medications were kept in unlocked desk drawers.
Finally, Alper and others were also concerned about the high kill rate at the shelter.
Her concerns reached a peak when a man dropped off a mother pit bull and puppies and they were euthanized within hours.
There is no law requiring shelters to wait a certain amount of time before euthanizing animals that come into the shelter.
City of Norfolk spokeswoman Lori Crouch pointed out that residents who surrender their animals at the shelter sign a form acknowledging that the animals may be euthanized.
“The surrender document clearly states, in bold, ‘NACC cannot make any guarantees regarding the disposition of this animal… understand that this animal may be adopted into a new home, transferred to another animal welfare organization, or may be euthanized,’” Crouch said.
Crouch also defended the shelter’s kill rate and pointed out that the NACC’s adoption rate has grown from 1,765 in 2011 to 2,211 in 2013.
“NACC has consistently saved more animals every year,” Crouch said. “The dedicated staff, volunteers and board members work tirelessly to find placement for every suitable family pet.”
But former volunteer Cindy Fleisch disagrees with that.
Fleisch once sat on the board of the Friends of the Norfolk Animal Care Center. She said she resigned to move out of state but was told she was no longer welcomed as a volunteer when she moved back to the area.
“I was told that I couldn’t volunteer,” Fleisch said. “I said, you’ve got to be kidding me! I was one of the original volunteers.”
Fleisch said she was told she was no longer welcomed at the shelter after she made negative comments about the shelter’s kill rate at a board meeting. She said a supervisor told her that her personality doesn’t fit with the shelter.
“I was dumbfounded,” she said.
Alper wasn’t the only staff member concerned, either.
Janet Burhenn worked at the shelter until February 2011, when she resigned to move out of state.
After she resigned, she wrote a letter to the shelter’s management expressing her concerns.
“Often times I have discovered animals in pain, ill or severely matted and in desperate need of grooming,” Burhenn wrote. “I believe that illustrates the lack of observation of the staff as well as their lack of education regarding animal welfare. My concern is that many of the animals will not receive the quality of care that they deserve and due to the shelters severe staff shortage and it will go unnoticed and unreported.”
Finally, while she was on vacation in December, Alper said she decided to take her concerns outside of the shelter. She contacted Norfolk-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
Before she went to PETA, Alper said, she brought the same concerns to her supervisors within the city.
In her termination letter, her meeting with PETA is explicitly cited as a reason for her termination.
“Ms. Alper also reportedly went to PETA headquarters on, or around December 3, 2013 and made allegations about staff and her supervisors regarding euthanasia practices at the Animal Care Center, up to and including allegations of illegal activities around the practice of euthanasia at the Animal Care Center, improper use of controlled substances and violations of state law regarding euthanasia mandates,” the letter reads.
The letter was signed by Norfolk’s City Manager Marcus Jones.
“I was kind of appalled at first, I was very upset. I was angry,” Alper said she felt after reading the termination letter.
The city, through spokeswoman Lori Crouch, denied any wrongdoing.
“Regarding Ms. Alper, this is a personnel matter and her evaluation was based upon her overall job performance,” Crouch Said.
Crouch did not, however, specifically address the lengthy paragraph that says Alper’s termination was due, in part, to her meeting with PETA.
Alper has retained attorneys who are preparing to file a wrongful termination claim. If that lawsuit is filed, taxpayers will be on the hook to pay for the defense of that lawsuit. If the city were to be found at fault in the lawsuit, taxpayers would also have to foot the bill for that, too.