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Five Austin Animal Center volunteer suspensions spark outrage among activists

Five Austin Animal Center volunteers were suspended and reinstated for violating the shelter's Workplace Culture Agreement. (Photo: CBS Austin)

In the past week, five Austin Animal Center volunteers were suspended and reinstated.

The AAC would not go into specifics about what caused the suspensions, but told CBS Austin all five volunteers violated the shelter’s Workplace Culture Agreement.

Dena Dixon is a former AAC staff member and volunteer. She says everyone was shocked and outraged at management’s decision.

“They were shocked I would say was their first reaction, sad upset frustrated, and again very unclear as to what they had done--and just really really sad,” says Dixon.

Each of the suspended volunteers were given separate hearings to talk about the violations.

According to Dixon, the volunteers said they were suspended because they spoke on social media about the AAC’s decision to adopt out a dog to someone they believed had been cited for leaving a dog in a hot car.

“The volunteers had asked staff please don’t do this--don’t do this to these dogs and that was ignored and she was adopted out anyway,” says Dixon.

Several AAC volunteers spoke at an Austin City Council meeting this week.

Interim Assistant City Manager Sarah Hensley responded saying she’s looking into the situation, but noted that concerns about adoption proceedings should be done in a productive way.

“We care deeply about our volunteers, but we also ask that when we have an opportunity to share information that it be handled in a way that is not disparaging or degrading to other people,” said Hensley.

However, after the suspensions were announced, Dena Dixon says volunteers feel their voices have been muted.

“It was really terrible for the morale not just for those that were suspended but for all of the other volunteers to see that, wow, if you speak out you can’t volunteer here,” claims Dixon.

Ultimately, Dixon says, volunteers want better communication between management staff and volunteers who work directly with the dogs each week.

“It does seem from my perspective that the volunteers are sort of expected to show up, help out, walk these dogs that aren’t getting out and just be quiet about anything they disagree with,” says Dixon.

The AAC confirmed there is a group made up of volunteers and staff called the “Positive Change Committee.”

Dixon commends the Austin Animal Center for their work, calling it one of the best shelter’s in the country.

However, she says she hopes in the future volunteers are more easily allowed to advocate for the animals.

The Austin Animal Center sent CBS Austin this statement regarding their adoption policies:

Austin Animal Center follows the widely used Adopters Welcome philosophy. It essentially works to find loving homes for the animals in our care, rather than disqualifying adopters based on misguided information. Our adoption counselors have in-depth conversations with adopters which cover animal care plans, training and responsible pet ownership. If, after this conversation, the adoption counselor feels that the adopter is not a good fit, they are empowered to stop the adoption or find a different animal who would better suit their lifestyle or needs. We do not believe in denying adopters because of income level, living situation, education or other discriminating factors. If they can provide a safe, loving home for a pet, then we want them to do so.
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