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Charlottesville SPCA volunteer dismissed after raising safety concerns amid ongoing investigation

A veteran volunteer at Charlottesville’s premier animal shelter has been dismissed after she raised safety concerns amid an ongoing investigation into the treatment of animals and people at the organization.

Louise Finger was a dog walker who had volunteered at the Charlottesville Albemarle Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals since 1998. She was dismissed on Tuesday without cause.

According to emails obtained by The Daily Progress between Finger and volunteer manager Krystyn Dotson, Finger had expressed concern over requests to train new volunteers and time limits on walking the shelter’s dogs, which Finger called a “recipe for disaster.”

A group of current and former volunteers and employees that calls itself CASPCA Concerns shared a video of Finger’s dismissal online Tuesday.

“We greatly respect and appreciate what you’ve done, but it’s been determined you are not permitted to volunteer with us anymore,” a woman identified as Dotson can be heard saying in the video.

When Finger, who was recording the conversation, asks why, Dotson said only, “The decision is made, it’s definite and there’s nothing more to discuss.”

Finger told The Daily Progress on Thursday that the news seemed to come out of nowhere.

Finger said she had stopped volunteering at the SPCA in February 2019 because she was unhappy with management’s treatment of staff and volunteers. She said she reapplied in October 2022 after other dog walkers at the shelter encouraged her to return. She was re-hired as a volunteer and classified as an “experienced dog walker.”

“On Saturday, I had several emails from the volunteer coordinator, asking me and another volunteer dog walker … if we would be willing to work with a new dog walker,” Finger said.

Finger said she told Dotson she would be uncomfortable to take the time to train a new volunteer when the shelter was short of dog walkers and needed her for that. She did not have an estimate on the number of dog walkers at the SPCA, as volunteer availability fluctuates.

The emails from Dotson also asks volunteers not to use their phones while walking dogs and to make sure the dogs have been walked by 6 p.m.

Finger responded to Dotson’s email with concerns about the new time limit. Needing to rush highly reactive dogs, who sometimes lunge at other dogs, could be dangerous, Finger said in her email.

Finger added that there are too many dogs for the number of walkers, between 55 and 60 when the shelter is full, according to her estimate. There is not enough time in a shift to give each dog a 15-minute walk, even if all else goes perfectly, Finger said in her email.

Finger said Dotson never responded to her concerns.

The CASPCA Concerns group, which has been raising the alarm about alleged mistreatment of workers and animals at the shelter since earlier this year, said in an email that Finger was only guilty of respectfully raising safety concerns.

“Shelter management is behaving exactly as our original and subsequent letters predicted they would by targeting and retaliating against those who try to collaborate for what is best (or even just adequate) for the animals,” the group said in a Thursday post on Reddit.

The board of directors at the local SPCA has not responded to a request for comment since it announced it had hired international law firm McGuireWoods to look into the group’s allegations.

Asked about Finger’s dismissal, SPCA spokeswoman Emily Swecker told The Daily Progress via email on Thursday that “the SPCA has a policy to not discuss volunteer matters.”

CASPCA Concerns now has a letter with more than 100 signatures calling on SPCA CEO Angie Gunter to be removed. The group has said previously that Gunter’s treatment of animals was “deeply concerning” and that she created a “hostile work environment” for those who worked under her.

Those concerns have been echoed at two protests that have been held outside the SPCA’s main operations on Berkmar Drive. The last of which attracted more than 40 demonstrators calling for Gunter’s resignation or dismissal.

Protesters and signatories to the CASPCA Concerns letter have described an animal shelter that is overcapacity and understaffed, with animals often kept in unsafe living conditions and volunteers and employees overworked in order to keep adoption rates high and contributions rolling in.

The board of the SPCA has defended Gunter and said it stands by her during the ongoing investigation.

Meanwhile, the CASPCA Concerns group and its allies have called on the city of Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County, which contribute funds to the SPCA, to launch an investigation of their own into the animal shelter.

There has been no word yet if either locality plans to pursue such an investigation.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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