Legal Rights of Rescues and Animal Shelter Volunteers

A great new pamphlet has been recently published by the No Kill Advocacy Center entitled “Section 1983 To The Rescue.” This resource, revised from its original appearance in 2008 by Nathan Winograd, provides some helpful direction to individuals involved as volunteers in public (governmental) shelter settings across the USA when they find conditions or practices they feel are injuring animals. It basically takes the Federal statute 1983 (42 U.S.C. 1983) and applies it to government run (public) animal shelters, and what they can and cannot require of volunteers in those shelters. In review of the information, I find much that is also helpful to volunteers that are working in private shelters and rescues. One of the main issues described is in the use of confidentiality statements that volunteers are usually required to sign as part of the application process to volunteer.

The practice of signing confidentiality statements is a regular practice for staff and volunteers of most nonprofit and for profit entities. In the shelter setting, such statements are very much needed to protect the confidential information (names, addresses, other personal information) of donors, adopters, staff, and other volunteers. Even in public (government run) shelters, confidentiality statements are necessary, perhaps even more so, because there is the added component of protective custody, where some animals in shelter are involved in legal proceedings.

But the use of confidentiality statements is supposed to be used for that purpose only, to protect confidential information of individuals, and protect animals from harm. A sample letter in this new pamphlet indicates that some shelters use phrases in their statements that do not relate to confidential information, but rather to publicity and public perception. Volunteers may not “engage in any activity or communication that may cause harm to the reputation of (shelter name).” If such activity does take place, it could result in dismissal of that volunteer. Section 1983 indicates that use of such language by governmental entities is in violation of the constitutional rights (specifically, First Amendment) of individuals.

Every shelter (private or public) and rescue operation wants to maintain some sense of loyalty among staff and volunteers and to protect its public image. After all, most of these entities are dependent upon community good will and donations to exist. So there is legitimate interest in making sure volunteers and staff do not slander or misrepresent the organization to the public. There is the added difficulty of incomplete information. Many animals that come into shelter are in poor health. Injured from accident or abuse, disease or neglect, it is easy to misread what is going on in a shelter. In previous employment, I have witnessed a new volunteer sharing the poor health status of a particular animal with the public, suggesting it was due to poor care of the shelter itself rather than the circumstances that preceded its entry into shelter. This is why other means, other than using the confidentiality statement, are needed to address these issues.

At WAIF, we have long required signed confidentiality statements by staff, volunteers, and board members for the protection of confidential information (names, addresses, other personal information). As a private 501(c)(3) nonprofit animal shelter, (our two animal sheltering contracts are for specific services, not a general operational contract for all animal sheltering), we do not fall into this category of governmental entity. But I am happy to say that the main issue of discovering, identifying, and resolving problem areas in sheltering animals is very much a part of our procedures. We have an anti-retaliatory policy in place, a written complaints procedure, and are working on a written “Whistleblower” policy to augment useful sharing of information. We also have recently implemented a “Suggestion Box” at the shelter, where volunteers can anonymously share concerns about a particular animal or helpful ideas for benefit of the cause.

These are better avenues toward responding and improving care in shelter settings than any generalized phrase in a confidentiality statement would provide. It allows issues to be dealt with internally (addressing concerns of the organization), communicates concerns by the volunteer to those in authority to respond (addressing concerns of the volunteer), and ultimately benefits the animal from both directions (from the organization–who does not lose public support to care for the animal, and from the volunteer–who knows his/her concern has been addressed).

Did You Know?

WAIF’s Island County Contract is to pay for sheltering of dogs only, brought in specifically by Animal Control only, and for five days only. After the five days are up, the Animal Control Officer signs the animal over to WAIF’s possession (disposition). All other animals (dogs and cats) that are brought in by the public or surrendered by the pet owner are not part of that contract. WAIF pays for these services through the kind donations of the community and net revenue from thrift store support activities.

WAIF’s City of Oak Harbor Contract is for cats and dogs brought in as strays by either Animal Control or the Public, for six days only, but does not allow surrendering of pets. Again, after the six days are up, Animal Control signs the animals over to WAIF’s possession.

Revenue from the two sheltering contracts together represents just 12% of total operational revenue of WAIF. The rest comes from donations (40%), thrift store support activities (45%), and fees (3%).

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