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Animal shelter worker: Firing was retaliation for WVC gas chamber outcry

Published September 25, 2012 10:19 am

Courts • Andrea the cat is alive, but former WVC shelter manager is out a job.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A woman who worked at the West Valley City Animal Shelter alleges in a new civil lawsuit she was fired after city officials accused her of telling media about a cat who survived two attempts to kill it in a gas chamber, a debacle that led to a public outcry and changes in the shelter's operation.

In documents filed in U.S. District Court on Monday, Karen Bird claims the shelter manager and other city officials retaliated because they believed she leaked the story of Andrea the cat last fall, a violation of her constitutional rights to free speech. She also alleges her boss engaged in sexual discrimination and the city failed to properly investigate her complaints about mistreatment.

A West Valley City spokesman said Monday he was unaware of the lawsuit.

Bird was fired on Nov. 29, 2011, after working at the shelter for a decade. She had managed the shelter since October 2002.

Several other female employees complained that Kelly Davis, the shelter director, was sexist and abusive, according to Bird's lawsuit. But Bird said her relationship with her boss was fine until she was injured in a car accident in April 2009. She did not begin working full time again until that September. Upon her return, Bird said her work responsibilities and hours were reduced and her work vehicle was taken away.

Two years later, she reported that the shelter's secretary was stealing money and supplies, which Bird claims caused more friction with Davis. But the big fallout came after the story of Andrea the cat broke publicly.

Workers at the West Valley City Animal Shelter attempted to gas Andrea, a black cat with white paws, last October after keeping her for 30 days. The cat was placed in the shelter's carbon monoxide gas chamber but was still alive after an initial gassing. They placed the cat in the chamber again and this time she did not appear to be alive when they checked her vital signs. Andrea was placed in plastic bag, which was deposited in a cooler.

Workers later found the cat alive in the bag and decided to spare her. She was hypothermic, had vomited and defecated but was soon judged to be "mostly normal."

An article about the cat ran in The Salt Lake Tribune on Oct. 17, 2011, and the city was flooded with calls. Bird's complaint says both city management and Davis believed she shared concerns about the effectiveness and cruelty of the gas chamber with media, and Davis became increasingly abusive toward her.

She filed a complaint about his behavior in early November and within a week learned she was being investigated for misconduct, neglect or refusal to perform a duty and other misdeeds. The duty claim was based on the fact Bird held animals longer than required at the shelter and allegedly made other employees feel uncomfortable using the gas chamber to euthanize animals, her complaint states.

Bird appealed her termination but a hearing panel upheld the firing in January.

In her lawsuit, Bird is seeking an award for emotional distress and punitive damages, back pay and action to create an "environment free of harassment and retaliation."

Andrea is now living in a new home. Meanwhile, this summer the city agreed to transition its shelter, which took in about 5,000 animals last year, into a no-kill facility with a goal of saving 80 percent of the dogs and cats it receives.

brooke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Brooke4Trib