Free speech at county animal shelter put to sleep

April 4, 2008


If you’re a volunteer at the San Luis Obispo County animal shelter, you can bark, but you might get bitten.

Volunteers at the Animal Services Division (ASD) facility have been muzzled, prohibited from speaking to the media or even making Internet postings, if county officials don’t happen to like their tone. According to the shelter’s lengthy new volunteer policy — which found its way into a reporter’s hands mere hours after its unveiling Thursday night — volunteers will be fired for disregarding the rules.

Those rules, contained in ASD’s “Volunteer Policy and Procedure Manual,” prohibit “all public statements, whether verbal or written, inside the shelter or outside, which criticize, ridicule, or otherwise disparage the Division, its employees, volunteers, or policies.”

Additionally, the manual makes it a firing offense for volunteers to “address any public gathering, appear on radio or television programs, write articles or manuscripts for publication, make Internet postings, or any other public or publicly accessible representations as a representative of the division unless it is in compliance with applicable policies and authorized by the Animal Services Manager.”

Volunteers must sign an agreement promising to abide by the rules.

Final arbiter of what is forbidden language: Sheriff Patrick Hedges, under whose county department the ASD resides.

The shelter’s manager, Dr. Eric Anderson, told that the volunteers’ 16-page manual “is the first step in a longer process of organizing and structuring the volunteer program.”

He acknowledged that volunteers had “some problems” with the new rules, “but it’s not that they can’t talk publicly. They know that we are not trying to be suppressive, just trying to address issues more productively,” said Anderson. He said of the volunteer’s “problems” with the new rules: “There wasn’t any substantial issue to come from that.”

But when asked if any volunteers have raised First Amendment issues, Anderson replied, “Why, yes, some did.” Asked if he or other county officials had considered the potential unconstitutionality of such a communication prohibition, Anderson said, “I’m not sure.” He said he didn’t know if the manual’s language had been cleared by the County Counsel’s office.

Warren Jensen, assistant county counsel, said late Friday afternoon that he wasn’t sure his office had seen a copy of the manual, and said he needed time to review it “before giving a definitive answer.”

While “there may be a case for regulating what volunteers can do,” said Jensen, “this is a complicated issue and there may be some parts (of the manual) that have gone too far.”

The policy manual was developed by the county’s Human Resources Department with input from his own staff and volunteers, the shelter’s chief said. “And the sheriff’s people were kept in the loop all the way. It was a real collaborative effort.”

Ruth Bianchi was a volunteer veteran of four years when she was summoned in February to the sheriff’s office. There she was read a statement which, in essence, terminated her service. Her crime? Talking to county supervisors and others about cleanliness and other health issues at the animal shelter.

“We followed the chain of command,” said Bianchi this week. “But nothing happened.” She said many volunteer suggestions are viewed as criticisms by shelter staff, but “those suggestions have often turned into good policy changes. All the things we went public about have been changed.”

Bianchi said she was saddened by what she called “the situation” at the shelter:

“The animals are the real issue… finding some comfort for them in a frightening, scary place, is why volunteers keep coming.”




  1. ccn_debate says:

    Member Opinions:
    By: Anonymous on 4/12/08
    The Shelter Co-Ordinator needs to be replaced. I was insensed when I read about her calling a dedicated volunteer as if that person were a dog. Also her indifference to the public and animal adoptions is unexcepatable. I don't want my tax $$ going into her pocket.
    By: Anonymous on 4/9/08
    To Woofman. We recognized the voice of the first woman who called in. She used a phony name. She is not a volunteer and never has been. She likes to stir stuff up. We wished she had kept her comments to herself and let the forum progress in a truthful manner. The other woman who called and talked about cats being killed is not a volunteer either. We recognized her voice, and this person complains whenever she can and usually makes things up -an overactive imaginzation. We hope this helps a bit. The statement made by one caller that the difference is "Animal Control" versus "Animal Rescue" pretty much sums it up. And, yes, there has been mediation. But you cannot restrict compassion with a rule book that should have been given to the inmates. Why should the volunteers have background checks. Most background checks are done looking for embezzlers, DUIs, drugs and criminal background. The Sheriff doesn't need to check the volunteers. The inmates who are there are the ones who have the backgrounds. I overheard one inmate tell another than he had come from Wasco – a prison – there for theft. Seems that a rule book for the inmates might be a better way to go. And why should the taxpayers have to pay for background checks for volunteers who have been there, some of them for double digit years.

    The animals deserve better.
    By: Anonymous on 4/9/08
    I listened to the discussion on KVEC last night and I appreciated the forum, but I hard some of these comments about Dr. Anderson hard to swallow. There was one woman comparing him to someone in the Third Reich? Geez. Another woman said he put down 13 cats out of spite? I find that very hard to believe.

    If he's working an outside job at a vet clinic, that's wrong. If he's incompetent, he needs to be replaced. But the intensity of those personal attacks I heard suggest that some unstable volunteers are out to do real character assassination to further their own agenda

    (0) 0 Total Votes - 0 up - 0 down
  2. ccn_debate says:

    By: Anonymous on 4/8/08
    If volunteers who are at the Shelter more than myself have long been too intimidated to speak out, it would explain the apparent lack of concern the kennel staff have about their inarguable unprofessional behavior. Let me provide some examples from my personal experiences.

    While returning a dog to it's kennel after a walk, I could not help but notice the Shelter Coordinator pulling up the blinds on her office door to make faces at the kennel master – in the office across from hers. They were both speaking on the phone, presumably to each other.

    When I arrived at the Shelter, the Shelter Coordinator was in her office and the other members of the kennel staff had covered the door frame and doorknob of her office with foam hand sanitizer. As I walked by the offices with a dog the Shelter Coordinator was on the phone laughing hysterically as were the Kennel Masters across the hall. Apparently, unable to wait till she left her office, the kennel staff called her to share the joke over the phone.

    There was also the time when the kennel staff waited until the Shelter Coordinator was out of her office, then instructed the inmates from the Honor Farm fill her office with cat traps. They were all still laughing when I came back from walking a dog. Then I heard one of them instruct the inmates to take the traps out of the office and put them back where they had originally got them from.

    This would all seem insignificant were it not for the lack of importance the kennel staff gives the general public when they come into the Shelter. One day, as I was getting a dog out of a kennel, I heard a woman explaining to someone that her chihuahua had recently died and she was hoping to adopt one. I was stunned as heard a woman's voice explain, "The rows of dogs start here; you should just go through and look". She then went on to tell the woman that if she didn't see what she was looking for, she should go check at Woods. As I emerged from the aisle with the dog I saw the Shelter Coordinator, who had been the voice speaking to the woman, quickly close her office door. The woman was struggling with her two children, looking up and down the main hall and seeming very confused. Fortunately, at that moment, another volunteer showed up. The woman was obliged to tell her story again and the volunteer was able to simply say, "We have three dogs that might work for you, let me show them to you".

    It seemed really surprising that the Shelter Coordinator, a paid employee, did not have the time to guide this woman and her two children to where the dogs that fit her criteria were before returning to her office. If, somehow, what the Shelter Coordinator needed to get to in her office was of such consequence – could she have not taken a minute to simply find a volunteer to help this woman. The lack of willingness to take that moment to help this woman is unfortunately the norm. The kennel staff regularly buzz into the kennel from their office and then make no effort to communicate with the people once they are in kennels.

    Then there was Christmas Eve when the Shelter Coordinator was sitting on one of the male kennel staff laps in the kennel office during business hours. No, he was not dressed up as Santa Clause.

    Lastly, and what really motivated me to send you this email, was how the Shelter Coordinator attempted to get the attention of one of the volunteers. This particular volunteer seems to always be at the Shelter. The volunteer is always working so hard that I thought she was actually an employee for months. On this particular day, she was in the process of helping two members of the public, who where viewing dogs in the yards. While the volunteer was moving through the halls, the Shelter Coordinator bent over as if she was calling a dog, slapping her knees saying "come here, come on." The volunteer, who was focused on the people she was helping, did not stop and missed that she was the one being called. As I walked by, the Shelter Coordinator was explaining, laughing heartily, to the Kennel Master that she guessed the volunteer didn't hear her. Unfortunately, I just did not find the humor in a volunteer being called like a dog by a member of the staff. Nor the waste of time, supplies and other resources that I have witnessed during my brief time volunteering at Animal Services.

    As I get ready to start my first real job in San Francisco after graduation, I can't imagine any job allowing the activity I have described above. I understand that working in an animal shelter can be stressful. But if there is a need to lighten the mood, perhaps the staff could do it in a manner that was out of the view of volunteers and the general public, and less costly to the County.

    (0) 0 Total Votes - 0 up - 0 down
  3. ccn_debate says:

    By: Anonymous on 4/8/08
    Kill unwanted pets! Save children! says:

    "The money is better spent elsewhere. It is far better to save children that unwanted pets. Sad but true. Resources are limited."

    You are one sick @!$%.
    By: Anonymous on 4/8/08
    The money is better spent elsewhere. It is far better to save children that unwanted pets.
    Sad but true. Resources are limited.
    By: Anonymous on 4/8/08
    We haven't heard back from Dave about how things are shaping up for a talk show. I wonder if he has some people to public yet?
    By: Anonymous on 4/8/08
    Once again the Fibune goes where already has gone, stealing your stories without conscience or credit. Keep 'em on their toes, uncoveredslo. right on!
    By: Anonymous on 4/7/08
    Domino – sounds like this rescue group could run the shelter better than Anderson and save the taxpayers a couple of million dollars a year. Seriously – a group with just volunteers and money from fundraisers and donations has a better track record than the beaurocrats. The County spents $24,000 on the Humane Society of the United States and didn't save any lives. Let's all pray for a change at the Shelter.
    By: Anonymous on 4/7/08
    Anderson's figures of killing 476 animals – just a half dozen were adoptable – he claims – in 2007 are not accurate. He doesn't give any credit to the rescue groups who pull the animals out of there just minutes before they are to be killed. A local cat rescue organization rescued 253 cats from the shelter in 2007. Most of them were tame and adoptable but just frightened. This group had an annual budget of $18,637.34 from donations and fund raisers. The animals were spayed and neutered, some had medical issues which were treated, were vacinnated and relocated/adopted. The County will all their millons of dollars can't match these figures. Anderson can't even thank these kind souls nor does he give them credit when he makes his big accounting of lives statement.
    By: Anonymous on 4/6/08
    To Dave M.
    I have the time and I hate crime.. I'm On it..
    By: Anonymous on 4/6/08
    I noticed that this site is new. The reporting is fantastic and has been "a long time coming and needed". I'm a business owner and am close to putting my name out here. In the mean time if you would get a "paypal" account I would help you until I'm ready to advertise. You are helping more than you know. I won't elucidate just yet.
    By: Anonymous on 4/6/08
    Here's a question for all of you praising this web site. How many of you own businesses or are self-employed? Why don't you step up to the plate and support this site with a little advertising? It can't cost that much. We really need to keep this forum alive!

    (0) 0 Total Votes - 0 up - 0 down
  4. ccn_debate says:

    By: Anonymous on 4/6/08
    I hope someone has contacted the County Board of Supervisors and made them aware of whats happening on uncoveredslo..I hope they all tune in to the Congalton Show next week.
    By: Anonymous on 4/6/08
    To the DAS Volunteers.
    RE: The Congalton Show..
    If you are afraid to call in with your stories, have a friend call in on your behalf. The public will understand. OR.. Tell your stories here and those of us who aren't concerned with reprisals will call the show and read exerpts of what you have to say.
    By: Anonymous on 4/6/08
    To Dave M…..
    You took the words right out of my mouth!!
    I'm surprised that this hasn't become an issue sooner. The volunteers needed to organize and step up when Ruth Bianchi was made an example of.
    By: Anonymous on 4/6/08
    What did Hedges think he was doing when he terminated the volunteer services of Ruth Bianchi? If this article is true then there has been some serious wrong doing here. Hedges is out of control and if the County Supervisors don't take action maybe the people will in November. Most families have pets and consider them family members (at least everyone I know does). And just look at the ratio of salaries to staff! When one considers the ratio of staff to kennels and the volunteers and the labor provided by the mens colony one has to wonder what the "primadonna" staff is doing besides collecting a paycheck. They certainly don't get their hands dirty. Again if this article is true I am infuriated and have a good mind to go down to the shelter and give that staff a piece of my mind. If I didn't have a full time job I'd volunteer and publicly expose everything I disapproved of. If they fired me I would personnaly file a law suit. Maybe someone(who isn't afraid to get pushed around) with the time can go down there and start volunteering (temporarily) if you get my drift.
    By: Anonymous on 4/6/08
    Kudos to Dave Congalton and KVEC. They are the best station and dave has the best show. I listen all the time.
    By: Anonymous on 4/6/08
    Kudos to Dave Congalton and KVEC. I can't imagine that anyone would ever want you to abandon the "Pet of the week " segment. We all want whats best for the little critters. This is about gettin better care for them and taking a closer look at management cost. I hope Anderson calls in. I have some hard questions for him regarding past and current behavior. I also know there are wonderful vets out there with all the proper crendials that would work far more with the animals in the shelter for less. Thats just for beginners. Too much money goes to salaries and not enough to the animals. This should be a job about love first and money second.
    By: Anonymous on 4/6/08
    I will be glad to discuss this issue on my radio show this week. Let's tentatively pencil in Tuesday at 5:05 and I'll work on getting some relevant guests.

    However, in return, let's all agree that the Friday Pet of the Week segment is a separate issue. In the last 14 years, there are literally dozens — if not hundreds — of dogs and cats who escaped the needle because of that radio segment. The last two Friday dogs were both adopted within hours of being with me on the radio. That segment will continue regardless of whatever the situation may be at DAS.

    Kudos to the volunteers like Ellen, Grier, and Larry who work with me to make that segment so successful

    (0) 0 Total Votes - 0 up - 0 down
  5. ccn_debate says:

    By: Anonymous on 4/6/08
    According to the SLO Animal Services web site ( "476 were euthanized in San Luis Obispo County in 2007". Animal Services is not open for business on Sundays. It is also closed for the 12 official county holidays. Thus, animal adoptions take place on 301 days of the year. If 1.58 additional adoptions happened every day that Animal Services was open, there would be no reason to kill an animal because of lack of space.
    By: Anonymous on 4/6/08
    On the issue of background checks for Animal Services volunteers, the question is not one of constitutionality but value. So far, no volunteers have had to submit to a background check. In the Volunteer Policy Manual released on April 3, 2008 under Section 1.12, Eligibility (b) "Animal Services may conduct a background evaluation of volunteer applicants prior to granting volunteer status and from time to time thereafter".

    But, since volunteers spend most of their time walking dogs, socializing cats and cleaning – what value would a background check offer. All volunteer functions are done under the watchful supervision of kennel staff so it is difficult to imagine what could be learned from a background check that would not be better understood through direct observation of the volunteer as they perform their duties. If, however, the goal was to intimidate – it seems to have succeeded.
    By: Anonymous on 4/6/08
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    You can download a PDF of the Animal Services budget at

    It is $2.1 million
    $1.7 million on salary and benefits for 21 people
    $600,000 on Services & Supplies

    There are 48 dog kennels at the shelter
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    It would appear that some people have just arrived and don't understand what "Lint Moth" is saying. Look again in the morning when the Saturday night party is over.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    To HUH?

    Well said. Ther are only 3 people who would have done the Lint Moth post and one of them would of had to have help! Many of us know who those people might be.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    Hey Lint Moth..
    Your verbage and attempts at high powered words leaves much to be desired. You really aren't the intellectual that you think you sound like. Good Luck.
    I'm not even going to give you a HIT. Get honest and we will come.

    (0) 0 Total Votes - 0 up - 0 down
  6. ccn_debate says:

    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    This comment if for "This is not News."

    Such an incredible rush to judgment as "this Web site is nothing but a blog that is trying to pretend to do journalism" suggests a perhaps educational game for educated people. (The uneducated do not need such a game for honing of the wit and whetting of the hone is not a game that is compatible with mobius strip like reasoning prone or even supine to dealing in vacuous substance.)

    The game is to analyze vacuous statements.

    "web site is nothing but a blog"

    Tremendous efforts have been expended by teams of CMS (Content Management System) professionals to empower web sites to be "nothing but a blog" and in doing so have enabled their constituency to:
    a) save a lot of trees
    b) speak to any part of the world interested in their output (without paying for the parsing of trees)
    c) allow those who may not have a "web site that is nothing but a blog" to rush to judgment on someone else's blog
    d) provide open forums for discussion of issues
    e) provide information that is probably more credible, better written, unlimited by the end of the page, less offensive olfactorily than are the general media and the specific media that enable political viability of some while disabling the political viability of others
    f) allow everyone expression who wants to express
    g) allow those who express to stand in pretty good company.

    Pretty good company would include the more than 100 blogging and news publishing entities that are listed on the "real news" link list of

    SLO, btw, in this isolated instance is the abbreviation for "Second Level Opinion."

    Extrapolation gives players of the game the ability to gist a value to the remainder of the thought you put up, continue with the game far past it.

    Suffice it to say, for many, when those who are trying to blog some sense out events hear something like "nothing but a blog" we cry because we realize how many blogs short we are of that number that will give lift off to sufficient evolution to go brachiating among stardust looking earthward at those who are simultaneously trying to rip the trees apart for paper and brachiate through them for transportation.

    I do not know for a fact that you normally spend your reading time on paper based material — that was just an impression conjured from your expression.

    And here I must smile because my dog, while scratching my back, just hit the itchy spot. His chore in the old days was to bring the paper but he is evolving as well.

    (0) 0 Total Votes - 0 up - 0 down
  7. ccn_debate says:

    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    May I ask? Please tell me how many kennels are at the shelter? What is the average # of cats and are they in cat rooms or individual cages? How many employees work there per shift and how many inmates? I am someone with expierence that can crunch the #s.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    Dave Congalton has someone on his station from the shelter every week to talk about "THE PET OF THE WEEK". i HOPE HE ISN'T TOO CLOSE TO THE WRONG SIDE OF THIS ISSUE TO HELP. They are pulling the wool over his eyes.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    I have read this article and every post on this blog. There is clearly (and I do mean clearly) a problem at the shelter and it isn't with the volunteers.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    To: This is not news

    You quote the law regarding employers shutting up employees but you didn't read far enough in your research.

    There is plenty of case law that says this DOES NOT apply to public employees. The reason cited by the courts is something called "public concern". This means the public has a right to know what is going on inside public agencies. Forcing government employees to shut up restricts them from talking about what is wrong, thus keeping the public in the dark.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    By the way, kudos to UncoveredSLO!

    (0) 0 Total Votes - 0 up - 0 down
  8. ccn_debate says:

    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    There was a woman prosecuted a couple of years ago. She had been hording animals (to save them). the animals were fed but in need of medical attention and primarily kept in poor conditions. The jury found her innocent of almost all charges because (the testimony that was provided)
    the care the animals received with her was no worse and perhaps better than the care the animals recieve at the shelter under Anderson. Something should have been done a long time ago.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    John Adams, what is the purpose of this gag clause? It is to subvert open government, suppress dissent and quash bad press. (Or is there some other purpose?) That's un-American and more closely resembles the Soviet system. It may be legal — though even that's not certain in this case — but not everything that's legal is right, and it's unacceptable in a government agency responsible for public safety and animal welfare. Fortunately, it's likely to cause a furor.

    And that's exactly what happened with AT&T, when it added a clause allowing it to terminate the service of any internet customer who disparaged the company. Customers in the same free marketplace rebelled by disparaging the non-disparagement clause, and the company suffered a huge black eye, as it deserved.

    And with shelter volunteers, the force of such a gag clause can't be very great, since their livelihood isn't at stake. One assumes it'll just generate more bad press, which is what often happens when you try to suppress anything.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    To Rational Ron,
    No one is complaining about an initial back ground check. They are complaining about continued checks without due cause. This is nothing but a "power play" on the part of management. Anyone who wants to help the animals is entitled if they are qualified. We need "watchdogs" (no pun intended).
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    It's so funny how many of you think that you are entitled to all these "protections" to which you are not.

    Nobody is "entitled" to volunteer at the shelter.

    As to objecting to background checks on constitutional grounds, that is absolutely absurd. You do not have a constitutional right to go spend a lot of time at a government agency without the people who work their knowing who you are and whether you are a security threat or otherwise. Are you entitled to go volunteer at the jail without them knowing who you are? How about the courthouse? The water treatment plant, so you can poison the water?
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    The Volunteers are walking dogs, brushing cats, cleaning poo and working along side convicted criminals who are doing time. But the Sheriff and Anderson want to do periodic back ground checks on the volunteers? Oh Geeeeez.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    By substance abuse I am refering to something minimal that wouldn't necessarily effect employment elligibility like a one time DUI. When I see a DUI I do check periodically (during the first year) to be certain that the person doesn't have a bigger problem. The point here is that while a back ground check is appropriate, continued checks without cause is nothing but harrassment and a violation of ones privacy. The volunteers are walking dogs, not balancing the budget.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    Cindy- substance abuse is considered serious. I don't think anyone would get hired in the first place if that was on their record.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    I think an initial back ground check is appropriate. There should not be any reason do continue doing them unless there was something questionable in the initial check such as a prior history of substance abuse.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    A lawsuit has been filed in L.A. Superior Court for almost identical actions taken against two volunteers for speaking out. Retaliatory action taken against deprives them of their Constitutional rights being free speech, petition for redress of grievances and due process.

    (0) 0 Total Votes - 0 up - 0 down
  9. ccn_debate says:

    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    I am a friend of a volunteer at the shelter. She objects to having a background check and agreeing to have one done at anytime Anderson wants. She feels that this is an invasion of her privacy (as guaranteed by the Constitution), and she also feels that it could lead to identity theft. She has volunteered there for years and if they don't know what her background is by now, then there are other reasons for wanting to be able to probe. The animals are the big losers in this and always will be as long as Anderson is in charge.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    I really hope Dave Congalton does a talk show about this. I don't think what Anderson and Hedges are trying to pull is right. The Voluteers should be treated with the upmost respect. They should have 51% vote on shelter procedure and management. The Volunteers NEED A VOICE.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    CALLING DAVE CONGALTON- Dave this needs a show dedicated to it. Everyone knows you love animals. The Director is not the right person to be running the shelter and neither is the Sheriff. The public already knows about the sheriff and his ego problems. The animals are defenseless and the volunteers are being held hostage. The "shut up" or I'll break your heart tactic is unexceptable and very telling. Please do a show.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    Ken, "private law undermining American principles and even constitutional rights?" Read that statement carefully. It is not possible because American principles are BASED ON the right to make private decisions, and the Constitution is designed to protect the right of association, which includes the right to private contract. Also look at the statement "private law." It is a contradiction because law is public. It does not exist because contradictions cannot exist.

    There is no question that any and all government agencies are subject to scrutiny because they are funded by taxpayer's money.

    However, that does not change the fact that it is legal for private and public employers to decide the terms of an employee or a volunteer's association with them.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    We should consider that other shelters don't have the benefit of prison labor and still the cost is high. Something isn't being done right and the animals are suffering for it.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    The shelter needs a new director for starters. It sounds like another Good Old Boy's Club at the animal shelter. They should be scratching the backs of the animals and instead they are scratching each others. I too am uphauled at the salary of Anderson for his minimal services. A full analysis should have been completed a long time ago to determine why the cost comparative of the SLO shelters to others is so high. Is it the salaries?
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    Am I correct to say that Dr. Anderson would have an annual salary of 400-500K per year if he worked 5 days a week like everyone else? Shame on him and those who write his paycheck.
    By: Anonymous on 4/5/08
    That was very informative. I'm uphauled at the salaries and the 1 day a week performance of Anderson. I don't think Jim Patterson or Dave Congalton have the whole story. Now they know more. This is something that needs to be followed up on.
    No wonder they don't want volunteers talking.

    (0) 0 Total Votes - 0 up - 0 down

Comments are closed.