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Animal shelter whistleblower: He saw wrong in need of fix
He had seen a lot already.
During three years away from the Sutter County Animal Shelter, Army Sgt. Herb Schweiger — now medically retired — endured combat injuries in Iraq and recovered from subsequent knee and spinal surgeries.
So he was more than a little distressed when he returned to work as a kennel manager at the facility in Yuba City last summer — and found that conditions for both animals and workers "were even worse than when I left."
For a few months, he fought management in an effort to institute changes, he said.
But a combination of inertia, bad politics and self-interest kept resistance strong, according to Schweiger.
"It was easier being in Iraq," he said of the pushback he received. "At least there, I could shoot the enemy."
Schweiger, 47, submitted his resignation in September 2010, citing unsafe working conditions, a hostile work environment, and lack of coherent leadership.
In addition, he filed a complaint with the state's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, a move that resulted in an inspection and $3,000 fine for the county facility.
"I am not a disgruntled worker," said Schweiger of his actions. "I saw a wrong and it needed to be made right."
But it soon became clear that even the state's attention would not inspire change.
"I recognized the tone of statements made from county officials," he said of responses from Sutter County Community Services Director Larry Bagley and Assistant Community Services Director Randy Cagle in the Appeal-Democrat. "I realized that, still, nothing was going to get done." Since the release of a grand jury report in April, Sutter County and Yuba City officials — at odds for years over construction of a new shelter — have begun to find common ground and develop a plan.
The report, for which Schweiger testified and provided photographs, includes results of an inspection by veterinarians from the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program and validates many of his claims.
Among those claims:
• Failure to accurately account animal-owner citations, and fines owed and collected.
• Failure to provide adequate training and qualified oversight for those working in the shelter.
• Failure to follow up on citizen complaints.
• Failure to address health and safety problems, including an ongoing rat infestation.
• Failure to properly care for animals and to and track their health and adoption prospects, or to make humane decisions regarding euthanasia.
• Failure to utilize expensive equipment purchased for the shelter.
• Failure to provide documentation of policies and procedures.
• Failure on the part of management to respond to worker or inmate trustee concerns or questions, and respond to the needs of animals at the shelter.
In addition, Schweiger noted in his grand jury testimony several examples of what he viewed as conflicts of interest on the part of management in relation to work duties, handling of citizen complaints, and selection of veterinarians and other paid contractors.
Chris Parent, president of the Yuba Sutter Dog Park, said his own tour of the shelter, which he took with public officials a year and a half ago, convinced him of a need for greater oversight from the community.
"It's a horrible facility, but up until a couple months ago, nobody seemed to give a rat's patootie about that," he said.
Parent has proposed that the new facility's governance include an advisory board made up of community members who do not have direct ties to the city or county governments.
External oversight, he said, is critical.
"Otherwise, it's going to go right back to the way it was," he said.
Parent said he considers Schweiger, who serves as vice president of the dog park, a personal friend, and that he applauds his actions.
"He gave up an awful lot to make sure that the public knew about this," Parent said. "He is absolutely dedicated to the welfare of animals."
"People have ignored what goes on there for a long long time because they didn't want to rock the boat," he said. "Murderers on death row are treated better than those dogs in there. And the dogs didn't do anything wrong."
In spite of his long list of complaints about the shelter's management, Schweiger said he doesn't believe the conditions are the fault of those who work with the animals.
The shelter, he said, lacks a qualified manager to train workers and inmate trustees properly, and to supervise everyone, including managers currently in place.
"The people there are valuable. They all are valuable," he said. "Nobody in that place ever did anything with malice in their heart."
His former co-workers, Schweiger said, all are suffering from "compassion fatigue."
"They need counseling for that, and serious retraining, and some time off," he said. "How would you like to look in a dog's face that you have to put to sleep — and it's a perfectly healthy dog? It gets to you."
Schweiger, who now calls himself a "self-employed businessman," still receives treatment for his war injuries through the Wounded Warrior Project.
He said he didn't have to think too hard before giving up his kennel management job to play the whistleblower.
"After Iraq and the stuff I'd been through there," he said, "I wasn't gonna put up with it."
CONTACT reporter Nancy Pasternack at 749-4781.