Animal Shelter Manager Suspended; Citizens Show Outpouring of Support
Note: Please watch this accurate and moving Youtube video a volunteer created about Courtney’s work at the PCAS and her love for the animals there. It will inspire you!
Any woman who works 96 hours in one week while only getting paid for 40 hours is either desperate or crazy. Or maybe she’s simply crazy about her job.
That would be my daughter, Courtney Austin. And she is crazy—about the critters she cares for. Her devotion and dedication to our four-legged friends is amazing. It’s also the reason she’s performed nothing short of a miracle during the last year. Courtney took a shelter that housed and fed 1,800 animals the year prior to her arrival—which had an estimated 75-percent kill rate—and turned it into one that hasn’t killed a single adoptable animal in more than a year. She did this in spite of county officials who said it couldn’t be done.
Yet last Friday, after refusing to grant her employers the access they demanded to her personal Facebook page, Courtney was suspended from her job as manager of the Preston County Animal Shelter in Kingwood, W.Va. Adding insult to injury, commissioners are now trying to scrape the egg from their faces, by telling the media she refused to attend a meeting about this matter last week, which they claim is the reason for her suspension.
The only problem is, Courtney’s meticulous records indicate otherwise. A copy of a memo I saw earlier tonight indicates commissioners aren’t exactly being honest, as Courtney did attend an official meeting of sorts on Feb. 1, 2013. There, Courtney was presented with a document signed by County Administrator Kathy Mace. It says, in part: “Your refusal to comply with reasonable instructions of a supervisor is resulting in a suspension with pay. This is a result of your refusal to provide passwords and emails to the Facebook account for the Preston County Animal Shelter by 1:30pm on Friday February 1, 2013 . . . this suspension with pay will be in effect until you meet with the Preston County Commission on Monday, February 4, 2013 at 6pm.”
Mace signed it, as did Courtney, right below the line that reads, “I understand and have received this correspondence.” Courtney tells me that Commissioner Vicki Cole was also present for this meeting. As mentioned in the memo, the three-member county commission meets tonight (Monday) at 6 p.m. and will then decide whether to terminate her. Courtney thinks that’s what will happen.
Before I tell you how she came to this current juncture, I should tell you how Courtney got here. I should also tell you that even though the bulk of my work has been objective news reporting, this is anything but. As Courtney’s mother, I’m not objective. As someone who has sat though countless PCC meetings, I can be fair. However, in view of my personal relationship with Courtney, this piece shouldn’t be considered as anything other than my opinion. It is an op-ed, comprised of facts, but laced with my opinion. I did not call any public officials to ask for their statement. But I am interested in hearing them tonight, during their meeting.)
Back to Courtney, who at 29 she is the single hardest worker I know. She has always been a hard worker. But it’s her love of animals that got her this job. It’s a job my family is familiar with, since ours was the house where every unwanted animal was dropped off, when I was growing up. It seemed as if an invisible sign hung at the edge of our property, inviting people to dispose of their unwanted pets. My children spent quite a lot of time there, too, so it’s no wonder that Courtney inherited my mother’s penchant for single-handedly looking after any creature that wandered into the yard.
Like many people who grow up helping abused and abandoned animals, Courtney saw abuse firsthand as she was growing up. Yet she never became abusive. Just the opposite, in fact. Her deep and abiding love for our furry friends began as a small child. Even today, she can list our family’s pets by name. Ebony, the black cat we once had; Ivory the tiny kitten her father found; two large collies, Mosey and Higgins, who both died tragic deaths. (Mosey survived Parvo, but later succumbed to the bullets from a neighbor’s rifle; Courtney and her siblings were with me the day we loaded him into our Isuzu Trooper and drove an hour to reach the vet. We repeated that tragic trip a second time, when a school bus hit Higgins not long after.)
She remembers Buttercup, from her elementary school days, whose puppies her father took away and whom Courtney never saw again. She remembers Pandora, the beautiful white Samoyed I brought home as a puppy, and whom we had to find a new home for when we fled to California. There was Bandit, a big German shepherd, a kitten named Fuzzy Koala, and a Siamese cat we called Starkie, and an odd assortment of hamsters, gerbils, a chinchilla, and an occasional hurt bird.
Ironically, a Chow dog attacked Courtney when she was 13, during a weekend visiting her father. The Chow took a chunk out of one leg, before chomping down on Courtney’s other leg. Courtney ended up in the hospital with an infection. And except for a momentary fear of dogs, the incident left no permanent wounds other than the scars on her legs.
We lived with abuse. We ran from abuse. We moved around so often that we could never keep an animal very long. So it’s no surprise that the little girl who so often lost her pets to death or other people would tirelessly work to reunite them with their rightful owners, or keep them from being euthanized now.
It’s the perfect job for her, even though it demands far more than she is compensated for financially. But it’s perfect because she is the first shelter manager in Preston County who truly loves the animals, who has been personally invested with these unwanted critters. While I know this is true, I’m not the one saying this. Those words come from every shelter volunteer who has worked with her.
This recent chain of events began a week or so ago, when Courtney took to Facebook and began asking for help. That in itself isn’t unusual. She’s been using social media as a conduit to place animals with people since not long after she was hired. She took her personal Facebook profile and created a Facebook page she called “Preston County Animal Shelter.” The two pages are linked. If you can access one, you can access the other. But only Courtney has access, since the PCAS page is linked to her personal profile account.
What was unusual is what she posted, and how the commission interpreted it. During a frigid cold spell a week ago, during which temperatures dropped into the single digits daily—and below zero at night—Courtney publicly pleaded for help. She posted on the PCAS page, saying there was no heat or water for the indoor animal areas. She did this, hoping someone would come to the shelter’s aid, as they often did. Almost immediately, that’s what happened. Problem aired and resolved. That’s how Courtney has gotten volunteers to take animals all over the East Coast for the last 18 months. Using Pilots for Paws, she’s done this even by airplane. It’s how she’s gotten needed supplies and foodstuffs for which there wasn’t enough money in the budget. It’s how she managed to take a shelter which kills animals and turn it, one year later, into a shelter that has not killed any adoptable animals since December 2011.
Courtney’s problems with the Commission began not long after she was hired. The commissioners complained, telling Courtney they didn’t want her to have a Facebook page. No reason was given; they just said they didn’t think it was needed. So Courtney told them why she thought it was important: “I told them social media’s the new, hip thing. Everybody carries a cell phone and (it’s) going to be a great way to let the public know (about the shelter’s activities).”
The page was already active and since they didn’t tell her to remove it, during commission meetings Courtney simply kept her employers abreast of “how many likes we were getting, how much positive attention, (and) in fact, that lost animals were being returned to their owners” instead of being readopted.
Then she struck a nerve. Courtney was delighted that the shelter had gone for several days without a single euthanasia—and she knew the growing number of volunteers who had lined up behind her would be delighted, too. So she took to Facebook to report the good news. Commissioners promptly gave her a written reprimand. “For encouraging a no-kill status,” Courtney told me.
I wouldn’t want to run an animal shelter. To be perfectly honest, I would never even consider it. I lack the necessary patience. That’s how I know my daughter didn’t inherit her selfless love of animals from me. No, Courtney got that gene from my mother. From Eileen Berry, who on Saturday—one day after Courtney was suspended—continued with the same PCAS volunteer work she’s done for years, by helping my sister transport 13 canines to Washington, Pa.
One thing I know for sure, and it’s a trait Courtney embodies in spirit and soul, is that we are a family who learned early on that actions speak louder than words. Words can be empty or insincere or even worthless. But actions—they can tell you in a single moment what a hundred words won’t. We learned that from my mother, from Courtney’s grandmother.
Courtney’s actions since Friday have been very telling. She has kept a low profile, and hasn’t posted a single online public comment. She doesn’t need to. She has hundreds, or perhaps thousands of people by now, doing it for her. Writing and getting petitions signed, creating YouTube videos, and designing a Facebook page just to voice their support for her valiant, one-woman efforts. One woman is even driving two hours from Pittsburgh tonight to address the commission during its regular meeting.
Not unlike the animals she has befriended and whose lives she has saved, Courtney has felt lost and alone this weekend. She knows she isn’t alone, but I can tell it feels that way. And she is sad—not because she may lose her job—but because losing her job means that thousands of animals will lose their lives. For no good reason.
Editor’s note: Please join Daleen Berry in a show of support for “Courtney and her critters” at the 6 p.m. Feb. 4 Preston County Commission meeting. If you want to speak about this issue, please sign up in advance. (Although the meeting does not officially begin until 6:30 p.m., this time is based on the memo Courtney received and signed last week.) For questions about attending, speaking or the executive session commissioners are likely to call, please review these rules from the Open Meetings Act.
Berry invites you to join her when she takes to the stage in “Knowing WhoWe Are,” part of Penn State’s University’s Cultural Conversations 2013. Berry will present a soliloquy of her memoir about rape, Sister of Silence, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2013, at The Penn State Downtown Theater Center on Allen Street.
Berry is the first recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country.
Her memoir (paperback and as an e-book) can be found at bookstores everywhere, or ordered online. To read the first chapter free, please go to Goodreads. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.” To read her award-winning memoir, Sister of Silence, in e-book format (or any other e-book), download a free app from Amazon for your phone, tablet or computer.
If you want to read more than 100 reviews, go to Amazon. To view the Sister of Silence book trailer, go to her VintageBerryWine Youtube channel.
Cheryl Gnesda · February 4, 2013 at 1:16 PM
It is unfortunate in our society when we read of people with more power than common sense, as the members of the Preston County Commission have proven. To terminate an employee that is as dedicated and driven as this young lady, is for one thing, poor business judgement. Why on earth would you want to fire someone that is not only already trained, but well versed in her job and capable of producing 110% WILLINGLY??? Uncompensated? So you can spend extra county money hiring and training someone that will more than likely work out, but not with the same effeciency? Why waste that money? Is it a power struggle over her social media site? If she is willing to do that on her own, that is ONE LESS PERSON you would have to hire to handle that part of the job. Just switch the site to one not attached to her personal one, but allow her to keep running it. Is it just plain ignorance of what social media can do? Look at what she has done; NO KILLS since Dec. 2011! Allow me to say “Awesome job Courtney!”. She did not “encourage” a no kill status, she CREATED it! For that, she should be commended, not fired! Take part of that extra money you would have blown training someone new and give her a RAISE! You will still be financially ahead. I don’t understand how anyone could “encourage” a kill shelter when unnecessary… Are they heartless? I wish I could be there to stand in her corner, but I have a feeling that this is one commission meeting that is going to be standing room only! Good luck from St. Clair Michigan!
Daleen Berry · February 6, 2013 at 3:25 PM
I hope you read the last story, stating she was fired, Cheryl. Yes, it is a power struggle, and a very shortsighted method of management that Elton Mayo would never have encouraged. Good to know she’s got Michigan in her corner!
TONI COPPOLA · February 4, 2013 at 3:10 PM
THEY SHOULD KISS HER ASS FOR CARING AS DEEPLY AS SHE DOES IF SHE DOESN’T GET HER JOB BACK I HOPE SHE SUE’S THEM BLIND, AND PROVES THEY ARE LIARS, AND UNCARING POLITICAL ASSHOLES!!!
Sandra · February 4, 2013 at 3:57 PM
Darla K. · February 4, 2013 at 5:01 PM
These people should be happy to have her running a shelter like she did, no kills, pets getting back to their owners & others being adopted. She did what she needed to do to make sure the shelter ran as smoothly as possible for the animals by asking for help when needed & making that facebook page to get the word out about the shelter, its animals looking for homes & whats going on at the shelter. Her personal page & passwords & ect shouldn’t matter, thats personal & private…..invasion of privacy! If shes doing that WONDERFUL of a job let her keep doing it, not just because shes EXTREMELY PERFECT at it but for all those sweet dogs & cats waiting to go home
… let her continue doing what she loves & does best!!!!!!!
Daleen Berry · February 6, 2013 at 3:23 PM
❤ ❤ ❤ ❤
Evelyn Carter · February 4, 2013 at 5:46 PM
I can’t find any to say ! So sad.
Mary Anne · February 4, 2013 at 9:21 PM
What can “out of towners” do to show her support?? And BTW- Montgomery County Maryland is looking for new shelter management.
Daleen Berry · February 6, 2013 at 11:36 AM
Mary Anne, you can sign the petition, send her a friend request or high five, and check out the FB support page. Please watch the video and share it and everything else you can, including the great WBOY news stories. All these links are now included in this blog I wrote, about her being fired. Thank you!
Daleen Berry · February 6, 2013 at 3:18 PM
They can watch the video, share this story, let people know that a WBOY reporter verified the heat problem prior to Courtney’s suspension, send her kudos or a friend request, and check out the FB support page. All the links are in the story. I’ll be sure to tell her you need her in Montgomery County! Thank you, Mary Anne!
Lisa · February 5, 2013 at 12:14 AM
The public officials have got to let go of the public knowing the facts and that the shelter needs help. It doesn’t refer negatively to them personally. It doesn’t reflect on them either. They are driven by fear and legalities. Try to forgive them and Courtney needs to fight to keep her job. This should be an oportunity to show the public that we can resolve issues and come up w/ a solution. The site needs to continue on Facebook too. I have two cats because of social media and going to inquire about a wire haired terrier for our daughter. What is wrong with admitting you Ned help…it isn’t a weakness but a strength.
Daleen Berry · February 6, 2013 at 3:15 PM
That is such an important statement: asking for help is always a strength! I just wish more people would do it. Since animals can’t speak, they need someone to be their voice and ask for them. Courtney is one of the people willing to do just that. Thank you, Lisa!
Cathi Jo Livingston · February 5, 2013 at 5:16 PM
Courtney what a amazing woman you are! You are an ” ANGEL ” for all the animals. God Bless you and thank you from the bottom of my heart for standing up for the animals. AMEN!!!!!!!
Daleen Berry · February 6, 2013 at 3:11 PM
I like that, Cathi Jo: “Courtney, animal angel.”
Anne · February 6, 2013 at 1:36 AM
Courtney sounds like a wonderful person, we need more people like her to save animals
Daleen Berry · February 6, 2013 at 3:10 PM
Yes, she is and yes, we do! Thank you, Anne. 🙂
Linda A · February 6, 2013 at 1:41 PM
Someone with dedication to abusive and unwanted pets endures special talent and skills. Her ability to establish a kill free shelter is remarkable. Courtney should seek grants and private funding to start her own animal shelter. She has the drive and dedication of a successful entrepreneur. I wish her luck and support for a prompt resolve.
Daleen Berry · February 6, 2013 at 3:02 PM
I couldn’t agree more, and she is thinking about doing just that. Thanks, Linda!
frances w. · February 6, 2013 at 8:03 PM
courtney is a very loving and caring person she gives the animals 110% of attention and care without her at the shelter there is no shelter for these defenceless animals if not for courtney who knows what will happen to the animals. people will just start dropping animals off anywhere again and they will either get hit by cars or will starve to death aleast with her at the shelter these animals get to live she should be given a medal. i wish we had more caring and loving people like courtney it would be a wonderful world we live in.
Kathy · February 11, 2013 at 7:38 PM
I feel that the commission needs to forget she is a woman and let the woman work!!!! If she puts in 96 hours and bills for 40 what does that matter its her time.
Dani Ferraz · February 15, 2016 at 10:19 PM
Courtney is a blessed woman! What she did for the animals is named LOVE! I understood that she took care of them with love and i feel so happy coz there are people like her in this world. The world needs people like her! This world needs love and people who cares about each other, including animals.
There are no better thing than do what we love and be happy with this! God bless you Courtney! You have a heart of Gold! <3