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.