Photo courtesy of St. Louis County SAVE: volunteers are the eyes, ears, and hearts of a community. Silencing volunteers renders the death of animals invisible.

The officials who oversee the St. Louis County, MO, pound are not just dishonest. They don’t just violate the law. They kill animals in the face of cost-effectively, readily-available lifesaving alternatives they refuse to implement. And when volunteers speak out about it, they are fired.

But volunteers are fighting back. They have filed a lawsuit, “alleging they and more than 400 other volunteers were banned from the facility because of public criticism of its conditions…

“The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, alleges violations of First Amendment rights, illegal policies and retaliation by health officials.”

Volunteers, rescuers, and others not only have the First Amendment right to speak out against government policies with which they disagree, they have a constitutionally protected right to demand that the government correct the wrongs identified.

When animal lives are at stake, as they are when animals enter a pound that has not fully embraced a culture of lifesaving, banning volunteers because they are critical of policies that favor killing by government shelters is even more egregious given the life and death consequences. Worse, animals have no voice of their own and need others to speak for them. Retaliating against volunteers effectively silences the animals. But it will not stand.

As the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, “speech on public issues occupies the ‘highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values,’ and is entitled to special protection.” Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 145 (1983). Indeed, such speech lies “at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection.” First Nat’l Bank of Bos. v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 776 (1978).

It is not the first time St. Louis County pound officials have broken the law. “A scathing audit released in July… found multiple breakdowns at the animal shelter”, including lying to people in order to kill their animals off book. Staff required everyone surrendering an animal to check the “ORE” (Owner Requested Euthanasia) box, but didn’t tell anyone what it meant, even when they specifically asked if St. Louis County would kill their animal. And after killing them, officials excluded all OREs “from statistics reported to the county’s Animal Care & Control Advisory Board, withholding data on the number of kills from officials providing oversight.”

For example, “a woman who brought her dog to the shelter asked if it was a no-kill shelter and said she did not want to have her dog euthanized.” The pound told her that they “tried to find people to adopt every animal that wasn’t aggressive or sick. She checked the ‘ORE’ box, but nobody explained what it meant.”

Tragically, the St. Louis County pound isn’t the only agency that kills animals. The County was forced to pay a family $750,000 when the SWAT team illegally killed their dog by falsely claiming the little dog charged them and then hid exculpatory evidence that proved otherwise.

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