Seattle Animal Shelter accused of safety issues, retaliation

Dog handlers and volunteers allege the city-run organization dismissed concerns, failed to warn about risky pets and has fallen behind on reforms.

A small tan dog appears in a window at the Seattle Animal Shelter

A sign on Theon’s kennel at the Seattle Animal Shelter explains to staff, volunteers and prospective adopters that he can be anxious and does better outside. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

Kassandra Rocker really wanted a new best friend. The local animal shelter matched her with Grubauer – a 2-year-old Catahoula Leopard dog named after Seattle Kraken goalie Philipp Grubauer – as a foster parent with the idea that it would lead to adoption. 

“We jogged together, and I got this, like, ‘Oh my god, this is my dog’ kind of feeling,” she said. “I had always dreamed of having a dog I could run with and it was amazing. I thought he was the damn cutest thing in the world.” 

Rocker had previously owned dogs, studied pre-veterinary medicine and worked at a veterinary hospital when she came to the Seattle Animal Shelter last fall. Yet it was not enough to prepare her. 

Grubauer had a history of biting, but Rocker said the shelter never warned her before she took him home. In their two days together, she suffered four biting incidents. 

By the last instance – which she described as a vicious attack resulting in her gushing blood – Rocker knew she could not handle Grubauer. 

“I still have a scar on my shoulders from a puncture wound, and I was so beat up. I was bruised everywhere. I was bloody, everywhere,” Rocker said. “I had to step out of myself and say, ‘You can’t handle this and that’s OK because there’s someone that can, I hope.’ It just needs to be known. You can’t just send Gru home with anybody.” 

This story is part of Cascade PBS’s WA Workplace Watch, an investigative project covering worker safety and labor in Washington state.

Seattle Animal Shelter dog handlers allege such incidents reflect an increasingly fraught culture at the organization. Volunteers have accused shelter leaders of disregarding safety complaints, retaliating against those who voice concerns and failing to communicate clearly on policies or risks — endangering animals and their handlers while also taking a mental toll on those who keep the shelter running. 

More than 20 current and former volunteers and staff spoke with Cascade PBS, many asking to remain anonymous or be identified by first name only to avoid retaliation or damaging relationships within the local shelter community. Cascade PBS also reviewed nearly 100 recorded incidents of bites and dozens of records ranging from detailed animal files to email exchanges, including multiple internal reports detailing reforms that have yet to be completed. 

Shelter director Esteban Rodriguez said he was aware of issues with communication and the workplace culture, but those can take time to fix as a government agency. He emphasized he considers safety his top priority and pointed to department policies that are modeled on industry best practices. 

“It actually hurts me to hear that people are saying the culture is toxic,” he told Cascade PBS. “We have a list of things that we’re doing that we’re currently engaging on and that we’re actively pursuing so that we can create a culture that is inclusive, a culture where people feel that they belong, and they can do their good work.”

But the mounting concerns have led many to leave the organization, taking with them at least a century of combined experience volunteering with the shelter. 

“I think it was sort of a progressive decline over time,” said Pavi, who volunteered at the shelter for a decade before leaving at the end of 2022. “It was just systemic issues. … It became clear to me that things were not on a path to change anytime soon.” 

Gail Williams hugs her newly adopted pit bull Ozzy outside the Seattle Animal Shelter. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS) 

Bite safety concerns

Most shelter workers will tell you: Bites come with the job. Working with animals means accepting a chance of being bitten, especially at a municipal shelter where they cannot choose which animals they take. 

But several longtime volunteers argue the shelter has adopted riskier practices for handling dogs with documented bite histories and should be doing more to prevent bites where possible. 

“It was pretty clear-cut that there was a change in policy in terms of what volunteers were allowed to do, and what kind of dogs we were allowed to walk,” explained a former volunteer with 15 years of experience at the shelter. “It’s only been in very recent times that volunteers were allowed to walk dogs with any bite history, and such significant bite history as they are being asked to walk today.” 

The volunteer said she suffered her first significant bite in 2019 despite having worked at the shelter for more than a decade prior.

“Staff asked me to walk a dog that was on active bite quarantine,” she said. “They handed me a leash over this dog’s head, and it turned out reaching over their head was the trigger, and it just launched at my shoulder and got me. That’s just the kind of thing that wouldn’t have ever happened in prior years.” 

Shelter spokesperson Melissa Mixon provided data showing bites have increased slightly since 2018, both in the number and in the percentage of animals brought in. Mixon said the shelter could not provide consistent data prior to 2018. The highest count of bites in a year was last year at 27 bites. 

However, those numbers do not include bites to foster parents or potential adopters. Mixon wrote in an email that the shelter implemented a new policy last month to use the same form to collect bite data from all sources. It also includes recording the severity of the bite, which had not been a standard practice in recording bites.

A dog bares its teeth and barks from inside its kennel at the Seattle Animal Shelter. A sign on her kennel explains that she is very reactive to strangers and other dogs. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

Many dog handlers also said they knew about bites that never got recorded in the animals’ reports. In a sample of records obtained by Cascade PBS, multiple injuries — including one bite — appeared on city incident forms that did not show up in the animal report, which is what is used to provide information to potential adopters and foster parents.

Volunteers often expressed increased concern for foster parents and potential adopters who they said were not receiving adequate support or information, like Rocker. 

Grubauer’s history of biting began shortly after he arrived at the shelter in May 2023 when he bit a volunteer hard enough to tear through a sleeve and bruise, according to shelter records. He had also been returned to the shelter once for biting before Rocker took him, but the shelter never shared that history publicly either before or after Rocker had him.

Instead, the shelter heavily promoted Grubauer, including in a guest appearance from the Kraken goalie Philipp Grubauer on the shelter’s Instagram account. The video shows the goalie holding a leash and giving treats, while the dog attempts to wander. 

“Grubie is still up for adoption, so come by and check him out,” the player said, adding that other animals are also available if Grubauer is not a good fit. 

Some of the messaging mentioned that staff would review medical and behavioral history at the shelter with adopters and foster parents – which Rodriguez said was shelter policy – but Rocker said that did not happen for her. Even after Grubauer first bit her, Rocker said she kept quiet about what happened because she thought that she must have caused it. 

“It’s always the owner’s fault, and I always say that,” she said. “I was keeping it to myself because I thought I was protecting the dog, and I was like, he must have been traumatized so badly in his past that he has a switch going off.” 

Another adopter also returned Grubauer a few months later for biting, saying they felt his behavioral history and needs were not reviewed in enough detail, according to the animal report. 

Volunteers argued the disconnect between the shelter’s internal notes and what they shared publicly posed one of the biggest risks to both workers and visitors. 

“I’ve had a few cases where a dog would be described as pretty easy or pretty straightforward, but then you would read the file and it would turn out this was not the case at all,” Pavi said. “Some of it, you know, there could be an error of omission maybe. Maybe they’re running short on time and they didn’t intend to not convey that info, but there was a very casual attitude that goes back quite some time.” 

Pavi – who left more than six months before Rocker took Grubauer home – contended that the discrepancy between internal and external messaging goes back before Rodriguez came on as director. 

“Where things progressively got worse were these long-term dogs that had been at the shelter for a really long time and you know their behaviors, you know their needs, but nothing was actually being done to support those dogs,” she said. “Week after week, the same dog goes on the emails and eventually someone would ... feel bad that the dog was in the shelter for so long, and they would offer [to take the dog] and something terrible would happen. Like the script repeated a few times.”

Volunteer Becca Werner walks Jerome in the neighborhood around the Seattle Animal Shelter, April 26, 2024. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS) 

Alleged retaliation  

When former Seattle Animal Shelter volunteer Gauri met with shelter managers on April 20, she brought up concerns she had about the shelter’s handling of dogs with bite histories. 

“We want to make sure that everybody has access to dogs and animals,” she recalled telling the managers. “However, are we doing it in a way that we’re ensuring that these animals aren’t just going to anybody? … What are we doing to ensure that we’re vetting out people to make sure that dogs are going into safe homes and people are being kept safe?”

Gauri said a manager had revoked her volunteer position by the end of the meeting. In response to questions about the meeting, Mixon wrote the shelter expects “input to be shared in a manner that is respectful.”

Several volunteers said they faced retaliation for voicing concerns – the primary reason most asked to remain anonymous. For some, the concern for the animals tips the scales on the side of staying quiet so they can continue their work, whether inside the shelter or with other organizations. 

“I really feel for our volunteers because a lot of them are really at their wits’ end of not being heard and of fear for their safety,” an employee at the shelter said. “They’re afraid to speak up because they’re afraid of just being fired as volunteers because we did go on a little spree of just firing a bunch of volunteers anytime they ask a question that our leadership didn’t want to hear.”

Volunteers described a pattern in which a volunteer would ask pointed questions or criticize a decision and shortly after be asked to meet in person with several managers or others in the city’s Finance and Administrative Services department, under which the animal shelter falls. 

“It feels like I’m walking into an ambush,” said a former volunteer who worked with the shelter for more than a decade. “I had heard from other volunteers that this is how they fire you, effectively.” 

She said she was told repeatedly that the meeting was not a time for her to defend herself. While she was not explicitly fired, she was told she no longer needed to foster, despite indications that they had been “desperate for foster parents.” She quit soon after. 

Kodiak peeks out from his kennel at the Seattle Animal Shelter, April 26, 2024. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

Another longtime cat volunteer, Ed Hutsell, said he was let go in 2023 after pointing out that he didn’t believe staff were collecting from previous cat owners a form that detailed behavioral history, which was key to finding a good adoption match. Hutsell said he had volunteered at the shelter for 12 years under three directors, and was asked to be on the hiring panel for a new volunteer coordinator only weeks before being let go. 

Shelter spokesperson Mixon said just four volunteers of nearly 600 had been fired in the past five years, adding via email that she “cannot underscore enough how rarely pausing or ending volunteer relationships occur.” 

Portrait of Rodriguez
Seattle Animal Shelter director Esteban Rodriguez

Rodriguez said feedback from volunteers is valuable and that volunteers can bring concerns to the volunteer coordinator and up the chain of command from there if necessary. He also said he would encourage them to speak with the ombuds office or the city’s human resources department. 

“What we don’t want is we don’t want them going outside of that to other avenues, right?” he said. “Because then it doesn’t get back to the shelter, and we can’t actually fix the problem.”

Gauri sent a letter detailing her experience with the shelter to the city’s human resources investigative unit. However, they told her they could not look into it because she was a volunteer – not an employee. 

Other volunteers, like dog foster parents Allegra Abramo and Catherine Weatbrook, said they were not directly fired, but noticed reduced shelter account access or communications after expressing concerns. 

Abramo, who had been a foster for nearly 20 years, said she stopped receiving emails for foster volunteers. When she asked about it, the foster coordinator responded that they were “unsure when or why this happened” but maybe there was confusion because Abramo “expressed a fair amount of discontent with the program.”

(Abramo is a journalist whose work has been published at Cascade PBS, most recently in 2022.)

Weatbrook volunteered as a foster parent for about a decade and was volunteering as a foster case manager when she noticed she was not receiving emails with new cases anymore. 

“You look around and go, ‘Gee, no one has called me in six months,’” Weatbrook said. “And that’s odd because I’m hearing that there’s many, many, many dogs in foster homes with brand-new foster parents.” 

She then found out they had stopped using volunteer case managers and emailed the volunteer coordinator at the time to get clarification and express her frustration. The deputy director emailed her back asking for a meeting to discuss her future with the shelter, Weatbrook said. Having heard about similar discussions with other volunteers, she quit. 

When asked, Mixon wrote via email: “It is not shelter policy, nor standard practice, to revoke an active volunteer’s access to shelter accounts.” 

A cork board at the Seattle Animal Shelter shows dogs that have been recently available for adoption. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

In early 2023, a group of volunteers from the dog foster team – including both Weatbrook and Abramo – sent shelter leaders a list of concerns and proposed recommendations. Seventeen volunteers – with an average of more than a decade of experience – signed the letter. Most of the signatories have since left the organization. 

The letter warned of declining volunteer morale, recent departures of experienced volunteers and increased risks to workers and the public from shelter practices on handling dogs with bite histories. 

“It seems only a matter of time before the City of Seattle is confronted with a lawsuit,” volunteers wrote in the letter. “We know that [Seattle Animal Shelter] leadership and management do not want anyone to get hurt. We want to work together to minimize the chances of serious injury, and take quick action to support those who do get hurt in the line of duty.” 

Shelter director Rodriguez said he believes that many of them left because they wanted to maintain the processes that they had developed. 

“They ended up leaving because we were taking ownership of that body of work, right? Because we needed to establish, OK, how do we get the best resources to our fosters. ... How do we include everybody?” he said. “They wanted to keep it the status quo, and I wasn’t going to keep it the status quo. We’re going to make a little bit of a shift and include more people, bring more people into our organization. That’s why I kinda say, well, there’s two sides to the story.” 

Several foster parents also told Cascade PBS they were asked to return the animals they were fostering after questioning or criticizing the shelter, and many chose to adopt the animal – whether they wanted it or not – because they said they did not trust the shelter to find it a good fit for adoption.

“I grew up visiting that shelter,” said former critter volunteer Kari Pelaez, who quit in March 2023 after four years. “It was a great place to adopt from, and now I’m sad because I wouldn’t recommend anyone to go there. I don’t trust that they have the animal’s best interests at heart, and I know they don’t have the volunteers’ best interests at heart.”

Safety concerns and other issues have been raised by current and former volunteers at the Seattle Animal Shelter. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

Consultants suggest reforms

The shelter has hired consultants to evaluate its practices three times in the past two years. The Performance Dimensions GROUP provided a report in 2022. Maddie’s Fund – a national animal care organization – delivered its findings in May 2023, and the organization Rachel at the Shelter issued a report in July. 

“Every time things go badly in the shelter, they either hire a new layer of management or they hire a consultant to tell them what they’re doing wrong,” former volunteer Hutsell said. 

Find tools and resources in Cascade PBS’s Check Your Work guide to search workplace safety records and complaints for businesses in your community.

The Maddie’s Fund report offered a mix of recommendations, with nearly half aimed at improving the organization broadly and the rest geared toward improving animal welfare and outcomes. Many of the recommendations in both categories involve creating or updating standard operating procedures, creating clear lines of communication and expectations and increased training. 

The report also specifically noted strained relationships within the shelter, and describes the issue as urgent. It recommended creating a clear procedure for reporting code of conduct violations and creating “an environment of openness and transparency where staff and volunteers clearly understand their role in conflicts.” 

“All staff and volunteers need to very clearly understand that [Seattle Animal Shelter] is committed to inclusivity and respect for staff, volunteers, and the public,” the report concluded. “There is a tendency amongst some staff and volunteers to disrespect or villainize others instead of utilizing a trauma informed approach and working to understand others’ situations and support them.”

Similarly, the Rachel at the Shelter report – which focused on the shelter’s foster programs – included a section on foster volunteer communications and roles, saying that many volunteers expressed discontent with a lack of clear expectations and a “perceived discarding” of requests and concerns. 

“The natural power dynamic between leadership and their team or leadership and their volunteers (at any organization) complicates this,” the report elaborated. “When one party has the technical power to enact change that another invested party is advocating for and feels powerless to do anything about, that is a dynamic to be very conscious of.” 

Related recommendations included clarifying volunteer roles, centralizing documents, creating consistent meetings and allowing room for mistakes because “the lack of written processes have contributed to an environment where a not-insignificant number of volunteers feel they may have certain privileges revoked for crossing lines that were not clearly communicated to them.”

Dogs at the Seattle Animal Shelter peek out from their kennels, April 26, 2024. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

Based on these reports, Rodriguez said he wrote a two-year plan to implement the recommendations. The plan – the first of its kind since 2014, according to Mixon – includes 245 action items and a timeline to be completed between January 2024 and January 2026. 

“We’re a city entity and things move a little slow, and that’s OK,” Rodriguez said. “But we are making progress, and we’re making progress in the right direction.”

Shelter leadership had completed just 17 of the 245 recommendations within the first four months of 2024, putting the reforms behind schedule based on the benchmarks within the plan. 

Many recommendations carry over verbatim from the consulting reports. Some are clear, tangible items, such as creating an organizational chart for the foster team. Others are more broad or vague, such as “more emphasis on post-placement support” for foster parents.  

Some recommendations also overlap. For example, two separate recommendations describe the need to create standard operating procedures for different volunteer roles, with different timeframes for each.

A few of the recommendations addressed decision-making and communication for animals at risk of euthanasia. 

Rocker repeatedly said she feared Grubauer would be euthanized – even getting into arguments with her veterinary clinic co-workers who said they thought it was necessary. 

Grubauer went to a foster or adoption home and was returned 11 times in total, mostly over bites, according to his animal report. On Feb. 22, at just under 3 years old, Grubauer was euthanized.

During her last biting incident, Rocker knew she couldn’t get Grubauer back to the shelter on her own. She said she called animal control at the behest of her girlfriend, and a police officer showed up to take him away. It broke Rocker’s heart. 

“I looked at Gru, and I looked in his eyes, and he was such a good dog. Like, I could feel it. It just didn’t make sense,” she said as her voice began to shake. “He was just laying down looking at me like, ‘Where is this guy taking me?’ And I just felt like I fucking failed him. But my girlfriend was like, ‘You didn’t fail him. They failed us.’”


Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Catherine Weatbrook. We have also corrected our characterization of injuries appearing in city incident forms that did not show up in animal reports.

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