The Baldwin animal shelter

The Baldwin animal shelter run by Baltimore County Animal Services (BCAS) (Van Smith / June 25, 2014)

Last June, long before activists began a campaign to protest conditions and policies at the animal shelter run by Baltimore County Animal Services (BCAS) in Baldwin, Md., cat-rescuer Denise Arnot says she learned what can happen to those who lodge criticisms about the facility: They're cut off from rescuing the shelter's animals. Now, Arnot is fighting back. On April 7, she filed a First Amendment lawsuit in Maryland U.S. District Court against the shelter's director, Charlotte Crenson, seeking $1 million in punitive damages for retaliation.

The lawsuit claims that on June 2, 2013, Crenson violated the free-speech rights of Arnot, a Washington, D.C., resident and volunteer rescue coordinator for the Virginia-based Fancy Cats Rescue Team, by banning Fancy Cats from pulling animals from the shelter for adoption after Arnot criticized shelter management in an email to Crenson. The ban was issued about four hours after Arnot sent her email, a missive prompted by the death of several kittens Arnot had rescued from BCAS shortly after they'd been pulled from the shelter, which is decried in rescue circles for its high rate of euthanasia and low rate of adoption.

"The level of illness" among animals rescued from BCAS "is staggering," stated Arnot's email, which is attached as an exhibit to her lawsuit. "Cats arrive healthy to your shelter and contract deadly illnesses," she added, and then "they are improperly medicated, and the burden of the illness is passed onto [the] rescue [organization]." The email contended that "adoptions are practically non-existent" at BCAS, that "rescues are afraid to work with the shelter," and that "those in charge do not seem interested in making improvements."

Crenson's reply was succinctly polite in driving home its main point: "I am removing your organization from our rescue partner list" because "I am more comfortable working with partners who are able to select their rescue candidates in person."

Arnot, in response, wrote that she was "shocked" by Crenson's decision, and explained that "your staff is quite qualified to recommend which animals need help and frankly we do not like to come in and 'shop' for which cat to save because we want to see them all rescued." She added that "our foster homes are amply qualified to handle sick cats," but "these cats were not only sick, they were dying. If you honestly believe that turning your back on [a] rescue who is willing to work with you is the proper reaction, then I would say that the problem is much bigger than I realized."

Arnot's attorney, Howard Hoffman, says "I thought Denise Arnot's remarks" in the emails "couldn't have been more courteous, more helpful, more polite," pointing out that it also provided several specific suggestions for BCAS improvement: boost its volunteer staff, increase adoptions, and advertise pets for adoption. "What Denise Arnot did was blow the whistle," Hoffman contends, "and when citizens speak out and blow the whistle, they are at the zenith of First Amendment protections."

Assistant county attorney Paul Mayhew, who's representing Crenson, said in an email that "the case is in active litigation," so "Baltimore County declines to comment specifically on the allegations." He added, though, that "the County strenuously denies any wrongdoing and anticipates that the case will be resolved in favor of Ms. Crenson." County officials have publicly responded to protesters' concerns with denials that there is anything amiss with the shelter's conditions or policies.

"The response to Denise Arnot was wrong," Hoffman argues, "and when Baltimore County stands up and admits what was wrong here, we will have a very quick resolution of this case." Otherwise, he says, "we expect to have a trial," and during the course of litigation, he says he'll "be looking for other whistleblowers" to bolster the case.

The ranks of potential whistleblowers has been growing, since former BCAS volunteers and other animal advocates have coalesced in recent months as a group calling itself Reform Baltimore County Animal Services. Spokesperson Lynn Greene says it formed about three months ago as an effort to convince Baltimore County to reform BCAS, and it has since organized four media-attracting protests in April and May in front of the historic Baltimore County Courthouse in Towson and held vigils at high-visibility intersections in remembrance of pets that have died in BCAS care. The next vigil is scheduled for June 13 at 8:45 p.m., at the intersection of Fairmount Avenue and Dulaney Valley Road.

"We are a group of concerned citizens," says Greene, who believes Arnot's treatment is not unique. "Animal-advocacy organizations that have attempted to work with the shelter have been stonewalled and some of them have been banned from pulling animals out of there for speaking out about the conditions," she says. "What has been common," she adds, "is the management has actually retaliated against the rescue organizations and the volunteers for advocating for the animals over the conditions, treatment, policies, and procedures. It is retaliatory behavior that is really disturbing, and it speaks to the way that government reacts to concerns and criticisms."

Adding to the allegations of retaliatory conduct is Arnot's belief that Baltimore County, in the course of defending themselves from her lawsuit, are intimidating members of the rescue community, according to a May 26 filing Hoffman made in the case. She "believes that members of Baltimore County government (possibly its Law Department) have been contacting members of Baltimore's animal rescue community and requesting that they turn over their private communications (emails) between themselves" and Arnot, the filing states. The requests, it continues, "are highly intimidating to the rescue community, especially [to] those who have witnessed" how Arnot's group has suffered "termination of rescue privileges." It adds that "members of the rescue community may believe that refusal to comply may result in future difficulties in their own ability to rescue animals from BCAS."

Hoffman says Baltimore County's "investigative techniques" in litigating Arnot's complaint add another dimension to what the case is about-it's "not just about advocating for better treatment of animals, but also about how the government interacts with citizens and how it collects data from us," since the government "is attempting to obtain private communications between citizens without going through the proper channels of discovery and subpoenas in the course of litigation."

"Rescue people have a strong moral calling," Hoffman points out, "and it's retaliation for the government to restrict someone's rescue privileges simply because they don't like what they say."