Volunteer who criticized conditions at L.A. animal shelter says she was fired

San Pedro, CA - September 20: Jan Bunker, shown in front of the Los Angeles Harbor Animal Shelter, has worked for three years at the LA Harbor Animal Shelter. She alleges that the department has no system to oversee the feeding and care of small mammals such as rabbits and guinea pigs, leaving that care to the volunteers. She said that she has come into the shelter to find the animals lacking food and water. She also said that volunteers are forced to buy food sometimes because the shelter runs out of food. She is the latest volunteer to allege inhumane treatment of the animals. Photo taken at LA Harbor Animal Shelter, San Pedro, CA on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Jan Bunker, shown outside the Los Angeles Harbor Animal Shelter, said she was dismissed Friday by the city. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

A volunteer who criticized the city of L.A.'s care of rabbits and other small mammals at the San Pedro animal shelter in a recent Times story said she was fired by the city on Friday.

Jan Bunker, 74, said she was dismissed by Juan Rivera, director of volunteer programs at Animal Services.

She said Rivera told her she was being "insubordinate" after she refused his request to give up her phone ahead of a meeting with him at the Harbor shelter Friday.

Animal Services spokesperson Agnes Sibal said the department doesn’t comment on personnel issues.

Bunker and other volunteers recently described seeing small mammals without food and water and having to spend their own money on supplies for the animals.

Thousands of rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters come through the city's six shelters each year. At several shelters, volunteers said the city relies too heavily on them to do the work of caring for the small mammals.

Bunker, an entertainer and piano and voice instructor who lives in San Pedro, said department staff asked her to come in for a meeting. When she arrived, she said, she was told to hand over her personal phone.

Bunker said that she wanted to keep the phone to record the meeting and that she challenged Rivera's request to give up the device.

"I said, 'Are you a lawyer, Juan?'" Bunker said. "'Are you sure you know my legal rights? Because my lawyer says I have a right to have a phone.'"

"He said, 'You’re being insubordinate. This meeting is over,'" Bunker said. She was then told to be escorted out.

"Then he yelled, 'You’re fired!'" Bunker said.

Bunker criticized City Councilman Paul Koretz, who oversees animal issues at the city, for the state of Animal Services.

"The buck stops with him," Bunker said. "Animal Services — they’re just so poorly run and there’s no accountability.”

Koretz told The Times that he values the city's volunteers but doesn't know enough about Bunker's situation to respond. "I expect to release my report on the department within the next week or so along with a first set of proposals to start addressing the issues at L.A. Animal Services, including both the volunteer program and small animals," Koretz said.

The city leans heavily on volunteers to walk dogs, do laundry and complete an array of other tasks at its animal shelters.

Media scrutiny of the shelters has exacerbated tensions between Animal Services staff and some volunteers, who can face dismissal if they publicly criticize the department. Another volunteer, Claudio Kusnier, was dismissed this summer after he criticized conditions at the West Valley shelter.

Kusnier told The Times that staff informed him that he was dismissed for several reasons, including not wearing a mask at the shelter.

One volunteer, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, said Bunker’s dismissal is the exact reason volunteers are hesitant to speak out for fear of losing their positions.

The dismissals also make recruiting people more difficult, the volunteer said.

“If we’re not there every day to kind of see what's happening to the animals, they may suffer from us not being there,” the volunteer said. “It’s so much more than cleaning. It’s checking medical conditions, it’s updating photos, putting out feelers, interacting with adopters. So we need every volunteer we can get.”

Harrison Wollman, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Wollman said last week the city is working on adding staff at the shelters.

City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents South L.A. and sits on the committee that oversees animal issues, said Thursday that he visited the city animal shelter in his district this week.

“I saw the general neglect of the overall facility,” Harris-Dawson said, adding that the small-mammal room was a “mess.”

“People have been raising [issues] at this shelter for me, and I definitely saw and felt what they’re saying,” he said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.