Dozens of animals have been removed — and reported stolen — from the animal clinic at Philadelphia's Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in the midst of a dispute between the organization's executive director and the former head of wildlife rehabilitation.
For months, tensions over personnel matters have been escalating at the Roxborough center, which is one of the few facilities in the region that could accept orphaned or injured wildlife until they were healthy enough for release. Animals that could survive, but were disabled, had become permanent fixtures used for educational programs at the center, in schools, or for children's programs.
Now Jackson, the great horned owl, and Maiden, the turkey vulture, are among the animals taken. Whether the animals were actually stolen or legally transferred to other facilities is unclear.
It's no mystery who was behind the disappearance of the animals. Rick Schubert, who was fired last week as the center's wildlife rehabilitation director, said he coordinated with others who still had access to the clinic to move the animals to other wildlife centers where there were licensed professionals who would administer appropriate care.
Schubert's dismissal, according to the center's executive director, Mike Weilbacher, was the result of "serious complaints" by volunteers and visitors. Citing legal concerns, Weilbacher declined to provide details of the complaints.
Schubert called the complaints "baseless," and said he was unfairly fired after providing an affidavit regarding discrimination and harassment complaints filed by another employee. Weilbacher said that is not true. Although Schubert was good at his job handling animals, he said, the complaints by others were serious enough to warrant dismissal.
With Schubert gone last week, problems emerged at the center, including what is now a bitter custody dispute over the animals, and how they were secretly smuggled out of the facility over the weekend.
Schubert, a respected rehabilitation officer, has garnered support from coworkers and volunteers. On Monday, about a dozen people picketed at the center on Hagys Mill Road, with signs that said the clinic was underfunded. One sign read, "No Schubert, no clinic, very sad."
Lisa Gruber, a volunteer who organized the picketing, described Schubert as a "beloved rehabber" who did his best to give new life to animals. "Our reason to protest was the unfair firing of Rick."
While the protesters were outside the clinic, Weilbacher discovered that all of the animals had been taken — a surprise, he said, because when he was there over the weekend, everything seemed fine. He did see Frankie the goat and another goat being taken, but he was told they were going for routine vet care, he said.
Then on Monday, he discovered that a litter of squirrels that were to be released were missing, along with Jackson and Maiden, the goats, and some chickens. Loki, one of the owls, and Russell Crow also were gone. In all, Weilbacher said he was trying to determine what happened to about 40 animals, and he called police to report them stolen.
A police spokesman said Wednesday that the department is investigating the complaint.
"We intend to press all charges," Weilbacher said.
Schubert said the animals were not stolen, but taken because the center was being "unreasonable" and operating illegally without a licensed professional.
It was his responsibility, he said, to make sure the animals continued to receive good care or to place the animals with another licensed professional.
Weilbacher said that he appointed another employee as the acting director for wildlife rehabilitation and that he was working with the Pennsylvania Game Commission to ensure that the animals received proper care. The acting director needs to renew her license, he said. And, the center is searching for another licensed wildlife rehabilitation worker as well.
Philadelphia-based Game Commission Officer Jerry Czech said that had the animals not been taken, the state would have allowed them to stay at the center as long as a licensed professional was hired in the near future. The center had the staff to care for the animals but would not have been allowed to take in new ones.
"Rick was the rehabber," Czech said. Without him, the center does not have the needed licensed worker to take in new animals. Technically, the animals that were there also needed a licensed worker, but there were people capable of providing care. "If they wanted to take in a raccoon today, that would be illegal," he said.
The commission does not oversee farm animals such as the goats and chickens. The commission will not get in the middle of the fight between Weilbacher and Schubert, Czech said. Its only interest is to make sure all the animals have proper care. It appears they were placed in appropriate facilities, he said.
It may be up to the police to decide whether some or all of the animals were stolen or whether there is a basis for criminal charges, Czech said.