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Veterinary tech wins whistleblower lawsuit against city of Aztec

Longtime city of Aztec employee spoke up about animal shelter
Kellie Willits, with Syndey, rescued from the Aztec Animal Shelter about four years ago. David Edward Albright/Tri-City Record

Kellie Willits, a former veterinarian tech at the Aztec Animal Shelter, was terminated on May 12, 2022. In September, she brought a lawsuit against the City of Aztec alleging a violation of the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act.

Willits said she loved her job and the lawsuit was an attempt to bring attention to abuse at the animal shelter and change certain practices.

Daniel C. Apodaca, with the Saucedo-Chavez Law Firm in Albuquerque, said in a statement released Feb. 2 that after a brief investigation the city agreed to settle Wilits’ claims for $95,000.

Aztec City Manager Jeff Blackburn responded in an email with “no comment.”

The complaint filed by Apodaca included 57 elements, and violating the Whistleblower Act, retaliating against Willits and the wrongful, illegal and tortiously firing of Willits.

Element 57 stated, “as a direct and proximate cause and result of defendant’s (city of Aztec) actions, Willits has been injured and suffered damages, in an amount to be shown at trial.”

As a nearly 17-year Aztec Animal Shelter employee, Williets’ primary duties were assisting with spay and neuter operations. She worked with Dr. Chris Bauer for 14 years in than 17,000 operations.

“That’s not counting amputations or surgeries for other types of injuries,” said Willits, who occasionally served as an animal control officer.

“I was always really proud of the fact that we stood on doing what was right for the animals,” she said.

Willits said she never received a verbal reprimand or write-up.

Best Friends Animal Society grant

Willits said problems arose after the Aztec Animal Shelter received a Best Friends grant from the Animal Society in 2020 to provide funding to trap and neuter feral and stray cats, then release them to their capture site.

Best Friends established a “no-kill” benchmark that “90% of the cats and dogs coming into the shelter must be saved.” The program required that the treated animals be released quickly so that they didn’t become sick or use resources like food, medical supplies and laundry, Willits said.

The three-day turnaround was extended to seven days because the shelter had a veterinarian one day a week, Willits said.

Kellie Willits holds one of her tortoises. (David Edward Albright/Tri-City Record)
Willits’ concerns

Willits first became concerned that cats were not being released in a timely manner.

“They were being housed in the cat room and the cat building for weeks at a time,” she said. “There were arguments over who's gonna pay to drive the cat back.”

Willits thought it was a misuse of grant money to continue to shelter cats while facing overcrowding and health concerns such as upper-respiratory infections and ringworm. As surgeries increased, it became harder to find a place to put the cats.

“My concern was it's not safe to do above a certain number,” she said, because they must be monitored.

First inspection by the Best Friends staff

Willits’ complaint states that in 2020 the shelter turned away from doing what was right for the animals as managers became concerned that when Best Friends visited once or twice a year for an inspection, there would be no empty kennels.

“Management made the comment that the grant people couldn't come here and see all of these cat kennels,” Willits said.

According to Willits, they began releasing cats out the back door of the shelter. The first time it was about 30 cats, and after that they began releasing cats when she was away from the shelter, she said.

She also said cats and dogs were improperly classified as temperament severe or aggressive, and were euthanized, even though the shelter advertised as being a slow-kill, not a no-kill, shelter that did not euthanize because of problems of limited space.

Initially, Willits spoke with supervisors and others.

“The more I voiced concerns about it, the more they kind of froze me out,” she said.

Willits said she told her supervisor that friendly dogs were being advertised on their website (http://www.aztecnm.gov/animalshelter.html), as available for adoption and were not being sent to a rescue organization to get a chance.

“Euthanasia does have to happen … there’s not enough homes. … I understand that there is a place for that, but after we've exhausted every possibility,” said Willits, adding that dogs were listed on the computer as unavailable.

“When I asked why aren't we exhausting every possibility before euthanasia, I was told, because if people know that they're here, then we can't euthanize them without creating an uproar about it,” Willits said.

Kellie Willits has taken in many animals, including birds and baby rabbits. She is now providing care for kittens. David Edward Albright/Tri-City Record
‘Cold, hostile environment’

Willits said anyone who spoke out was treated poorly and the environment grew cold and hostile.

“We were supposed to be their safe place … for the homeless and abused animals, and I didn’t feel like that was happening,” Willits said.

“It was none of my none of my concern, I was told,” Willits said.

The critical factors in determining euthanasia are temperament and illness. And those classifications can easily be manipulated or mislabeled, Willits said.

Willits said she stuck to her job, but began keeping emails and text messages from former employees and rescue groups.

“I could feel it coming … because I had never in my 16-and-a-half-years ever been treated that way,” Willits said.

She was told that she was not allowed to speak to the rescue coordinator, whom she was sending photos of dogs listed as unavailable.

“No one was speaking to me, and there were meetings behind closed doors,” Willits said.

In a text message, Willits was told to have a face-to-face meeting with kennel supervisor Lisa Tucker, shelter director Tina Roper and four others.

According to the complaint, Willits did not feel comfortable meeting with Tucker, without other staff being present. She communicated this to Roper.

Willits told the Tri-City Record that she also contacted the Aztec Human Resources department to request a meeting, but did not get a response.

“For reasons unclear, the Aztec Animal Shelter, apparently in coordination with the City of Aztec HR Department, determined that Ms. Willit’s actions were considered ‘insubordination’ and that she was to receive a verbal reprimand,” the complaint states.

Willits received the verbal reprimand toward the end of her workday and had a discussion with Roper expressing her concern about the reprimand. According to the complaint, the conversation intensified and Willits thought it best for her to leave roughly one hour early.

The complaint continues that Roper and Willits walked to her truck, but she felt no concern about leaving early, as this was routine practice at the shelter if work was complete.

About 5:55 p.m., Willits received an email asking her to meet with various staff at City Hall the next morning, according to the complaint.

The complaint states that Willits believed this would be the meeting scheduled for the previous day. However, she was handed the intent to terminate her employment. The reason stated was abandoning her job by leaving early the previous day.

The complaint states that her reason for termination was due to Willits’ continued pressing into various improper actions and inaccurate reporting of kills at the shelter.

Willits, who was awarded unemployment, said her real desire was to have her say and show her evidence.

“I can't do any more than what's in my realm,” she said. “And I feel like going public and trying to get people to look at this situation and delve deeper … ask in-depth questions … might keep them more accountable.”

“It was never about the money. I would have gone through this if it was zero. It was for the animals and hopefully by me doing it will give someone else courage to speak up,” she said.

She said good people at the shelter are afraid of retaliation.

“I understand they need the job. But there is a point where if you don't stand up for what's right, then you're just part of what's wrong,” Willits said.