SPCA worker dismissal over cat unjustified

KATIE KENNY
Last updated 15:05 10/12/2013

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A former employee of the Otago Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will be paid $12,000 in compensation after she was unjustifiably dismissed and baselessly accused of "traumatising" a cat.

The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) ruled last month that dog handler Keryn Aiken, 42, was unjustifiably dismissed after her employer alleged she traumatised a cat called Fabio.

Aiken started working as an animal attendant at the Otago SPCA in September 2009.

From December that year her duties included caring for pound dogs and cleaning out the pound.
One of Aiken's duties as a dog handler was to assess dogs' suitability for adoption. Any dog that did not pass the assessment would be put down.

In November 2011, Aiken was tasked with reassessing a dog named Shia, with particular focus on how the dog behaved around cats.

Part of this assessment involved walking the dog on a lead past one of the SPCA's resident cats, which roamed free and was therefore able to easily escape if the dog misbehaved.

An assistant volunteer suggested Fabio be used for the assessment because he was a friendly cat.

When Fabio caught sight of Shia he lept from the assistant's arms and ran away. Shia lunged at the cat, but was restrained by another volunteer.

The ERA found that Aiken did not attempt to hide what had happened during Shia's assessment. She even asked another staff member whether they had seen the events on the closed-circuit television monitor.

After several people had viewed the CCTV footage, it was decided that Fabio had been "subjected to trauma".

Aiken was suspended while the SPCA investigated the "serious misconduct", which it alleged was a "potential breach of the Animal Welfare Act".

The volunteers disagreed with Aiken's employers and maintained that Fabio was not harmed.

While suspended, Aiken became distressed and her mental health "deteriorated rapidly and severely".

She started having suicidal thoughts and was admitted to emergency psychiatric services at Dunedin Hospital.

She was too unwell to attend disciplinary meetings.

At the beginning of December 2011, the SPCA dismissed Aiken on the grounds that her actions had "seriously traumatised" Fabio and jeopardised the SPCA's reputation as members of the public had witnessed the incident.

On February 16 last year, Aiken raised personal grievances that she had been unjustifiably disadvantaged by her suspension, dismissal and during her employment.

The ERA recognised that "the SPCA is a public organisation wholly dependent on donations and grants, many of which come from members of the public", but did not find reason worthy of Aiken's dismissal.

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It found that the SPCA did not comply with the rules of a proper dismissal.

It said "there was simply no evidence the SPCA had that Fabio was seriously traumatised".

"Her intention was to prevent Shia's death if it could be prevented," it said.

"Her intentions were good, although she showed a lack of judgment and could be said to have elevated Shia's welfare over Fabio's."

Aiken wanted to be reinstated but the ERA found that inappropriate and instead ordered the SPCA to pay Aiken $12,000 in compensation.

Costs were reserved.

- Fairfax Media

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