by Sue Ann Rybak
When Former Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education wildlife clinic director Rick Schubert was fired from his post on Jan. 22 – a post he had held for 13 years – all hell broke loose.
First, volunteers at the center and other supporters protested with picket signs in the street in front of the center – an uncommon occurrence at the well-liked facility.
And then a public spat between Schubert and the SCEE broke out after the center accused the former director of taking the center’s animals home with him. The center claimed the animals were stolen. Schubert said as the sole licensed wildlife rehabber in the center, it was his duty to take the animals with him. Accusations flew back and forth, and the story made the Inquirer on Jan. 31.
But the story behind Schubert’s breakup with the SCEE stems from an episode that didn’t make the Inquirer story about stolen animals. Schubert said he was fired from the center last month in retaliation for his testimony in a lawsuit brought by Mark Tinneny, a former groundskeeper who filed charges of discrimination and harassment with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Tinneny was fired in 2014. The SCEE later settled with Tinneny.
“I was fired because of EEOC testimony, which was unfortunately damaging to Schuylkill Center,” Schubert said in an email to the Local. “I can’t really comment on the case, other than I believe my testimony was retaliated against by the Schuylkill Center. I filed my own EEOC retaliation complaint last summer, long before anything else happened, and I had feared for my job all the way back then.”
According to court documents the Local obtained in Tinneny’s lawsuit, Schubert testified that in a meeting on July 9, 2014, Mike Weilbacher, SCEE executive director, told him that Tinneny was no longer allowed at the clinic and “not to engage with him in anyway.”
According to the affidavit dated May 25, 2017, Schubert claims SCEE Executive Director Mike Weilbacher said: “If it’s the Schuylkill Center versus Mark [Tinneny], you have to be [for]the Schuylkill Center. You are Schuylkill Center. You are director level.”
“I felt threatened that if I spoke to or cooperated with Mr. Tinneny my job would be at risk,” Schubert said.
Schubert’s dismissal, according to Weilbacher, has nothing to do with retaliation for his testimony but was the result of “serious complaints” against Schubert by volunteers and visitors to the center.
“He was fired because there were multiple allegations of workplace misconduct by volunteers,” Weilbacher said. “We conducted an independent investigation about those complaints and we found them credible, and at the end of the day we were forced to take action that we did.”
Schubert has his own ongoing EEOC challenge to his termination pending.
“I have the right to sue,” Schubert said. “At the moment I am not pursuing a lawsuit for a lack of resources,” he said. “I am not looking to get anything out of the Schuylkill Center. I will sue them in the future if I have to. I definitely have the right to sue them and the cause, because they are causing me a lot of damage.”
Since his departure, the SCEE wildlife clinic has been closed. Weilbacher said the closure is a temporary inconvenience while the organization searches for a new director.
Schubert defended his actions to take the animals, arguing that without him, there were no licensed professionals to keep the clinic open.
“The PA Game Commission licenses individuals, not institutions,” Schubert said. “In other words, my permits to practice wildlife rehab are mine alone, not the Schuylkill Center’s, and I have a legal obligation to see them through, or else I can be held personally liable. If I leave or am fired, the permits go with me.”
Prior to being fired, Schubert said he wrote a letter to the board hoping to initiate a conversation about the benefits of the wildlife clinic separating from the Schuylkill Center.
“The clinic was operating on 25 percent of the budget, staff, and resources of other comparable-sized wildlife centers,” he said. “Despite years of whistle-blowing to Schuylkill Center, we could not get them to change, nor (as a sub-program of the Schuylkill Center) was the Wildlife Clinic free to seek out its own resources. The mission statement of the Schuylkill Center does not include wildlife rehabilitation.”
After the dispute between Schubert and the SCEE over the animals he took from the center, more than 50 volunteers who had staffed the wildlife clinic quit in protest.
Lisa Gruber, a volunteer at SCEE wildlife clinic described Schubert as a “beloved rehabber” and the lifeblood of the clinic.
“The reason the Schuylkill Center was allowed [by the state] to have these animals on the property was only because Rick Schubert was there to treat and oversee those animals– even those individuals who would handle the education animals for SCEE’s beloved programs had to be sub-permitted under Rick Schubert in order to do so,” said Gruber, who helped organize a protest when Schubert was fired. “These rules are there to maintain the highest of ethical standards within the field of wildlife rehabilitation, and for the safety of the animals and the humans working with them.”
Gruber said most of the volunteers of the old wildlife clinic who have resigned in protest similarly hold Schubert in high regard.
“Volunteers have been outspoken in their support of the character and integrity of Mr. Schubert as both a person and a professional,” she said. “In a facility that had over 4,000 patient intakes and fielded over 15,000 phone calls in 2017, it can be expected that the emotional nature of these interactions could have angered a small percentage of people who may not agree in one way or another of how wildlife issues must be handled. We believe that these ‘outlier’ interactions may have also been used to make a case against Mr. Schubert. The number of positive, informative, and professional interactions vastly outweigh anything that could be construed as negative.”
Gruber added that volunteers with the help of veterinarians, rehabbers, donors and other community members are currently working to open a new facility – the Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center (PMWC). A meeting to organize the new clinic will take place on February 20 at the Andorra Public Library, 705 E. Cathedral Rd., from 6 to 7:30 p.m.