Volunteers protest the firing of Wildlife Clinic director Rick Schubert at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.

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.

  • oneeyedjaxx

    We can’t wait to have a new, positive force for wildlife care in the Philadelphia area!

  • Lisa Reifsnyder Gruber

    Seeing SWRC close was hard, but we are looking forward and we are so excited to launch our new wildlife clinic, Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center, soon!

  • StandsWithWildlife

    Very happy to get the real story, rather than the misleading statements by an ED desperate to save face. Even happier that plans are moving forward for new, improved facility that will be caring for our local wildlife! Thank you, http://www.wrspa.org, for helping!

  • Ben Goldman

    It is very clear that the statements from Mike are overstated and under substantiated. Anyone who knows Rick knows that he was the driving force behind all that was good and charitable at the Schuylkill Center. They should be ashamed for the way he and the animals were treated last month- as an afterthought to the profitability of their “environmental center”. I’m looking forward to see the new center that Rick will spearhead. It is sure to be an improvement and safe haven for compassionate wild animal care.

  • Danja Snow

    Cannot wait to continue my volunteer work under Rick at the PMWC!!!!

  • SquirrelWhisperer63

    Looking forward to the meeting to get an update on the new clinic. I know it will be bigger and better and everything we’ve all dreamed about for such a very long time.

  • Carol Bowers

    I was glad to read an account in a local newspaper from Rick Schubert’s point of view. I have been very impressed by how Rick and Michele Welland, assistant wildlife rehabber at the Schuylkill Wildlife Clinic have conducted themselves during this whole episode, unnecessarily created by Mr. Weilbacher’s unprofessional actions toward the clinic. I look forward with great anticipation to the future opening of the Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center; and to volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center which is able to fund, direct and focus its efforts on the mission of rehabilitating and releasing wildlife.

    • Julienne Scanlon

      I’ve brought many animals there and met Mr. schubert personally. This is a tragedy, but I am so glad to learn from these comments about the new center opening.

  • Kathy McCarron

    PMWC has momentum! The positive, passionate energy is making it happen. Having a clinic with a sound facility, supportive leadership and a focused purpose will be a dream come true for so many. These stewards of our animal kingdom deserve it, as do the critters in need of care.

  • Bruce Bowers

    As a five year volunteer at the closed wildlife clinic, I joyfully look forward to the opening of the new PMWC. As a retired teacher I have experienced many situations in which administrators fancy themselves as instructional leaders when the reality is that they know little about teaching and learning. I say this with sincere respect for the handful of principals who break that mold. Wildlife rehabilitation requires a commitment to wildlife – something clearly missing under the auspices of the SCEE.

  • Ray Belikoff

    “The mission statement of the Schuylkill Center does not include wildlife rehabilitation ” says Mr. Schubert , and therein lies the key to understanding the entire conflict. The only wildlife SCEE is interested in is the “goose ” that laid the golden eggs, which was the clinic. For many years it has been the only charity I’ve donated to, including once, when bringing a sick raccoon, I donated a $100.00 bill my wife found in Carpenter’s Woods. I’m certain many others donated also under the impression it would directly benefit the animals. I regret Hhow my money had been mimisdirected in the past, but looking forward , for the Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center, wildlife rehab’s not only their mission, but their raison d’etre.

  • Sam Katz

    I was curious why this post attracted so many commenters. So I did some research. Seems as though this all stems from Mark Tinneny seeing a fellow employee buying some pot and alerting authorities. Fine, he did his duty. His subsequent protesting when nothing was done was probably overkill. For pot – really?

    Seems like he was a dedicated, hardworking employee though, from what people are saying – which I appreciate, but getting this riled up over a likely personal use pot purchase speaks to some deep routed brainwashing about the horrors of marijuana- which simply has no basis in science.

    Also, leaders often choose to not react because some employees don’t have (nor do they have the right to) all the information. What if this person had cancer? Or a dying child?

    • Julienne Scanlon

      Mr. Katz, you are incorrect. That complaint was not simply about a man smoking or buying marijuana; it was about an employee operating heavy equipment under the influence, right next to small children, and inviting his drug dealer to make deals in front of the pre-school. I am not anti-pot legalization but I certainly don’t want my kids near someone who is impaired and operating heavy machinery and could hurt someone! Moreover, Schuylkill Center covered up this drug deal and did not even investigate. THIS Is what Mr. Tinneny reported to the police. The employee still works there! This is but one part of the story – Mr. Tinneny’s lawsuit in the main is not about the drug deal, but about harassment by a board member, and retaliation against him when he filed an EEOC lawsuit for protection. He was fired, and according to court documents, SCEE settled the lawsuit with him. This is all public document and you are welcome to look it up in the courts. I think you read Stu Bykofsky’s article that left out key details.. When Mr. Tinneny was protesting I stopped on the side of the road to speak to him, and he explained this to me – and I looked it up on the courts database. Everything he told me was true . But this story is mostly about harrassment by the board member, and retaliation. Mr. Schubert was a witness in the case, testified to the truth, and he too was fired in retaliation. I can see your confusion, based on what SCEE says, though. So Mr. Katz, with respect, you need to do more research. I suggest that if you are interested, you get the court documents for yourself.

      • Julienne Scanlon

        And it doesn’t matter if he had cancer or a dying child. You do not operate heavy machinery while high, next to small children. That could lead to a dying child!!

        • Mike Katz

          In none of the public reports, did they state the suspected employee was operating heavy machinery.

          • Julienne Scanlon

            Mr Katz, as the article said, and I said in my comment, all of this is publically available on the court “PACER” system. I had a friend of mine who is a lawyer print out all the papers filed about Mr. Schubert after I read Ms. Rybak’s article. I suggest you do the same. There is a paper signed by Mr. Tinneny in Augst where he says the employee was operating “heavy machinery”. I double checked after this comment and I was right. It was in August. So I suggest you read it. And Mr. Tinneny says “I stake my life on it”. Sounds pretty definitive to me

          • Julienne Scanlon

            The paper is called “Response to Defendant’s Memorandum” That paper also outlines in more detail some of the retaliation Mr. Schubert has been facing.

  • Sandy Abrams , PT, DPT, MEd

    I have been a long time volunteer of the Wildlife Clinic that is now closed. I have worked with Rick Schubert and Michele Welland, who are both truly professional wildlife rehabbers. As a practicing physical therapist; I appreciate the professionalism they bring to their work with all creatures, members of the public and volunteers. I have had the opportunity over the past 8 years to work with Rick and a few less years with Michele with all types of animals and birds many times at the end of long days for them. The patience, expertise and dedication they exhibit on a regular basis is extraordinary. Working over the past 8 years I have experienced the growth of the Clinic and the pressure of trying to provide expert and humane care for more and more creatures (4,200 last year). Being a clinician at a local hospital, whose administration totally supports me in my daily efforts to provide excellent care, I can relate to the feeling that another year of high volume with the current level of support from SCEE
    was not going to guarantee humane care for all creatures. I admire Rick Schubert for the stand he has taken for the Creatures under his care. I am looking forward to volunteering at the new Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center with Rick at the helm.

  • Maria Santoro

    Weilbacher says it was not retaliation, they did an “independent investigation” and found “workplace misconduct”. Are you aware that if you DO want to retaliate against an employee, an “independent investigation” (which is neither independent nor an investigation, it is a lawyer hired to get rid of someone), is the EXACT STANDARD WAY you always go about it? I’ve seen this same language used in the corporate world a hundred times. So the guy works there for 12 years, no problems, then testifies in an EEOC case, then all of a sudden there’s “workplace misconduct”. How stupid do you think we are?