By Dermot Connolly
Attorneys are working on finding an amicable resolution to a lawsuit that the Animal Welfare League filed against the village of Chicago Ridge, the mayor and a trustee.
The lawsuit that Floyd Perkins of the Nixon Peabody law firm filed in federal court on July 3 accuses the village, and Mayor Chuck Tokar and Trustee Edmund “Ed” Kowalski, of “targeted harassment” of the Animal Welfare League shelter at 10305 Southwest Highway.
The lawsuit is seeking at least $100,000 in compensatory damages, as well as "exemplary damages in an amount that will serve to punish defendants and deter them and others from engaging in similar conduct."
Attorneys for the village confirmed the lawsuit was filed but would not say much more because negotiations are underway.
“ The AWL and the village are involved in negotiations and are resolving all outstanding matters,” said the attorneys in a brief statement.
“ We are optimistic that we can resolve this without going to court,” said Tokar.
AWL’s Chicago Ridge shelter accepts all types of stray animals — taking care of as many as 1,200 at any time. In addition to hundreds of dogs and cats, it also accepts rabbits, ferrets and other small mammals, as well as birds, amphibians, reptiles, and wild and farm animals. But the shelter has faced claims of bad management and animal cruelty dating back to 2018.
Former employees and volunteers came forward with accusations of poor management and animal cruelty at the shelter, following an outbreak of canine influenza in late 2017. Longtime executive director Linda Estrada, who also presided over the board of directors, resigned that May. The Illinois Department of Finance and Professional Regulation later issued a cease and desist order against her for practicing veterinary medicine without a license.
But grassroots groups such as REFORM AWL held regular picket demonstrations outside the shelter for two years, calling for the replacement of the entire board of directors. While no demonstrations have occurred since COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were put in place last March, AWL claims the campaign against the organization continues on social media.
That the village allowed the protests on Southwest Highway is just one of hundreds of accusations made against the village officials in the lawsuit.
Protesters urged village officials to take action against AWL, although animal shelters are regulated and inspected by the state Department of Agriculture. The lawsuit argues that a village-sponsored panel formed by Kowalski to address the situation presented a series of demands targeting euthanasia procedures at the shelter.
It states that if an ordinance proposed by Kowalski had been put into place, it would “curtail AWL’s ability to euthanize animals in violation of state law.”
While it is not a no-kill shelter, AWL maintains that 80 percent of the animals it cares for are “salvaged” rather than euthanized. The ordinance was sent back for revisions following discussion at a village board meeting some time ago and was never voted on.
The lawsuit accuses village inspectors of engaging in “unlawful searches and seizures on AWL’s premises,” and claims Kowalski engaged in a defamation campaign.
It blames the actions taken by village officials for “diminishing AWL’s business and led to financial losses by driving away customers.”
The lawsuit claims charities run by PetCo and Petsmart pet stores also stopped donating and working with AWL in 2018, causing the shelter to lose over $50,000 of donated food per year. The pet stores also stopped serving as outlets for adoption for the shelter, resulting in a loss of customers and adoption fees.
“The parties are in settlement discussion,” confirmed Chris Higens, president of the Animal Welfare League Board of Directors, in a statement issued on behalf of the organization, which she noted will be celebrating its 85 th anniversary on Sept. 30.
“Although this shelter has been judged by many without full knowledge of the actual details, hundreds of animals continue to come in and go out of our doors regularly. The shelter is under the new management and direction of Higens and Acting Director Diane Spyrka, a long-standing 47-year employee,” the statement continued. “They have added many new policies, protocols and procedures. We have an experienced team of employees which tends to their needs. We can assure the public that the animals are being properly sheltered, walked, fed, medically treated and cared for.”