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Updated Saturday with a statement from the county communications director.

ST. LOUIS — Two former volunteers at St. Louis County’s pet shelter have sued the county, alleging they and more than 400 other volunteers were banned from the facility because of public criticism of its conditions.

The suit by Jennifer Agnew and Anne Cashel accuses health department officials of dismissing more than 400 volunteers late last month from St. Louis County’s pet adoption center in Olivette “in order to chill and discourage future speech by any volunteer who would potentially seek to return to the volunteer program.”

The county said the program was being “rebooted.”

Volunteers have appeared regularly at St. Louis County Council meetings for the past couple of years to report problems at the county’s troubled animal shelter.

Co-health director Spring Schmidt, who is named in the lawsuit, has previously told the council there was a misunderstanding and that the volunteers were never told they were being dismissed, only that the shelter’s volunteer program was being “rebooted” as of Friday and that they have to reapply and get training.

A scathing audit released in July that found multiple breakdowns at the animal shelter recommended changes to the volunteer program, Schmidt said.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, alleges violations of First Amendment rights, illegal policies and retaliation by health officials. Also named as defendants are Carole Baskin, director of vector and animal control, and County Executive Sam Page.

A call to the county counselor’s office was referred to a spokesman.

In a statement, Doug Moore, county communications director, said: “St. Louis County is fortunate to have volunteers help us take care of the animals. While we pause the volunteer program for a few days for training, our county employees will be working overtime to make sure the animals are fed, walked and well taken care of. We look forward to a new volunteer program that improves the quality of care for our animals and we encourage those who have volunteered before to apply. We hope to recruit more than 100 new volunteers over the weekend.”

The public is invited to visit the facility at 10521 Baur Blvd. between 10 a.m. at 6 p.m. this weekend to learn about volunteering opportunities or see adoptable animals.

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