Texas animal services employee used shelter animals to expand social media followers, earn money

AUSTIN (KXAN) — During a City of Austin investigation, officials concluded an Austin Animal Services employee misused city resources and abused their position by recording and posting videos of shelter animals to their income-earning personal social media account.

According to the city, the employee also abused their position when they used the access to shelter animals to expand their social media followers, and the employee then asked those followers to make donations for a private expense.

In an investigation report, the city’s auditor’s office said it received a complaint in July 2021 regarding the employee. The employee had been with Austin Animal Services since June 2019, according to the report.

The investigation determined the employee misused the city’s time when they used work time to make video content for their personal social media account.

According to the employee, after uploading several videos of shelter animals, the number of followers on the account grew. The number of followers eventually reached 1.9 million, as the employee continued to post about shelter animals.

“Due to [the] large number of followers, in early 2021 [the employee] was able to apply and be accepted into a social media program that allowed [them] to earn money from [the] videos,” the investigation report said. “This included earning money on videos of animals at the shelter.”

The report said the employee earned about $8,000 between January 2021 and November 2021.

The employee told the city when they started posting videos of the shelter animals, they would record and post anywhere between 30 to 40 brief videos a day while at work, with each video lasting between 1 and 3 minutes.

“[The employee’s] position as an animal care worker gave [them] direct access to the shelter facilities and its animals that would not be available to a member of the general public or another social media influencer,” the city said in the report.

The city also discovered that employee received gifts from retail brands to promote their goods in addition to earning money from the account. One of the brands was found to sell dog beds, and the employee admitted to posting videos promoting the free items they received.

“Though Animal Services management, including [the employee’s] supervisor and an executive, eventually approved of [the employee] making videos at work, they were not aware [they] had made money from the videos [they] posted on social media,” the city’s report said.

The city did not clarify in the report if the money the employee earned through the videos was used for personal benefit or if it was used to benefit the shelter or animals.

The investigation also concluded the employee used their large social media following for personal gain.

“On at least one occasion, [the employee] created and posted a video asking for donations for a personal medical expense,” the city said. “[The employee] received small sums of money from several donors through a cash exchange platform for this purpose.”

In an additional observation section from the report, investigators noted the Animal Services management department was not concerned with the employee using their position at the shelter to record videos and post them on their personal account partly because they considered this useful advocacy for the animals.

Investigators said management was more concerned about the employee posting inaccurate information about the animals rather than whether she was earning money from her videos.

“Animal Services management could have met the same goals through a City-owned account. This would have reduced the possibility for misuse and abuse to occur,” investigators said.

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