Not all lost, stray or unwanted pets end up at Multnomah County Animal Services, but when they do, its shelter is often the end of the line.
"Private shelters can choose," says Mike Oswald, director of the county agency. "They select animals they know they can help. Sometimes they won't accept certain breeds. We take in pit bulls, we take in livestock. We take in rabbits, rats, you name it."
A consequence of this open-door policy is that many animals become victims of circumstance. The shelter may be full, or animals may have health or behavioral problems.
When that happens, the shelter often euthanizes animals—more than 2,100 in 2011.
"With the individual needs of an animal," Oswald says, "we just don't have the resources."
Under pressure from no-kill shelter proponents, the county's live-release rate has been increasing. Five years ago, the shelter euthanized 51 percent of animals it took in. Now it puts down 31 percent.
Jon Gramstad, co-founder of the animal-rights group Gimme Shelter Portland, has pushed the county shelter to adopt a no-kill policy and wants a euthanasia rate below 10 percent.
"We're trying to get an entrenched, old-school, animal-control model to change their ethic," Gramstad tells WW. "Jump through the hoops. Do the work. Lives are at stake."
So how does the county shelter's kill rate compare to those in other places?
WW looked at public shelters in other major Western cities. Maddie's Fund, a no-kill advocacy group based in Alameda, Calif., tracks data for hundreds of shelters across the country using a yardstick called the Asilomar Accords, agreed-upon standards for calculating euthanasia and live-release rates.
Multnomah County's shelter ranks slightly below the middle. The Seattle Animal Shelter's live-release rate is 85 percent.
The worst? Sacramento Animal Care Services admitted 10,561 animals last year but had a live-release rate of only 26 percent.
"We're all working toward the same goal," Oswald says of no-kill activists. "We're all committed to saving every life."