Portlanders are dog people. They take their dogs to coffee. They push for leash-free parks. Last year, Dog Fancy magazine named Portland the best "all-around city for dogs." So why, in such a canine-loving city, has the local animal shelter increased its dog-euthanization rate by 10 percent?
In 2006, 1,259 of the 4,600 dogs processed by Multnomah County Animal Services were euthanized. That's 27 percent compared with three years ago, when only 17 percent—or 754 dogs out of 4,346—were euthanized. Dog adoptions dropped by 35 percent during the same period.
Local shelter-reform activist Gail O'Connell-Babcock blames Animal Services Director Mike Oswald for shifting away from more humane treatment recommended by a 2000 citizens task force and toward protecting the public from pit bulls and other breeds perceived as vicious. Oswald says the numbers just reflect reality for most public shelters.
"For 2006, about 33 percent of the dogs entering our shelter were pit bull-type dogs," says Oswald, who notes it was only 20 percent five years ago. "The average owner is not looking for aggressive dogs. Last week we had 400 people come to the shelter wanting a family pet, not something difficult to handle."
Oswald stresses the shelter shares the same problems as shelters nationwide: more people with pets, more pets abandoned and more of those abandoned pets coming from unpopular breeds.
Some critics don't think it can be so easily explained. Nathan Winograd, a national advocate for "no kill" shelters, blames the county for inappropriate use of temperament tests to assess dogs. At O'Connell-Babcock's request, he reviewed 115 shelter euthanasia cases from 2005. He found "much to be apprehensive about in the use of temperament testing at MCAS to justify the killing of dogs under the guise of public safety, scientific legitimacy and objective 'adoptability.'"
Temperament testing involves engaging the dog to detect aggression, including touching, removing food or putting the dog in contact with other dogs. An assessment officer judges whether the dog is too aggressive for rehabilitation. Winograd believes the records he reviewed showed misuse of the testing. He says dogs were tested before they acclimated to the shelter environment, and that testing was performed on injured dogs, nursing mothers with unweaned pups, even a dog under treatment for poisoning. Winograd says behavior stemming from pain, protectiveness and illness was assessed as aggressiveness and the dogs destroyed. He says the temperament testing was "setting the dog up for failure."
Oswald disagrees, emphasizing Winograd hasn't even been to the shelter. He points out that testing doesn't take place until three to six days after the dog arrives at the shelter. His assessment team was trained by leaders in temperament training, and the shelter is one of only five in the nation recognized for meeting the highest standards of the American Animal Hospital Association.
The real problem may, as one local animal-rescue activist noted, go beyond shelters and animal activists.
"The problem is bigger than the shelter," says Claudia Wood, a co-founder of Indigo Rescue. "The problem is people don't spay or neuter their pets, don't keep identification on them, or support the taxes necessary for these services to do their job."