Audit sounds alarm at animal shelter
Recently an older man was looking for a mellow dog to spend time with in his fenced backyard. He thought he'd found one through Multnomah County Animal Services, the agency that runs the county animal shelter in Troutdale.
A cute and cheery-looking fellow, the little white mutt was described in the county shelter's promotional material as liking people, walks and playing fetch.
Only when the man met with the shelter's adoption counselor did he learn that the dog should only be walked on a leash by a very strong person, because he frequently tried to bite people and other dogs. If the owner exposed the dog to water or a bath, he would likely bite the owner, too. The dog could not be trusted in a fenced backyard because he seemed likely to try to escape, then bite other dogs or people.
The elderly man was still prepared to take the dog and see how it went. That's when the counselor more firmly told him he didn't seem like a good fit.
The anecdote, contained in a recent audit report released by the elected Multnomah County auditor, Steve March, is not an isolated incident.
The audit was intended as a follow-up to a 2016 audit. But rather than finding a slew of improvements as most follow-up audits do, March's staff auditors found that most of the same problems remain in shelter management, including questionable handling and continued adopting-out of overaggressive or dangerous dogs, woeful staffing levels, and poor treatment of animals that contributes to behavior problems. Though two-and-a-half years had passed, only a third of the prior audit's recommendations had been completed.
In a response to the audit, Multnomah County Community Services Director Kim Peoples defended the animal services division's performance, saying that staff are "diligently working" on many recommendations that have not yet been fully addressed.
He noted that the previous audit came "during a time of considerable transition" for animal services. "Improvements continue to be made within available resources and constraints."
March's report did cite some physical improvements at the shelter— such as swamp coolers to help overheated dogs and larger cages for cats. But hundreds of pages of auditor documents reviewed by the Portland Tribune show that concerns about Animal Services leadership among animal shelter employees and volunteers — as well as the line auditors — go far deeper than the publicly released follow-up audit disclosed. The concerns indicate mismanagement, inattention to staff and training, and a focus on boosting live-release rates over public safety.
The issues include:
• Some of the problems detected during the earlier audit may have grown, some employees said. Several said management had become even worse, and so had morale and other issues that had caused auditors in 2016 to characterize the shelter as a hostile work environment.
• As a result, dogs and cats do not receive sufficient "enrichment," meaning toys, activities and human contact, records show. In some cases, dogs are let out on the adoption floor with no enrichment for months, with no human contact other than feeding.
• Two new positions recommended by March to improve animal care and approved by the county board had been repurposed to have different duties. Shelter staffing levels continued to violate national minimum standards two-thirds of the year, even as the facility operated at maximum capacity.
• Several employees said animals don't receive adequate care, causing behavioral problems to fester and worsen. Then, rather than rehabilitate them, the animals are adopted out.
"Multiple staff members expressed concern that dogs they did not consider safe were adopted out," the auditors wrote.
And a staffing study the auditors considered crucial was never done.
County defends itself
The county, in its response to the audit, defended the repurposing of the two new positions. It also said that some of the errors highlighted by auditors — such as failing to properly track the number of animals euthanized in 11 instances out of 185 in a five-month span, amounted to a very small error rate.
In interviews with auditors, Animal Services Director Jackie Rose said that the basic care of cleaning and feeding is accomplished. "They do provide basic care to every animal, even as (shelter) staffing is not where it needs to be," according to the notes from one meeting.
The shelter serves 6,000 to 7,000 animals a year. Like many municipal animal shelters, it deals with animals that include those with more serious behavioral issues, while the more adoptable pets often are transferred to nonprofits to find them homes.
With highly motivated employees and volunteers, the shelter is charged with reuniting lost pets with owners, and finding homes for the pets that it can.
While under great scrutiny from animal activists, the shelter had dramatically changed its practices over the years.
Between 2008 and 2014, according to the previous county animal services audit, the shelter cut its euthanasia rate from 47 percent to 11 percent.
Last year, animal services leaders told the county board that the division was doing a better job than ever of keeping animals alive and connecting them with homes or nonprofits to adopt.
"In 2006, it was about a 71 percent live-release rate," Rose told commissioners, according to the county website. "I'm happy to report that in 2016, it was a 96.2 (percent) live release rate (for dogs). That's really incredible."
She also showed commissioners videos of pets put up for adoption or being reunited with owners after getting lost.
But the audit and its supporting documents shed a different light than the glowing talking points.
The complaints included care of animals, poor or inadequate training and a failure to assign staff with defined roles and responsibilities, meaning many workers showed up to work each day having no idea what they'd be doing.
Employees who were supposed to be caring for animals or helping the public instead were spending significant time cleaning.
Though Rose told auditors that dogs had been given scent tubes — cardboard tubes with special prey scent and kibbles inside to stimulate their senses, staffers told auditors that the tubes were made but never distributed.
And while the county claimed it had boosted enrichment, for instance trying to make sure every dog had a toy, the auditors found evidence that the opposite had taken place. In one auditor visit, half of the dogs viewed had no toy in their cage at all, and even the ones that had dog toys did not have good ones.
An animal care technician told auditors that when it comes to dog training and enrichment, "things have just fallen apart. There do not seem to be any behavioral modification plans being enacted. There are not play groups (for dogs)."
In the past, "dogs at least got daily Kongs (a special dog toy) and toys," the staffer said. In the adoption area, "they had treat buckets. There are no treat buckets now," and frequently no toys either. "No one is monitoring whether dogs are getting toys."
Some employees and other observers claimed the shelter management was focused more on improving its statistics of keeping animals alive than it was on providing humane treatment — which in cases of animals that are highly distressed or ill can ultimately mean euthanasia.
Amy Sacks, head of the Pixie Project, a cat veterinary care and adoption nonprofit, told auditors that she "sometimes got animals in terrible shape from Animal Services," and "would euthanize them to put them out of their misery," according to a document summarizing the interview.
"Ms. Sacks feels that the information Animal Services gives the public downplays how dangerous they are and purposely misleads people so they can improve their live-release numbers."
One county animal control officer told auditors "he is frustrated that aggressive animals are adopted out. It has gotten much worse in the past year." He has seen kids go to the emergency room because of dog bites from dogs they adopted from the agency.