“Whenever I needed to know what was going on across the country, I could always contact you.”
I am writing to let you know that I have announced my intention to retire from Multnomah County. My last day of work will be April 30, 2015.
It has been a pleasure to have worked with you over the years. I have always appreciated your hard-hitting journalism on the important issues in our field. I have relied on your attention to data, thorough research, and your global perspective. Whenever I needed to know what was going on across the country, I could always contact you.
In the past couple of years, Multnomah County Animal Services has achieved many important goals that I believe places us in a good position for a change in leadership. I am proud of the division’s staff, volunteers, management team and supporters for their dedication and hard work to help us achieve the highest level of life-saving in our history. Our community involvement, engagement and support continues to expand each year, as evidenced by our growing web and social media traffic, our increasing levels of private donations, our soaring volunteerism, an active community advisory committee, and a high-performing, nationally recognized regional coalition.
It’s been a rewarding 37 years with Multnomah County. Over the years, I have had the good fortune and pleasure of working with many outstanding people in Multnomah County, Oregon, and throughout the country, who have dedicated their work-lives to caring for animals and the community we live in.
I wish you all the best in your future.
––Mike Oswald, Director
Multnomah County Animal Services
Multnomah County Animal Services founding director and National Animal Control Association cofounder Mike Burgwin hired Mike Oswald in 1978, five years after the agency was formed to take over animal control duties in Portland and Multnomah County from the Oregon Humane Society. The Oregon Humane Society had held the animal control contract since 1916.
Helped to abolish decompression
“Mike Oswald and I were colleagues at Multnomah County Animal Services,” recalled shelter consultant and euthanasia instructor Doug Fakkema, a 45-year veteran of animal care and control work. “He was field supervisor and I was shelter supervisor. I started work there on November 1, 1979,” assigned to oversee the transition from killing animals by decompression to use of pentobarbital injection.
Only a handful of other major animal control service providers, notably the Berkeley SPCA (1972) and the San Francisco SPCA (1976) had already accomplished similar transitions, which required extensively retraining personnel and introducing the procedures and safeguards required to handle federally regulated drugs.
“That happened within the year. I still remember the shriek of metal as we dragged the chamber out of the building and trashed it,” Fakkema said.
Within another six years every shelter in the U.S. had quit using decompression.
Steeply reduced shelter killing
By 1987 Oswald had succeeded Burgwin as director of Multnomah County Animal Services. But, recognizing Oswald’s administrative abilities, Multnomah County in 1991 promoted him into other responsibilities. Succeeding Oswald as Multnomah County Animal Services director were Dave Flagler, 1991-1996; Hank Miggins, 1997-2000; and Gary Hendel, 2000-2003.
All enjoyed success both in Multnomah County and at other agencies, but shelter killing in the municipal shelter fell most rapidly during Oswald’s two tenures. The drop during his present tenure has been from 12.9 animals killed per 1,000 human residents of the animal control jurisdiction, already substantially fewer than the U.S. national average, to 1.8, among the lowest rates in the U.S., and has been accomplished despite working in one of the oldest shelters in the U.S. that handles a comparable volume of animals.
Along the way Oswald in 1986 produced the first published survey of shelter dog intake by breed in more than a generation; won American Animal Hospital Association accreditation of the Multnomah County Animal Services veterinary facilities in 2006, as one of the first animal control shelters to meet the AAHA standards; repeatedly renovated and expanded the 42-year-old Multnomah County Animal Services shelter, built originally to serve a community of two-thirds the current size; and enjoyed a rare standing ovation from professional colleagues at the 2013 Humane Society of the U.S. Animal Control Expo in Nashville, as co-presenter with Karel Minor, executive director of the Humane Society of Berks County, Pennsylvania, of a brainstorming session seeking “The Next Big Thing” to influence future directors in animal care and control.
Karel Minor says
I hope I can get the first comment in despite losing some time congratulating Mike personally. Merritt, you bring nothing but bad news for the animal sheltering industry this week but at least we are merely losing Mike to retirement. I have been a flat out fan on Mike’s since first meeting and serving with him on the HSUS Companion Animal Advisory Committee nearly a decade ago.
In addition to simply being one of the nicest people I have ever met, his accomplishments and approach were a welcome and valuable model for me as my organization and region were facing a tough transition from a failed animal control/municipal killers for hire model to what is now a close to standard and effective approach in huge regions of the nation. Having Multnomah as a model which had not only achieved the numbers no-kill dreamers opined about but to do in a municipal animal control setting was both a touchstone and a challenge for everyone who got in our way down a similar path using the approaches suited to our region. I shamelessly stole the things he did which would work for us, guilelessly asked him for help where he could offer it, pointed at every turn to his facility and success when doing work with skeptical municipalities, and annoyed my staff repeatedly with an oft repeated, “Look, if Multnomah can do it…..”
I had the pleasure of experiencing that rare ovation with Mike, who was involved from the very first conference calls that developed that workshop, through the process of collaborating on it and the presentation which we both wondered would end in crickets chirping or being tarred and feathered (that was the first time I remember having an overflow crowd at a conference calmly discuss the inevitability of humane BREEDING programs as a response to delivering the breeds and ages of dogs our shelter clients want), and working with him to present such a pretentious topic- like we or anyone else knew what the Next Big Thing would be?- was a demonstration of what a great partner and collaborator he is. I can only assume he was as good at working with his shelter partners as he was working with me, because I am a pain in the ass. I’m not sure if that workshop influenced anyone else, but the list we devised has been central to my organization’s growth and planning, has helped us become a regional presence under a new statewide banner, and I’m keeping it because I believe that the list Mike facilitated that day with me will be pulled out in twenty years and seem prescient. His skill at managing the topic and the crowd is as memorable as the ovation. I will miss sharing that presence in the future.
One last comment in one that is already too long. The fact that he came out of the same place as Doug Fakkema is notable and it’s interesting when a place serves as a crucible for talent, especially talent which goes on to drive the work of others. Doug Fakkema absolutely altered my approach to my work over twenty years ago when I met him working as an adoption counselor at Pennsylvania’s Chester County SPCA. CCSPCA is where Dr. Gary Patronek, the now legendary animal researcher and shelter professional started, to be followed by Dr. Michael Moyer, later to be in charge of U. Penn’s Shelter Medicine Program, and who hired me, who is neither a doctor nor legendary, but at least had a chance to share the stage with Mike when the two-coast connection brought itself around again. For all the precious nonsense and parables our industry tells about starfish on the beach and links, those chance connections and the impacts they have remind me to try to build on potential among our staff and all the starry eyed shelter wannabes out there who just might end up sticking with it and making a dent, instead of beating them down with my greater experience (as I’ve experienced more than once from other legends in the field). There are legends who wallow in their importance out there and there are legends who have helped make the work of others seem and be important, too. Mike is thankfully the latter.
Karel Minor, President/CEO