What a world-class humane society looks like
by Merritt Clifton
PORTLAND––Staff and volunteers at the Oregon Humane Society on December 12, 2015 celebrated achieving 11,000 adoptions for the sixth year in a row, sending a West Highland terrier named Beauregard home with Portland residents Clint Bruton and Tammy Fields.
The Oregon Humane Society record of 11,401 adoptions in a year, set in 2014, appears likely to fall by year’s end.
More about that later.
Just back from a long day of lobbying at the Oregon state capital in Salem, Oregon Humane Society executive director Sharon Harmon recently greeted the ANIMALS 24-7 team in the OHS foyer.
I introduced my wife, Beth Clifton, a former police officer, animal control officer, and vet tech, by explaining that since Beth in July 2014 became photographer and social media editor for ANIMALS 24-7, she will be seeing the whole universe of animal shelters, and I wanted her to see what a world-class humane society looks like––the best of the best.
Having toured the Oregon Humane Society shelter three times previously, I could just about give the grand tour myself. But if I did, I would not have begun as Harmon did, by reciting her list of perceived defects.
“We don’t yet have indoor/outdoor dog runs,” Harmon said. “And we don’t yet have any colony housing for our cats.”
Ideas vs. amenities
Well yes, those amenities would be worthwhile additions to the shelter with what I believe to be the most intelligent architecture of any of the hundreds I have visited. Glass-fronted display kennels for dogs in place of the present steel-barred cubicles would also be nice, though the cubicles are clean, well-lighted, and every dog has bedding and a toy.
But many would-be state-of-the-art shelters get no farther than copying the best ideas the planners have seen elsewhere. They have indoor/outdoor dog runs with glass-fronted kennels, colony housing for their most sociable cats, and a whole checklist of “best practice” policies copied from web sites, without ever implementing an original idea, introducing an innovative program, or attempting anything ambitious beyond the scope of what others have already done.
The Oregon Humane Society, in nearly 17 years under Harmon, has not only successful emulated, but also innovated, while handling a volume of animals comparable to the volume at any other shelter in the world.
I didn’t take Beth to the Oregon Humane Society just to see individual design features. What I wanted Beth to see was how a multitude of features come together into a well-integrated whole, within which each aspect complements each of the others.
Especially noteworthy is that the 140-member Oregon Humane Society paid staff works alongside more than 2,000 volunteers, another impressive feat of “Harmonizing” interests, responsibilities, and skills which in many shelters conflict.
Of course I pointed out some of the Oregon Humane Society design features, when Harmon skipped on to others. She and Beth discussed veterinary and law enforcement aspects of the Oregon Humane Society’s work, while I tended, as usual, to admire the architecture.
One aspect of the architecture that I always raise for Harmon to elaborate upon is the rate of air exchange inside the shelter, the highest of any shelter I have visited. There are no animal odors lingering anywhere. Neither can barking dogs be heard anywhere outside of the dog kennels––and even there, most of the dogs have enough to do that they don’t bark much.
Another architectural arrangement that I always point out is how the banks of stainless steel cat cages are wrapped around the cat staff working area, while prospective adopters circulate on the opposite side of the cages. Visitors see everything the staff are doing, while the cats have activity to monitor at all times, if they choose to watch.
I have seen similar arrangements at other relatively new shelters, but surprisingly seldom, considering how easy and space-efficient the Oregon Humane Society layout is (along with a similar, slightly older layout at the Pet Network of North Lake Tahoe shelter, in Incline Village, Nevada.)
Why are any new shelters still built with cages butt up against blank walls, allowing staff and visitors access to only one side, giving the animals only one view?
The Oregon Humane Society traffic flow moves entirely from left to right, from separate receiving stations for dogs and cats, through separate holding areas for quarantined animals, animals needing veterinary care, and holds for rehoming. Never is there a need to take unfamiliar dogs and cats past each other.
Animals pass the entrance to the lightly used euthanasia room (less than 2% of admissions) as they leave the receiving area, on their way to be housed in other wings of the building. If incoming animals sense the presence of the euthanasia room at all, they sense that they are being taken away from it.
Gravely ill and injured animals arriving for euthanasia by owner request do not pass those in care. Rarely is there a need to take animals to be euthanized back past others still in care.
Animals offered for adoption rotate toward the lobby, enjoying ever more attractive and comfortable surroundings as they clear health and behavioral checks. Those at the shelter longest are displayed most prominently, giving them the best chance to be the next animals to find homes.
One of the most active rabbit adoption centers in the U.S. is just off the lobby. Access to it is arranged so that the rabbits have little if any awareness of proximity to cats and dogs. All rabbits, like all dogs and cats, are sterilized before being offered for adoption.
100% shelter score
For about 20 years now I have used my own 100-point shelter scoring system, based upon how well a shelter fulfills the “Five Freedoms” articulated by the British Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Committee in 1967, adding nine further considerations specific to dog and cat sheltering.
My scoring scale is designed to evaluate all types of shelter on an equal footing, regardless of size, function, or budget. Very few shelters score 100%, but the Oregon Humane Society has now scored 100% three times in as many scoring visits over a 10-year span.
Among the handful of other shelters that have scored 100 on multiple visits, Maddie’s Adoption Center at the San Francisco SPCA, the NOAH Center in Stanwood, Washington, and the Hong Kong SPCA main shelter each trump the Oregon Humane Society in some specific design aspects.
But that does not mean any of them are better or more attractive or more efficiently functional shelters. There are many different ways of solving the major shelter design problems, and each shelter has to take varying approaches to suit variables in location, animal intake, and budget.
Just as location is everything in real estate, location is central to shelter planning. Maddie’s Adoption Center and the Hong Kong SPCA were designed to make the best possible use of cramped urban locations, where doors and driveways could only be where they are, and animals of necessity had to be housed––and displayed to adopters––on multiple levels.
The NOAH Center is at liberty to sprawl. It can therefore have outdoor trails and other amenities that urban shelters can only dream of.
The Oregon Humane Society does not have indoor/outdoor dog runs, but does occupy a 10-acre campus where volunteers are able to walk dogs to outdoor daytime caging and to exercise them on a short trail system that meanders through reputedly the oldest pet cemetery west of the Mississippi and a renowned rose garden.
Bobbie of Silverton
The best-remembered cemetery occupant, Bobbie of Silverton (1921-1927), was a dog who was lost by his Oregon family on a visit to Indiana in 1923. Reluctantly returning home without Bobbie, the family were surprised six months later to find him on their doorstep, after he had apparently walked all 2,551 miles home through plains, desert, and mountains in the dead of winter.
The Oregon Humane Society does not yet have any colony cat caging, though there is a large multi-cat play habitat in the foyer meant to house kittens. No cat, however, is caged without social stimulation. When the shelter has no kittens, adult cats are given the opportunity play with the robotic toys in the kitten habitat, which are directed by web site visitors using cameras.
New shelters tend to score better on my 100-point scale because they incorporate better ideas, but the more than $10 million that Harmon has raised and invested in repeated upgrades and expansions of the Oregon Humane Society shelter over the past 15 years has much less to do with the perfect score than the successful functioning of the facilities, including an especially efficient floor plan.
Shelters age fast
I try to avoid scoring newly opened shelters. Most animal shelters look good in architectural drawings, and are immaculate at debut. Many do not stand up well to hard use by stressed animals and people.
Five years after opening, some of the most touted shelters are already weary with stale air, clogged drains, chipped floors, dim lighting, demoralized staff, and a rising din of barking attesting to the failure of sound baffles and wallboard to compensate for obsolete architecture.
Ten years after opening, most new shelters already look as if a capital campaign should be underway to accomplish major retrofitting and renovation. The Nashville Humane Association offered me a pleasant surprise in 2013 when only some worn concrete flooring exposed the age of their exceptionally well-maintained 10-year-old shelter.
Fifteen years after opening, the oldest portions of the Oregon Humane Society shelter still look almost new. Seven years after opening, the imported Italian flooring in the Oregon Humane Society dog-training wing looks as if it had been installed just a few months ago.
Numbers on the scoreboard
While showing us around, Harman recited the Oregon Humane Society statistics. As a stats geek, I listened and compared them later to the numbers posted at the OHS web site. They all matched up.
The most visible Oregon Humane Society function is the adoption program, rehoming 5,161 dogs, 5,214 cats, and 735 smaller animals in 2013, for a total of 11,110, and rehoming 5,757 cats 4,923 dogs, and 721 smaller animals in 2014, totaling 11,401.
This record, likely to fall in 2015, was achieved despite the shelter holding a relatively small inventory at any given time: up to 120 dogs, 120 cats, and 92 small animals. Another 20 animals at a time are housed at the downtown Westside Adoption Center.
Among shelters rehoming at least 10,000 animals per year, only the North Shore Animal League in Port Washington, New York, the Denver Dumb Friends League, and the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, California, appear to sustain comparable rates of turnover.
Along the way, the Oregon Humane Society rehomes nearly 5,000 animals per year who are transferred to OHS from 72 partner shelters. Mostly, Oregon Humane rehomes animals transferred from animal control shelters located elsewhere in Oregon and adjacent parts of southern Washington (the OHS shelter is only a few miles from the I-5 bridge to Washington over the Columbia River), but some come from farther away, notably Chihuahuas and other small dogs from southern California.
The Oregon Humane Society also frequently receives animals from mass impoundment cases throughout Oregon, whom no other shelter in the state is large enough to accommodate.
Two other Oregon Humane Society programs, however, help at least as many people and animals as the adoption program.
Staff and veterinary interns perform about 12,000 surgeries per year, about 11,000 of them sterilizations, at the Thomas Holman Senior Animal Medical Learning Center, opened in 2007.
Offers the Oregon Humane Society web site, “The medical center includes three surgical suites, on-site radiology, a pharmacy and multiple recovery rooms. Every pet adopted by OHS is spayed or neutered at the hospital. Thousands of additional pets are spayed or neutered for little or no fee as part of the area-wide Spay & Save program serving low-income families.
“In partnership with the Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine, veterinary students complete a three-week primary care rotation at the hospital under the guidance of a full-time OSU faculty member,” while living above the hospital facilities in an on-site dormitory.
The Oregon Humane Society educational programs reach more than 12,000 students per year, many of whom visit a large classroom on the premises, and help to groom and walk animals under staff supervision.
The Oregon Humane Society also does law enforcement. The OHS law enforcement team are all graduates of the Oregon state policy academy, commissioned by the state police to enforce animal cruelty laws. They investigate about 1,200 cases per year.
The influence of the Oregon Humane Society shelter on the Portland and Multnomah County dog and cat population is not easily teased apart from other changes and innovations in animal care and control, but is consistent with a 147-year history at the forefront of humane progress.
Founded by Dr. Thomas Lamb Elliot on November 17, 1868, though not formally incorporated until 1880, the Oregon Humane Society is only eight months younger than the San Francisco SPCA, which was the first in the western U.S.
Among humane societies which have historically held law enforcement authority, only the American SPCA (1866) and Massachusetts SPCA (1868, transitioning out of law enforcement since 2013) are older.
The initial mission of all four organizations was protecting draft horses. The Oregon Humane Society added child protection services to the original mandate, and was the official state child protection agency from 1881 to 1933. Humane education was put into the Oregon Humane Society mission statement in 1882.
The Oregon Humane Society took over the Portland animal control contract in 1916, two years before opening the first shelter on the present site in 1918. The original shelter was a renovated wooden farm house, with outbuildings.
The Works Progress Administration in 1939 built a much larger concrete, steel, and glass shelter in an “art deco” style. As at the 1918 shelter, Harman points out, and as at the present shelter, animal intakes were at left, adoptions at right.
The WPA-built shelter was still nationally regarded as a good example of shelter design as recently as 1963, when it was favorably mentioned in The Quality of Mercy, by William Alan Swallow, a volume then widely accepted as the definitive history of the humane movement.
By 1972, however, when the Oregon Humane Society opted out of animal control, the 1939 shelter was overwhelmed and outmoded. Built to handle 4,000 animals per year, it was actually receiving 55,000-plus.
Most of the animals were killed by decompression, a mass killing method introduced by Los Angeles Animal Control in 1949, endorsed by the American Humane Association in 1950, and promoted nationally by the Western States Humane Association, a now long defunct subsidiary of the San Francisco SPCA.
After Multnomah County Animal Services opened, in the facility it still occupies, taking over most of the animal volume, Portland in 1979 followed Berkeley (1972) and San Francisco (1976) in abolishing and repudiating decompression killing as inhumanely painful to the animals.
By the end of 1985, when Houston and Austin decommissioned their decompression chambers, decompression was no longer used to kill dogs and cats anywhere in the U.S.––but the American Humane Association has since September 2010 endorsed decompression as a method of killing poultry.
Focusing on promoting pet sterilization after getting out of animal control, the Oregon Humane Society and allied organizations including Multnomah County Animal Services had by 1993 cut the Portland/Multnomah rate of shelter killing from circa 130-140 dogs and cats killed per human resident down to 22.7.
The advent of early-age sterilization and neuter/return of feral cats helped to cut the killing rate further, to 11.3, by the time the new Oregon Humane Society shelter opened in 2000. Since then, the toll has fallen further, to circa 1.0 in 2014.
The steepest drops in the Portland shelter death toll have coincided with the two tenures of recently retired Multnomah County animal control director Mike Oswald, who during his first term of service in the 1980s was among the first shelter directors in the U.S. to issue a public warning about increasing intakes of pit bulls and other frequently dangerous dogs. This is now the largest threat to progress in Portland, as to the U.S. shelter killing rate nationally.
In 1987, according to Oswald’s records, 6.3% of the dogs entering the Multnomah County shelter were were pit bulls. By 2004, pit bulls were 21% of dog intake. By 2014, pit bulls were up to a third of dog intake, and were 48.5% of the dogs euthanized––and these numbers are significantly lower than the national average for intake and euthanasia of pit bulls, now running at 40%-plus of dogs received and 60%-plus of dog killed in most metropolitan areas.
New dog housing
Meanwhile, the 1939 WPA shelter had become, Harman remembers, “A horrible place.” Fundraising to replace it in began in 1993; work began in February 1999, taking a modular approach to construction in order to avoid having to close, even temporarily, one of the busiest shelters in the world.
The new dog housing was completed in November 1999. The 1939 shelter was then partially demolished while the rest of the new shelter was built. The last of the old shelter came down after the new offices, cat facilities, and euthanasia and receiving areas were completed.
Then, having learned the knack of building and rebuilding while still providing full shelter services, Harmon and team went on to add the classroom area, opened in 2004 and named for Harman, and then the Holman Center.
Because the volume of animals entering Oregon shelters has fallen so much, Harmon expects the Oregon Humane Society animal intake and adoption volume to taper off in the coming years, while demand grows for services to help keep animals in homes––especially senior animals, whose veterinary care strains the resources of low-income and fixed income pet keepers.
Anticipating further changes to meet the changing needs of the community, the Oregon Humane Society still has a full-time planning team at work charting the future, as Harmon puts it, in a large unfinished room with silver insulation visible––a reminder that the work of a humane society is never finished.