This story is the first in a two-part series on Multnomah County Animal Services. The second part examining distrust between animal shelter staff and management is available here.
Joe Chappue once again found himself in jail, but all he could think about was his dog. He and Mossberg had been living in his car for months. To Chappue, Mossberg was not only his friend, but his entire support system as he worked on finding stability in his life.
Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office deputies impounded Chappue’s car and took Mossberg to the county animal shelter. They jailed Chappue on Sept. 22, 2022, for charges of reckless driving and “failure to perform duties of driver-property damage” — he hit two road signs, panicked, and ran away with Mossberg by his side, according to police reports. Chappue was able to contact someone at the shelter using a jail phone.
“I implored her. I said, ‘Please do not adopt him out. He’s like family to me,’ and she assured me she wouldn’t,” Chappue said.
About six days later, despite multiple communications with Chappue and one of his church mentors, county records show shelter staff put Mossberg up for adoption. A new family picked him up days after that.
“They didn’t care when they adopted him out,” Chappue said. “They just didn’t.”
Multnomah County Animal Services has a history of creating barriers to reuniting people with their pets. County auditors, shelter volunteers and former staff for years have criticized the agency for this and several other ways it fails to run an efficient and humane animal shelter. Critics say poor record keeping and dysfunction among staff have broken down basic care to animals at the taxpayer-funded shelter.
Those issues came to a head earlier this year, when shelter leaders announced that kennels were so crowded they could no longer intake stray animals — one of the primary functions of a municipal animal shelter. Shelter managers and county leaders pointed to the pandemic and a national labor shortage as reasons, and said new management at the shelter is rapidly fixing problems.
But nearly a dozen interviews by OPB and a review of public records show the shelter’s struggles with high staff turnover, overcrowding, poor living conditions for animals and even threats to public safety are long-standing issues that can’t be fixed without significant changes to shelter operations.
Biased, inconsistent policies
Chappue knew it wouldn’t be difficult for a family to fall in love with Mossberg. The doe-eyed black lab and pit bull mix is smart, loves to play fetch and adores attention.
“He and I were an instant match,” Chappue recalled of the day he met Mossberg at an animal shelter in Deschutes County early last year. “The people [at the shelter] were just overcome. They were all smiles.”
When Chappue walked past Mossberg’s kennel, he noticed the dog would rub his entire body against the fenced gate.
“And I was bawling tears,” Chappue said. “I myself have spent a lot of time in a cage. And so I identify with that, and I don’t like it. I don’t believe that any living, breathing animal on this planet should be in a cage.”
The two spent that summer cruising through Central Oregon, then they headed to the Portland area. At the time, Chappue wouldn’t have called himself homeless: “My pride is itching, but the truth of the matter is, I was homeless.”
During that difficult time, Mossberg provided companionship, protection and purpose.
“I have an addictive personality, so I didn’t want to feel pain,” Chappue said. “[Drinking] was escapism. It would make me lethargic and I wouldn’t want to do anything. I wouldn’t stay with my workout routines. But this dog, he would look at me and you could just tell he wanted to go do something, so I would take him to the park, I’d play catch with him, I’d go on runs with him… I was harmed, and that dog made me feel loved when I couldn’t find love.”
Chappue now lives in a sober-living house. He has connected with the family who adopted Mossberg, which for him, was another heartbreaking experience: He learned that they are compassionate people who have formed a strong bond with Mossberg. When they heard Chappue’s story, they offered to return the dog.
“My heart’s hurting, but … I don’t want to potentially take him out of a home where he’s found happiness,” Chappue said, ultimately deciding to leave Mossberg with his new family.
According to shelter staffers OPB interviewed, many pet owners who are homeless or on the verge of homelessness at some point have an interaction with Multnomah County Animal Services — whether through pet adoption or, like Chappue, trying to retrieve a pet that was impounded during a personal emergency, like detainment or hospitalization.
Ami Prevec, who for five years worked at the shelter as an animal care technician until she quit last year, said shelter management required staff to undergo training on “trauma-informed interactions.” Even so, she said, managers didn’t encourage staff to use the training.
“I didn’t see a desire to put it to practice,” Prevec said. “I think the organization on a whole has a lack of compassion. That’s for pets and people.”
Prevec and other former employees said shelter managers are inconsistent in how they implement certain policies, which seemed to workers to be influenced by whether someone appears to be homeless. For instance, Multnomah County shelter has a policy to offer emergency boarding services for up to a month in cases like Chappue’s. But managers didn’t provide that option to him — opting not to extend the hold for Mossberg beyond the shelter’s typical six-day policy.
Brian Farris, Chappue’s friend and church mentor, had been communicating with shelter staff to get Mossberg back while Chappue was in jail. Farris said the shelter staff never made it clear when they were going to put Mossberg up for adoption, and they never mentioned an option for emergency boarding. He thinks the shelter treated Chappue unfairly.
“The part that bothers me most right now is that the Multnomah County animal shelter doesn’t follow the process that they’ve laid down because they have no regard for certain people,” Farris said. “It seems to be very targeted to homeless people and transient people that are low income.”
Erin Grahek, the shelter’s director, said emergency boarding is offered on a case-by-case basis depending on shelter capacity.
“I made the best decision I could at the time for a pet being held in a crowded, stressful shelter after several good-faith attempts to get [Chappue’s] friends to take Mossberg,” Grahek said. “It wasn’t a decision I made lightly and it was made with Mossberg’s interests at heart.”
Grahek became interim director of the shelter in July last year. She’s been a Multnomah County employee since 1999, primarily working as a case manager and program supervisor in the Aging Disability & Veterans Services department. She spent three months as interim director of Animal Services before taking a permanent position.
Grahek didn’t come to Animal Services with any animal welfare experience.
“I will bring on strong professionals who have the animal welfare background that I don’t, and marry that with my experience as a manager and a leader in Multnomah County,” Grahek said.
Grahek said she has used her management skills to get creative in addressing some of the longstanding issues with the shelter. Since it doesn’t have a full-time veterinarian, she helped initiate a program that provides adopters with vouchers to get their new pets spayed and neutered at other clinics, as well as vaccinated against rabies — procedures that had historically been done in-house. The change was intended to move pets out of the shelter faster. Grahek also changed the minimum requirements of some positions, including those in animal care and veterinary leadership, to cast a wider net and quickly fill vacant roles.
Five months into her new position, Grahek had to shut the shelter’s doors to stray animals because kennels were too crowded. The news alarmed county leaders, prompting County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson to announce her office would be conducting a review of the shelter’s practices. The county auditor’s office already had plans to conduct an updated audit of the shelter’s practices this summer; it’s not clear how the two reports will differ.
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Overcrowding at the Multnomah County Animal Services shelter was an issue largely created by its own policies. For nearly three years, up until January, the shelter opted not to open its adoption floor to the public. Instead of meeting the pets, people had to fill out an application online for a specific pet, undergo adoption counseling, pay fees, then pick up their animal from the shelter parking lot. Oftentimes, that was the first time they met their new cat or dog.
Volunteers pleaded with county commissioners multiple times to ditch the policy as the worst of the pandemic abated.
“We have no kennels. None,” shelter volunteer Janice Then said at a commissioners’ meeting Dec. 15. “We have more than one dog in kennels. There’s no in-person adoptions. This is the only place I know that doesn’t have any kind of in-person adoptions.”
That wasn’t the first time Then appeared before commissioners asking for their help with reopening the adoption floor. She said she and other volunteers testified to commissioners a year earlier, and they had met with Commissioner Lori Stegmann, because the shelter is located in her district in Troutdale.
“She was really nice,” Then said. “Nothing ever came out of it.”
In a Dec. 29 email, Stegmann told OPB the problem came from a lack of workers: “This unfortunate challenge is not unique to our county as there is a critical national staffing shortage in animal welfare services.”
Even with a nationwide labor shortage, no other municipal shelter housing stray cats and dogs in Oregon had kept its doors closed to in-person meets with animals as long as Multnomah County.
The policy created other problems as well. Sometimes people ended up with pets whose personalities didn’t match the descriptions provided by the shelter.
For instance, Natalia Saldanas adopted a dog in February 2022 named Rancher, a heeler mix described on paper as a “sensitive fella who is most comfortable being in a calm environment.” Leading up to his adoption, Saldanas said shelter staff described Rancher as a family dog who would be good with children. That was crucial to her, since she and her husband have a 4-year-old daughter.
Two weeks after bringing Rancher home, he bit a stranger’s thigh, leaving a dark bruise. Saldanas’ husband contacted the shelter.
“[The shelter staff] were immediately defensive,” Saldanas recalled.
Over time, it became clear that Rancher was more aggressive than the staff had described. Saldanas and her husband tried calling the shelter multiple times, she said, but they stopped responding.
A few months later, while Saldanas was standing in a hallway with her daughter, Rancher lunged at her, dug his teeth into her ankle, and thrashed around. Her husband pulled Rancher off Saldanas as their daughter shrieked nearby. Saldanas said she went to an emergency room, where she received several stitches. The wound later became infected.
Saldanas said she was able to report the incident to Multnomah County Animal Services, but the person she spoke to refused to take Rancher back, so she opted to call a shelter in another county. According to her, the staff at that shelter said Rancher would likely be euthanized if she brought him back.
“That was hard, because my husband bonded with Rancher,” Saldanas said.
Although Saldanas had experienced working with aggressive dogs before, she and her husband decided Rancher was too much of a risk with their young daughter. They took him to the other shelter, where he was isolated for 10 days and eventually euthanized.
Multnomah County did not have records of Saldanas’ phone calls or of what happened after Rancher’s adoption.
“If they had just found a different family for him, someone who could work with him, I think he would have been OK,” Saldanas said. “Multnomah County failed us, and they failed that dog.”
In a 2018 report, auditors noted that multiple staff were concerned the shelter had adopted out unsafe dogs. The report says the shelter wasn’t maintaining adequate records of dogs’ behavioral issues, and it was inconsistent in how it handled bites. In one case, shelter staff chose to euthanize a dog that had bit a person while trying to bite another dog. In another incident, a dog nipped a child multiple times and drew blood, but the shelter adopted it out.
Auditors suggested the shelter start documenting behavioral notes as well reasons for resorting to euthanasia, which they said would safeguard against biases in decision-making.
It’s not clear if the shelter has taken measures to better document behavioral issues, since auditors haven’t taken a broad look at its data tracking since 2018.
Failing basic animal control duties
County leaders said Multnomah County Animal Services reached a “turning point” in January when, after almost three years, the shelter once again opened its doors to the public. Several dog and cat kennels emptied that day at the packed shelter.
“Today, thanks to the incredibly hard work of County staff, our partners in animal welfare and volunteers, the number of pets at the Animal Shelter has been reduced by almost half,” Pederson, the county chairperson, announced in a press release.
But even as the shelter continues to adopt out cats, dogs, rabbits and other small animals, it is still failing to perform another key function of animal control districts: spaying and neutering animals.
This goes against national guidelines set by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians. Those guidelines — considered the basic standards for animal shelters — say allowing shelter animals to breed is “unacceptable,” and that failing to sterilize animals leads to more strays. The standards also say shelters should vaccinate animals for rabies before they’re adopted out, which is required under county law for pet owners but isn’t always happening for shelter animals.
A national shortage of veterinarians has left the shelter without full-time medical staff to perform surgeries and regularly administer rabies vaccines. In response, the county has started providing adoptees with vouchers for these essential services. New pet owners can redeem the vouchers at three veterinary clinics located in Gresham and Vancouver; the shelter is working on contracting with a third clinic in Southeast Portland’s Lents neighborhood. Because of the way the shelter contracts with these clinics, some new pet owners don’t receive their voucher until weeks or months after they’ve adopted a pet.
By Feb. 2, the Multnomah County shelter had delivered 278 vouchers to adoptees needing them for unaltered pets. Just 11 had been redeemed.
“One of our major missions is to reduce the number of homeless pets,” said Kelley Sherman, who’s been volunteering at the shelter since 2018. “You’re not going to do that if you’re sending unaltered dogs out.”
Sherman pointed to one case in which shelter staff knowingly adopted out a female German shepherd puppy to adoptees who had an unaltered male German shepherd dog at home. Shelter staff advised the adoptees to keep the dogs separated or supervised — a nearly impossible task.
It’s unclear how long the shelter will continue using a voucher program in lieu of doing in-house surgeries and vaccinations. Grahek said the shelter has two-year contracts with participating clinics, which is typical of county contracts, while it tries to hire a full-time veterinarian.
The shelter had originally been looking for a veterinary medical director — someone who’d be a veterinarian and an administrator — but after more than a year of searching, it hasn’t attracted enough qualified candidates. Grahek has changed the position to only focus on veterinary work.
Grahek said this is just one of many ways she and staff are ready to “do the work” that the shelter has failed to accomplish for so long. She and other shelter leaders say they’re significantly improving conditions, but volunteers and animal advocates remain skeptical.
In early February, Sherman provided OPB with photos of a dog at the shelter with a massive, bloody tumor on its belly. She said despite pleading with Grahek and management to remove the tumor, the dog was left to carry it around, nearly dragging it on the ground.
“I am continually devastated from witnessing such a lack of care for the animals and being met with no help from leadership,” Sherman said.
Sherman pressured shelter managers to do something about the tumor. After more than a week, shelter staff were able to have the tumor removed.
Sherman, who has volunteered at the shelter for five years, dedicates much of her free time visiting the dogs — even stopping by on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, when the building is practically empty. It’s not always easy work, she said, especially knowing some of the dogs will be euthanized for medical or behavioral reasons.
“I might be the only person that shows them love before they die,” Sherman said. “I try to make them feel important for the time that they’re there, because that’s all I can do.”
New leadership gave Sherman hope that things would change for the better at the shelter, and that seemed to be happening in recent months. Staff poured gravel in muddy play areas and installed toy bins and waste bag stations around the shelter, but Sherman said these are small changes that make the shelter look better to the public.
She said if caring for animals doesn’t start to come first for Multnomah County, she’s not sure how much longer she’ll last there.