Update: February 29: This story has been updated to include input from the county about its euthanasia practices.

Multnomah County Animal Services (MCAS) continues to face questions about its direction after removing language that animals would not be euthanized due to a lack of shelter space from its euthanasia policy.

“It’s been dysfunctional for a long time, but it has been accelerating over the past few years—and it’s reached the bottom of the pit right now,” Jon Gramstad, a local business owner and longtime critic of MCAS, said. 

The questions from activists like Gramstad come as MCAS works to implement a host of changes to its operations following a comprehensive review ordered by Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson last year. 

Concern over the capacity of MCAS dates back all the way to 2008, when a joint city-county task force was drafted to address issues at the service. The task force found that MCAS was badly underfunded and that county residents wanted “improved response rates, greater public accessibility to services and a significant reduction in the numbers of animals that are euthanized.”

The task force made a number of recommendations to help restore and improve services at MCAS, but their report largely failed to change the department’s trajectory. 

Eight years later, in 2016, county auditors testified at a public meeting that MCAS was inadequately staffed and struggling to maintain proper documentation and adequately care for the animals in its shelters. Two years after that, county auditors again testified that the county needed to drastically improve its services. 

Then, just two years after that, the COVID pandemic shut down MCAS’ shelters and the state of Oregon as a whole—presenting a range of new challenges. 

“What happened during COVID is a lot of people were adopting, fostering, buying dogs and getting pets,” Gramstad said. “As COVID begins to wane and things begin to open… they [MCAS] find themselves around the end of 2022 with a lot of animals.”

According to Jay LeVitre, development and communications coordinator at MCAS, shelters around the country have particularly seen an uptick in their intake of larger dogs in recent years—straining a system not built to handle larger dogs in the numbers it now needs to. 

“Many of the larger dogs with barriers to placement for medical or behavioral reasons experience longer shelter stays,” he wrote. “We are offering more in-shelter enrichment, including regular playgroups, toys and treats, and recruiting for dog foster volunteers to help provide relief and respite, but it can be difficult to find short-term and long-term placements for these dogs.”

Multnomah County Animal Services cites a lack of veterinarians and lack of
shelter space for some of its longstanding issues. motoya nakamura/multnomah county

The pandemic, which kept some shelters closed for well over a year, also exacerbated existing problems with the shelter system that dated back more than a decade. Last February, The Oregonian reported that MCAS had no enrichment program for dogs and cats and failed to outline clear rationales for why it euthanized some animals with behavioral issues but not others. 

Amid ongoing volunteer and staff concerns about the direction of MCAS, the then-newly-elected Pederson announced that she would conduct a wide-ranging five-month review of the department. 

The review process played out over the course of 2023, with reviewers soliciting community input and tracking the county’s progress in implementing recommendations for MCAS dating all the way back to the 2016 audit. 

Between the 2016 audit, a 2018 consultant report, last year’s community survey, and several other projects, the county is currently tracking 107 different recommendations for MCAS—57 of which have already been completed, and a further 30 of which have been marked as “in progress.”

The recommendations span a number of different areas of MCAS’ operations and culture, ranging from a review of its euthanasia policy to a refresh of the MCAS website. 

The county’s euthanasia rates are top of mind for many, especially with the county removing language that animals would not be euthanized due to lack of shelter space from its euthanasia policy.

A county spokesperson later clarified, saying despite the language change, the practices remain the same.

"We do not euthanize healthy and safe animals for space. We didn’t then, we don’t now," Julie Sullivan-Springhetti with the county's press office noted. "We developed a new policy document because the public and Board of Commissioners told us they wanted more clarity on how staff are making decisions around ill or unsafe pets. We used positive, affirming, and life-saving language to say what staff should and will do, not what we won’t do. We didn’t use the 2016 document as a template because it was important that we develop policy standards and definitions based on best practices from current experts, as well as national standards."

In 2023, Multnomah County euthanized 486 dogs and cats in its shelters—compared to just 350 animals euthanized in King County, Washington, even though King County is more than twice Multnomah County’s size. San Francisco Animal Care and Control, meanwhile, euthanized just 419 dogs and cats in the 2022-23 fiscal year. 

Still, Multnomah County is far from the only urban area in the country euthanizing eyebrow-raising numbers of animals. Denver’s city shelter had euthanized more than 850 dogs by August of last year, while Los Angeles County has had a range of significant issues with its shelter system. 

The national euthanasia rate as a whole hit a three-year high last September, with Axios reporting that the rate had increased by some 37 percent over where it was at that point in 2022. LeVitre said that part of the issue is a national veterinarian shortage, which has impacted the level of care MCAS in particular has been able to provide.

“While we recently filled our second veterinary position, which was vacant for over a year, we are still in need of CVT support staff and relief vets,” LeVitre wrote. “This has impacted our internal capacity to spay or neuter all animals prior to adoption, and also our capacity to provide more frequent exams, treatments, and minor procedures in house.”

Staffing is a concern beyond veterinary capacity—MCAS has not been fully staffed for years, and currently has a number of positions open.

LeVitre wrote that MCAS is “pleased with its live-release rates and adoption outcomes, but not satisfied.” Others have a less charitable view, both about the current state of MCAS and the potential of the review process. 

“Unfortunately, another review won’t fix the shelter’s issues,” Nick Hanauer, a former director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, wrote last year. “Previous audits have already provided a roadmap for solutions that could have resolved many of the problems long ago. The missing cornerstone is accountability and that is only something the Board of Commissioners can provide.”

Gramstad wants more comprehensive change. He believes the county should adopt the Calgary Model, an approach to animal control focused on high levels of collaboration across fields, public education, and a care-first approach to services that has made Calgary’s animal control department a worldwide model. 

For now, though, it appears the county is sticking with a more piece-by-piece approach—aiming to implement the many recommendations and look at making short-term changes to its shelter facility in Troutdale and potentially moving to a new facility down the line, a discussion that dates back more than a decade.

To Gramstad, however, the issues at MCAS are indicative of broader problems in county governance that touch everything from homeless services to mental health and addiction services. 

“MCAS is the canary in the coal mine,” Gramstad said. “The reason you can’t solve any of these problems? They’re in MCAS. That’s a very small microcosm of what is wrong with county government.” 

LeVitre, too, stressed that what happens at MCAS is affected by what is happening in the county around it. 

“Lingering economic challenges and housing instability also correlate with increased shelter intake numbers,” he wrote. “Especially for large dogs.”