(Out of) Animal Control?

Looking back at Lane County’s animal services

Mizzy & Olive, 1st Avenue Shelter (top). Terry, Greenhill Humane Society. Sasha Elliott with Ruby, 1st Avenue Shelter. Photos by Athena Delene

Emma, an emaciated pit bull mix, staggers on the side of the road in Junction City. It is clear to the animal welfare officers who pick her up that she is extremely malnourished and seems to be suffering from some sort of skin disease.

Three months later, Emma is happily playing in the yard of her new owner. There have been discussions on whether it would be better to euthanize Emma — a dog with an intractable medical problem is hard to rehome. But now she has plenty of food, and a number of treatments and the hard work of her foster parents has improved her skin condition.

She is just one of dozens, if not hundreds, of neglected, abused or otherwise homeless animals who have gone through the animal services system in the Eugene area. Up until July 1, 2012, animals like Emma went to Lane County Animal Services. But by May 2013, when Emma was brought in, LCAS was gone and 1st Avenue Shelter was the new name for the old shelter building. 

After years of work by animal advocates, LCAS had become a haven for neglected and needy animals. Although previously mired in criticism for killing too many adoptable animals, work from a number of dedicated volunteers, advocates and employees elevated the shelter to its lauded no-kill status. It was also well known for a series of systems and outreach programs that regularly helped displaced animals and found adoption options.

In the year and a half since the county decided to transfer control of the facilities to Greenhill Humane Society, cut funding to the facility by $130,000 and change the name from LCAS to 1st Avenue Shelter, the facility has become synonymous with controversy. Outcry from local animal advocates and problems with the shelter as a result of the transition have kept 1st Avenue in the headlines.

Now, a year and a half after the switch, with just months until the county’s contract with Greenhill comes up for renewal, decreased funding and ongoing protest from animal advocates beg the question as to whether the switch was good for the shelter, the county or the animals.

Animal Shelter History

Lane County is home to many animal rescue organizations, but historically LCAS, previously LCARA (Lane County Animal Regulation Authority), had been the publicly funded shelter for the county and the city of Eugene as well as Springfield. Greenhill Humane Society, SPCA is a separate nonprofit organization that, until it took over LCAS, had previously not been responsible for dealing with strays.

The idea to cut the LCAS funding had been brought up by the Lane County Commission in early 2012, as a reaction to budget shortfalls, but no substitute model was presented. The city of Eugene slashed its animal services budget as well, which increased the pressure on Lane County. The county allowed two public input sessions in the time leading up to the decision. According to a Lane County board order, the county and the cities of Eugene and Springfield held a “joint public process from approximately March 15, 2012, to April 5, 2012.” Concerns were raised about how quickly the change was being made, and many animal advocates complained of a lack of public input, fearing the changes would encourage lower quality of care and higher euthanasia rates.

Greenhill, which is not a no-kill shelter, was the only agency that made a proposal to take on the services of the shelter. At the time, groups such as No Kill Community Coalition were outspoken about the necessity of the no-kill environment that LCAS had created.

According to Cary Lieberman, executive director of Greenhill, the decision to take over the running of the shelter was made to fill a need in the community.

“After careful consideration that took into account our mission to provide safe shelter and support for animals in need, our structure and our capacity, and conversations with supporters, community members and other local animal welfare groups, we decided that it was imperative that we step in to help our community that was in crisis,” Lieberman says. “We did it because we knew that we could provide safe shelter for the animals when others couldn’t.”

The county voted on June 4, 2012, that it intended to award the shelter contract to Greenhill, but the final decision wasn’t made until June 25, 2012. That 3-2 vote by the County Commission was on a still-uncompleted contract. Greenhill took over on July 1.

“There were no other options pursued. I felt that the board majority had already made the decision to cut the LCAS budget, direct [former administrator Liane] Richardson to sign the agreement with Eugene and Greenhill and that’s what happened,” says Commissioner Pete Sorenson, an opponent of the idea.

At the meeting, then-Commissioner Rob Handy said, “I’m very concerned we’re planning for failure here,” after raising several questions about the stability of the contract, specifically about whether it would save the county any money.

Commissioners Jay Bozievich, Faye Stewart and Sid Leiken were the three yes votes for the decision. None of them responded individually to requests for comment, and instead sent responses to questions about this issue as a combined answer through the Lane County public information officer.

Bozievich said at the June 25 meeting, “This change of our animal services wasn’t a result of us trying to save money,” going on to explain that the county simply could not continue to afford supporting LCAS.

“It wasn’t about how much money we’re saving the county. The objective was to be able to offer any sheltering services,” he said. Under the current contract, Greenhill received $540,505 for the first year, about $130,000 less than the shelter received as LCAS. In the 2014 budget cycle, the shelter expects to receive $500,000, according to Lieberman.

Sorenson, an opponent of the idea from the start, acknowledges that complaints levied against Greenhill’s management of 1st Avenue often don’t take into account that funding for the shelter from the county was also cut.

“They’re being held to a standard that they should not be held to because they’re getting less money,” he says.

The decrease in funding only affected the direct running of the shelter, as other services, such as licensing and animal enforcement officers, were moved out of the shelter. For example, in Eugene animal welfare officers are now part of the police department, and the city, not the county, issues dog and optional cat licenses.

Public input leading up to the decision suggested that LCAS had been celebrated in the months before for becoming a no-kill shelter and increasing its quality of care, and there was concern that cutting the funding would decrease that care, the media reported at the time.

By the time Greenhill got to LCAS — whose name was also changed to avoid confusion with the governmental side of animal services, including licensing — the shelter had to readjust its services completely.

“Virtually overnight we had twice the animals to care for. That’s huge,” says Sasha Elliott, communications and events manager for Greenhill.

Greenhill, which largely deals with animals who have been turned over to its facilities by their owners and have full histories available, was faced with taking and adapting to also managing a rescue shelter that deals with stray, homeless and generally neglected pets.

“We have to get to know the animals, unlike Greenhill where we know most of their history,” Elliott says.

Pet Problems

Almost immediately, local watchdog groups such as No Kill Lane County (NKLC) began to voice dissent about the takeover. NKLC alleged a number of complaints about mistreatment of animals and quality of services that Greenhill was offering.

“Greenhill taking over has not been good,” NKLC member Tamara Barnes says.

Barnes has been an outspoken animal advocate in Eugene for many years, involving herself first with the NKCC then forming the NKLC as well as at one point running a cattery called The Cat’s Pajamas. She has been vocal about dissatisfaction with Greenhill, even protesting fundraising events. On May 19, 2013, Barnes and other NKLC members were asked to leave Greenhill’s “Bark in the Park” at Alton Baker Park by the Eugene Police Department. In that instance, NKLC supporters had actually called the EPD to affirm their right to protest the event in a public space, but EPD said Greenhill had a special permit for use of the park.

Prior to the transition, LCAS had successfully gone no kill, which Greenhill is not. A no-kill shelter is “a place where all adoptable and treatable animals are saved and where only unadoptable or non-rehabilitatable animals are euthanized,” according to nokillnow.com.

“All of that work was stopped dead in its tracks by the decision to turn [the shelter] over to Greenhill. And I think that was a bad decision,” Sorenson says.

Nowhere in the language of the contract is “no kill” a requirement in how the shelter is run. Although it has been labeled as a “kill” shelter by some activists, Greenhill told local TV station KEZI that “there’s not much truth to its title as a ‘kill shelter.’”

According to Elliott, from July 1, 2013, to the end of December, the overall rate of animals released alive was 92 percent. In a press release on April 3, 2013, the city of Eugene stated the live release rate of the 1st Avenue Shelter was 93 percent. Within that, 97 percent of dogs and 86 percent of cats were released, and the city said there was a 25 percent increase in the volume of animals going to the shelter.

For Greenhill, euthanizing is only an option if the animal “cannot be safely handled — either because of aggression or contagious disease, or in situations where the animal is suffering and a reasonable level of treatment would not be effective at providing a good quality of life,” according to the official protocol on the 1st Avenue Shelter section of the city of Eugene’s website.

“It is not a decision we take lightly, or one that we make often,” Elliott says.

But what defines a “reasonable level of treatment” is a question Barnes has raised multiple times in the last year and a half.

Last spring, NKLC alleged that Greenhill was killing cats with ringworm, a treatable condition. Lieberman responded to this in an email interview with EW in June. “We have successfully treated many ringworm cases, and unfortunately there were some that we were not able to treat,” Lieberman said, citing the stress of living in a kennel as making treatment harder in some cases.

NKLC has also raised allegations of neglect against Greenhill. In the instance of a nine-year-old shih tzu mix named Oakley, it was alleged he was not treated, despite having “treatable ailments”: crusty eyes, an ear infection and a bleeding lump on his toe. Shelter volunteer Diane Weaver and shelter employee Heidy Hollister both said that they were told by Greenhill’s vet Gail Schroder that Oakley was slated for euthanasia and Greenhill was not going to spend money on him. The dog was not treated until moved to a senior dog rescue, according to NKLC’s website. His medical file states, “No more treatment per DVM” [doctor of veterinary medicine] because, it added parenthetically, “treatment is painful to pet and unlikely to improve condition.”

This and other allegations, including the euthanasia of animals that NKLC says are treatable, have been dismissed by Greenhill in media reports. Animals are “never killed for space” at Greenhill or 1st Avenue, according to Elliott.

Hollister was fired, according to NKLC, after asking about the working conditions of the shelter under Greenhill’s care. She filed a lawsuit against Greenhill for alleged emotional distress due to the conditions of the animals. The case was dropped nearly a year later; the only explanation was a statement from the attorney Scott Meyer, who represented Greenhill in the case, which said, “All disputes between the parties have been resolved.”

Maintenance of the facilities also came under fire. At the beginning of 2013, NKLC began to complain that the heat was shut off at the 1st Avenue Shelter for over a week during cold weather. According to Elliott, this was a result of adjusting to the old building and finicky facilities.

“We worked with the city and the county and got that fixed right away,” Elliott says. According to the language of the shelter contract, responsibilities such as these fall on Greenhill to get fixed.

Also lost in the transition was LCAS’s “red alert” system, which was a notification system about animals that were about to be put down. Its disappearance caused concern for groups like NKLC about the shelter’s transparency of operations.

Many of the complaints were levied against the quality of service Greenhill was able to provide for the animals with its at least $130,000 less in funding. As Elliott puts it, “We still primarily rely on donations.”

Some volunteers left and staffing was cut back initially after the transition, although staffing levels are now “where they need to be,” according to Elliott. Now, there are about 13 dedicated staffers at the shelter and a number of rotating volunteers.

NKLC has also cited a seeming lack of fundraisers specifically for 1st Avenue. While a few events, such as Dog Tales and Pints for a Cause received considerable attention, the majority of fundraisers are only labeled as benefiting Greenhill. Elliott says that any money raised under a Greenhill-labeled fundraiser is shared with both shelters, despite what the title of the event might infer. The NKLC and others have come to Greenhill fundraisers and protested them to call attention to their issues with the 1st Avenue Shelter. Barnes says there will be a protest at Greenhill’s open house at 1st Avenue on Jan. 11.

As with its budget overall, while the 1st Avenue Shelter operates legally as an extension of Greenhill, money that comes from the county and the cities of Eugene and Springfield are used specifically for the 1st Avenue Shelter. Donations “designated by the donor to support 1st Avenue are used to fund expenses for that shelter specifically,” Jaclyn Rudebeck, director of operations at Greenhill, says.

Going forward

On July 1, 2014, the two-year contract will be up for renewal. According to Sorenson, “there is no plan” to change any aspect of the contract, and Elliott agrees Greenhill still expects to keep control of the shelter.

With no drastic changes in sight, some have suggestions for fixing the problems they see.

Sorenson says licensing fees for dogs could be increased. He also thinks that getting no kill into the contract is imperative, a notion that many agree with.

“Greenhill needs a no-kill director; everything else will just fall into place,” Barnes says. She and NKLC are also paying special attention to the commissioner seats up for re-election, as all three members of the yes vote on transferring LCAS to Greenhill — Bozievich, Stewart and Leiken — are still on the board of commissioners, joined by Commissioner Pat Farr, who replaced former commissioner Handy. Farr has tended to vote similarly to the three conservative commissioners, not with the more progressive Commissioner Sorenson.

Sorenson also ponders that simply ousting the contract could be the best solution.

NKLC continues to campaign against Greenhill, recently facilitating an art piece of a dog named Graham, who was euthanized, for artist Mark Barone’s project “An Act of Dog,” which represents 5,500 dogs who have been killed by shelters around the country in painted portraits.

The general community has more positive feelings on Greenhill, voting it the second-best nonprofit organization in Eugene in the EW’s 2013 Best of Eugene.

Despite the issues that have been brought up regarding 1st Avenue Shelter over the last year and a half, a recent trip to the shelter resulted in a warm greeting from warm kennels, with a multitude of staff and volunteers taking animals on walks, taking stray dogs in, logging walk times and generally taking care of the animals. There is no limit on how long animals can stay at the 1st Avenue Shelter, and they are moved to Greenhill if their needs would be better met or there are space issues.

Elliott says that there have been some bumps along the road, although she emphasizes that now, a year and a half from when the 1st Avenue Shelter became an extension of Greenhill, things have come a long way from where they were.

Some are just grateful that the shelter is still running.

“We’re grateful to Greenhill for stepping up and running the shelter and making it work,” says Kelly Darnell, interim animal services manager for Eugene.

Darnell runs the enforcement side of animal services, a department that was part of the 1st Avenue Shelter until the switch. She is in charge of the county’s two animal welfare officers, who now work more closely with the EPD.

Staffing and volunteer levels have swelled, heating malfunctions and other property-related issues have been ironed out and an increase in fundraisers for both Greenhill and the 1st Avenue Shelter have benefited the facility greatly, according to Elliott.

“We really think of it as an extension of Greenhill,” she says.

Activists still push for a completely no-kill shelter and increased transparency from Greenhill as a whole, especially now that it is involved in county operations. Although Greenhill feels operations at the 1st Avenue Shelter are running smoothly, Elliott says, “There’s always more work to do.”

Adopt Me!

Saving Lane County’s pets is not just the responsibility of Greenhill Humane Society, it’s a community effort, and it takes funding, volunteers, homes and other resources. If you want to adopt one of the cute pups or kitties pictured with this story, go to green-hill.org, which lists adoptable animals at both Greenhill Humane Society and 1st Avenue Shelter. You will also find links where you can donate, volunteer or foster pets from the shelters. Lane County is rife with animal advocates that help take the burden off of Greenhill, and they need support, too. Go to petfinder.com to search for shelters and rescues in your area.