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Shelters in the storm

• Pet euthanasia battle boils over into death threats

In the past few years, the animal rights movements has generated a growing number of controversies, converts and conflicts. In this story, the first of a series, the Tribune looks at the debate about euthanizing dogs at Multnomah County Animal Control.

There was a time when the biggest worry for an animal control officer was a dog bite or cat scratch.

Now, there's the weekly hate mail and the occasional death threat, delivered in the mailbox, through the Internet or on the answering machine.

For Gary Hendel, director of Multnomah County Animal Control, the past two years at the helm have been downright scary Ñ not because of the dogs but because of the humans.

He says animal rights extremists are targeting him on a regular basis. Some threaten him anonymously through letters that call him a murderer and declare, 'You should die.' Others prefer spreading rumors that the department is beating animals in its care and even killing people's pets for revenge.

A third group is using the legal system, demanding copies of every department citation, then hauling animal control officers into court to defend their actions, Hendel says.

In each case, the heart of their complaints is the longtime practice of euthanizing unwanted, sick or aggressive animals.

Animal advocates contacted for this story insist they have a bone to pick with Multnomah County Animal Control, although all denied having written hate mail or threatening agency personnel.

Melba 'Joy' Gohl, who runs an animal foster care business, says the county is guilty of harassing and coercing people into giving up animals for minor infractions and of abusing animals in its custody.

But chief among her concerns is that the shelter euthanizes animals when she believes they could be adopted. She says the county is squandering a chance to become a 'no-kill' shelter, similar to the San Francisco SPCA, which has sworn off euthanasia in favor of aggressive adoption campaigns.

Too sick to save?

The no-kill movement, born about a decade ago, is now the philosophy of many private shelters, fund-raising foundations and animal foster-care businesses.

But Hendel and other government-based shelter directors say the proponents of the no-kill ideal are selling the public a fantasy. The sheer number of abandoned dogs Ñ and the fact that county shelters often are dealing with the most badly behaved animalsÊÑ makes it impossible to find permanent homes for many animals, shelter directors say.

Rick Collord, director for the Southwest Washington Humane Society, acknowledges that he bought into the no-kill idea when he entered the shelter business in 1974. 'My first day there, I was required to gas 120 animals. É I cried all the way home. I vowed then that I would change things.'

Now, Collord says, he works from daybreak into the night, concentrating on saving the hundreds of animals brought into his shelter but succeeding in saving only a fraction.

The reason, Collord and Hendel say, is that so many of the animals are sick, or too injured or aggressive to be adopted. The Oregon Humane Society has similar difficulties and euthanizes thousands of animals each year, although it receives fewer complaints.

John Rowton, Multnomah County's shelter manager, says that while there are fewer animals coming to the shelter than in the mid-1990s, more of them are likely to be unadoptable Ñ or at least, 'tougher to place' than in years past.

'In the old days, if you had a dog with behavior problems, it meant death,' Rowton says. 'People didn't mess around in those days.'

But Gail O'Connell Babcock, co-director of Lake Oswego-based Watchdog, which advocates for animals, agrees with Gohl. She says the county shelter is euthanizing so-called aggressive animals that otherwise could be rehabilitated.

For most dogs, she says, there are many ways through training to try to prevent a recurrence of aggression.

While there are no guarantees the animal won't re-offend, she says, 'you can't ensure against everything. You can't ensure that a tree won't hit you on your way to work. É At Animal Control, their only concern is public safety; they are lacking in compassion. It's a liability-driven perspective.'

Babcock got her start in the no-kill movement in 1995 after reading newspaper accounts about Pookie, a Portland area Rottweiler that had bitten a child's foot and was slated to be euthanized. Babcock, who at the age of 9 brought home a bevy of stray cats and started her own makeshift sanctuary, was convinced that the dog wasn't getting a fair shake. While she'd always donated money to animal advocacy groups, she believed that it was now time to get personally involved.

She convinced her husband, attorney Robert Babcock, to take on Pookie's case. He argued, successfully, that death should not be mandatory every time a dog bites.

Since then, the Babcocks have been a formidable team, contacting owners who have been cited by Animal Control and taking their cases to court for free Ñall in an effort to save dogs that would normally be euthanized.

So how do no-kill shelters manage not to kill? Easy, Hendel says. They take only the healthy, well-behaved animals and turn away the rest, something that government-run shelters aren't allowed to do. The rejected animals end up at crowded government shelters. 'They make us do the killing,' Hendel says.

Indeed, the San Francisco SPCA, a no-kill shelter, makes clear in its mission statement that it accepts only adoptable animals and only when it has space.

Meanwhile, Hendel says, the movement has made it more difficult to eliminate animals that are threats to humans.

'My mission is to protect animals from bad people and to protect people from bad animals,' he says. 'So I do cases of cruelty and neglect, but I also have Cujo here,' he said, referring to a mad dog fictionalized in a Stephen King novel. 'What does the public want me to do with him?'

Hendel isn't the first director to be targeted. Former director Steve Raimo, who held the position for five years, says he, too, was the target of hate mail and death threats. Raimo says constant complaints by animal rights advocates is 'the nature of the beast' for anyone in the business.

Animal agencies from other states say they, too, have noticed a growing hostility between shelter operators and animal rights advocates since the birth of the no-kill movement.

Bill Garrett, who heads animal control for the city of Atlanta, says he and others in similar positions around the country have been the target of smear campaigns.

'First, they say you just don't care about the animals. Then, they say you're an animal abuser, and they call you a killer or a butcher who enjoys slaughtering pets,' he says. 'That progresses to accusations that you mismanage your funds.'