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Animal defenders rescue dogs from death row

Watchdog couple shower county with allegations of abuse

Chances are, somewhere in a Multnomah County government office today, there's a multipage fax arriving, handwritten in a hurried cursive and replete with points painstakingly underlined and bulleted.

Its subject will be the county's Animal Control Department, and its author will be Gail O'Connell-Babcock, who faxes at least one department almost daily about abuses she says are occurring at the shelter.

Mike Oswald, whose job with the county Department of Business and Community Services is to supervise Animal Control, says, 'I get one every day.'

He's not alone. Supervisors in other departments Ñ the county commissioners, the district attorney and the county counsel's office Ñ also receive various memos and letters from Babcock. Or legal memos from her husband, Robert Babcock, a 30-year maritime attorney whose pro bono legal work has sprung animals from canine death row and caused the department to second-guess nearly every decision it makes.

The Babcocks, through their Sherwood-based task force called Watchdog, are the local avengers for animal kingdom members who have become entangled with the law in Multnomah County. Their goal is to ensure that no reformable dog is euthanized. To that end, they employ a two-pronged strategy.

First, they order copies of quarantines and infractions issued by the county's Animal Control Ñ documents that amounted to about 50 pages in April alone. Then they send letters to the owners of the offending dogs, offering them free legal help to fight animal control agencies. On their letterhead is printed the motto 'Protecting pets and people from Oregon's Animal Control Agencies.'

Finally, they paper the county offices with lengthy memos Ñ usually regarding specific dogs or department policy.

Robert Babcock began offering legal services to owners about five years ago, after his wife prevailed on him to help a dog that had bitten a child and was scheduled to be euthanized. The dog was spared, and the case became the first of many the two have taken on.

They believe that the county is obsessed with liability issues and that it unnecessarily labels as aggressive all dogs with a bite history, regardless of circumstances.

Watchdog has specific examples, such as the case of Pookie, the couple's first rescue. So far, the Babcocks say, she has not bitten anyone since.

Another is a Chesapeake Bay retriever named Annie that the county labeled a biter. Watchdog members said that the label prevented the dog from being adopted and that the dog was, in fact, not a biter at all. They said they interviewed the dog's previous owner and contended that the woman had simply described the kind of 'mouthing' typical of a puppy.

But a different story emerged when the Tribune called the dog's new owner, Sommer Wolcott.

'We have a 4-foot fence and she was jumping over the fence, and when we went to get her, she would become aggressive,' Wolcott said. 'If she was in the house and we'd try to put her outside, she would growl and snap.'

Yet animal defenders have been right about some things. County officials admit to accusations that they overcharged the Babcocks for public records and that they improperly censored reports that were released. Both are violations of the state's public records law.

Oswald is looking into Watchdog's allegations that the department is cooking its adoption records to make it appear as if more dogs are being adopted and fewer are being euthanized. Oswald agrees that there is a potential problem with the reporting system. 'There seems to be some É not necessarily inconsistencies, but we cannot always account for all animals in all circumstances.'

In all, the Babcocks say they spend about 50 hours a week Ñ 10 for Robert and 30 or 40 for Gail Ñ on Watchdog business.

'I think we're both of that school that life is something that needs to be protected whenever possible, although I don't think we sit around saying dogs are the equivalent of our 6-year-old,' Robert Babcock said

The Babcocks have three children Ñ ages 6, 11 and 17 Ñ and often live with up to six dogs at a time. 'Four of them are ours,' Babcock said.

For O'Connell-Babcock, helping animals is an outgrowth of her childhood. 'I grew up in South America, and I would see kittens washed up on the street, dogs dead in the street,' she said. At 9, she began gathering cats and bringing them home until the population reached the point that her mother called a halt to the recruiting.

She believes that the county can be more progressive, by coming up with more foster homes for unwanted pets.

But shelter officials say they place almost all of the dogs they consider to be adoptable Ñ more than 90 percent. Prospective adopters often pass over animals with a history of even a minor bite or those that are injured or ill, they say.

In the past two years, shelter officials say they've euthanized about 26 percent of all dogs brought in and adopted out about 34 percent. In 1995, the numbers were the opposite: 37 percent were euthanized and about 25 percent adopted out.

But regardless of the shelter's numbers, Watchdog believes that 30 percent to 40 percent currently are being put down Ñ unacceptable, say its members, who are a loosely linked group of people interested in advocating for animals.

'We would love to save all of them,' said John Rowton, Multnomah County shelter manager. 'But we just can't.'