Portland Residents Band Together to Help Homeless Pets

Coalition of animal welfare groups dramatically reduces number of pets in shelters

In 2006, Portland, Ore., was battling a pet overpopulation problem, just like every other major U.S. city. Its shelters took in more than 41,000 pets that year, 37% of whom were euthanized.

Well, if you’ve ever met a Portland resident, you know that they don’t exactly enjoy being like everyone else. And they certainly weren’t going to stand for preventable pet euthanasia in their community.

At the time, Portland’s many animal welfare organizations were doing their best to save as many lives as they could. Though they all functioned differently — some were municipal agencies, some worked only with cats — they all had the same ultimate goal: save as many pets’ lives as possible, and find them forever homes.

But, working separately as individual organizations, they felt they were still falling short.

Portland’s animal welfare groups knew they could have more impact if they worked closely together. So, heading into 2006, 10 local groups formed a coalition: The Animal Shelter Alliance of Portland, or ASAP.

“In our coalition, there are 10 agencies and it’s a bit unique,” said Joyce Briggs, executive director of the Alliance for Contraception in Cats and Dogs, and an ASAP founding member. “It includes the largest of the animal welfare organizations, animal control agencies, veterinary medical groups and a feral cat management group. So, it’s a quite diverse set of groups working together and each has different strengths to add.”

ASAP’s goal is to save all of the adoptable and treatable pets in its region — all while providing humane alternatives for free-roaming cats.


The Portland Coalitions goal


Growing pains are only natural

It wasn’t easy at first. They had to establish trust and respect for each other. Saving all of the adoptable and treatable pets was a big goal, and the group’s strategy was to prioritize key initiatives and ensure they were making progress on each. One of their biggest pain points was statistics — each individual organization was measuring its success in a different way.

“We knew overall how many pets were either adopted or euthanized in our communities,” said Britta Bavaresco, a founding member of ASAP. “But we didn’t really understand who these pets were. When we got the coalition together, a major shift occurred. We started looking at our community’s pets as individuals, and the community as one big safety net. We wanted to know who each animal was, why they were being killed and how we could have prevented it.”

Shelter diversity brings an advantage

ASAP includes 2 types of shelters: public and private facilities. 

There are 4 animal shelters in ASAP that are open admission, which means that no pet is turned away. Three of those shelters are municipal facilities — government agencies funded by taxes. Unfortunately, open admission organizations can be short on space and resources, and sometimes need to resort to euthanasia.

ASAP also includes 2 private animal shelters. Unlike public animal welfare groups, private organizations do not receive government funding. They’re funded by voluntary contributions — donations from individuals, businesses or endowments.

Private organizations often face similar resource constraints as public organizations. Few are open admission shelters that take in all pets, though — many private organizations are limited admission facilities, which means that they take in only as many pets as they have the space and resources to support. They don’t often need to resort to euthanasia because they don’t accept as many pets (such as strays) as public organizations must.

Portland's animal welfare groups

The short of it: the public shelters often have more pets than they have space for. Private shelters sometimes have some space. The ASAP partners saw opportunities to provide some pet traffic control that would benefit both types of shelters.

Pet traffic control

ASAP’s 4 public shelters route their “overflow” pets to the 2 private facilities, as well as many other local animal welfare groups. The private organizations are grateful for a steady, diverse source of adoptable pets, while the public facilities are grateful that their pets get second chance at finding forever homes.

What’s more, the private organizations also assist the public groups with spay/neuter efforts, and provide more options for medical and preventative care for pets. The public groups are able to provide a lot of data about the types of homeless pets in each county, which helps inform ASAP’s strategic planning and outreach efforts.

Animal welfare groups work together in Portland

Low-cost spay/neuter for cats holds the key

With a little time, some patience and a lot of collaboration, the groups coalesced and began to make progress on their pet traffic flow model. They also begin to see results — by 2009, the community’s euthanasia had declined to 29%. The improvement motivated them to keep going, and set even more aggressive goals.

They were preventing more pets from being euthanized in shelters, but the group’s goal was to prevent pets from entering shelters in the first place. The key indicator was the community’s intake numbers, which weren’t declining as much as the group would have liked. Cats were a particular concern: 84% of the pets euthanized in Portland-area shelters in 2009 were cats.

“Cats reproduce at a frightening rate,” said Sharon Harmon, executive director of Oregon Humane Society. “When they come into shelters, it’s hard to keep them healthy and happy.”

Pets kept coming in to shelters because pets kept reproducing. Portland still had an overpopulation problem — a problem that could be addressed through spay/neuter surgeries.

One opportunity became apparent almost immediately: Portland’s pet population would greatly decrease if its residents had access to more low-cost spay/neuter options for their pets.

ASAP built plans for a low-cost spay/neuter program for Portland residents called Spay & Save. The program empowers 5 participating ASAP partners to provide access to low-cost spay/neuter services to their individual communities through spay/neuter clinics and partnerships. The administration of the program is centralized, so the process is streamlined — both for clients and shelter partners. Clients are charged a low fee, and shelters are reimbursed in part for the cost of the surgeries.

 “This was a brand new idea for Portland,” said Dr. Kris Otteman, director of shelter medicine at Oregon Humane Society. “It had never been done, so it was really grassroots.”

And it needed a hefty amount of funding to get off the ground. That’s where PetSmart Charities® came in.

“We liked ASAP’s collaboration across agencies. Not only did they pull together a diverse set of animal welfare groups, but they were having a measurable impact already,” said Aaron Asmus, spay/neuter program manager for PetSmart Charities. “Our goal is to ensure our funding has as much impact as possible on an individual community, and we saw great potential to address pet overpopulation in Portland through the Spay & Save program.”

Saving pets in Portland

Spay & Save works like a charm

Four years after its launch, PetSmart Charities is proud that its investment in Portland has had a dramatic impact.

“Going into the project we projected that if we spayed or neutered 10,000 cats each year, we’d see 25% fewer cats coming into shelters after 5 years,” said Sharon. “I’m so glad that our math was wrong, because we saw a 25% reduction in cat intake after only 3 years. After 4 years intake is down 31%.”

This specific reduction in cat intake has had a bigger impact on the community’s euthanasia rate, which has more than halved since the Spay & Save program was implemented in 2010.

“We’ve been able to work together to save every healthy pet, in every shelter, in the entire Portland metropolitan area,” said Diana Hallmark, manager of Clackamas County Dog Services.

A game-changer for Portland’s shelters
The collective impact of ASAP’s work and the Spay & Save program goes beyond the dramatic reduction in euthanasia and intake rates. The shift has fundamentally changed how many of Portland’s shelters operate.

Now that fewer pets are coming into shelters, the ASAP groups are able to devote more attention to finding homes for special-needs pets. “We’re now able to focus on the cats that need a little bit of extra attention or time,” said Heather Svoboda, communications and development manager for Cat Adoption Team. “These cats might have behavior issues, special medical needs or issues such as ringworm. We’re proud to say that we can spend the extra time and effort with special-needs cats to treat them and find them happy, healthy homes.”

Plus, the public shelters in particular are able to shift their resources toward proactive programs. “Instead of running at full capacity all the time, we’re actually able to go out into the community,” said Mike Oswald, director for Multnomah County Animal Services. “We’ve been able to create programs, such as our Apartment Cat Team program, that bring much-needed spay/neuter and TNR services out into the neighborhoods that need them.”

The shelters have also observed a shift in the public’s perception as euthanasia rates continue to decline. “Our shelter’s euthanasia rate has declined by 80% since we started working with the ASAP coalition — that means in our shelter alone, we’ve saved more than 10,000 pets in 5 years,” said Deborah Wood, manager of the Animal Services for Washington County’s Bonnie L. Hays Shelter. “People used to drive past our shelters and literally turn their heads away because they didn’t want to think about what was happening at our shelter. Now, we have people who love the shelter, who support the shelter, who donate to the shelter because they know the good work that we are doing.” 

Groups work together to save pets in Portland


Every Portland pet needs a lifelong, loving home

ASAP has made amazing progress, but the coalition certainly doesn’t feel like its work is done. They are determined to continue to bring euthanasia and intake rates down in Portland. With each hurdle they overcome, they prepare to face different challenges.

“We’re thrilled that we’ve been able to save all the healthy pets in Portland,” Diana said. “But there are still pets in our community that need our assistance, and pets in shelters that need homes.” The group’s next challenge is to find homes for Portland’s special-needs pets — which includes some education to ensure pet parents are ready for the commitment.  

And the group has a relentless focus on community outreach and proactive programs to make sure the entire Portland community is educated about, and supports, spay/neuter efforts. “Portland is very proud of being green,” said Britta. “I want Portland to be just as proud of not euthanizing any animals that could have been saved. We also need to create a mind shift in the community so that pet adoption — and spay/neuter — are cool trends.”

But look how far they’ve come. In 2006, ASAP groups were able to save just 6 of 10 animals entering their shelters. In 2013, ASAP saved 9 of 10 cats and dogs who arrived at Portland's shelters. Deborah from the Bonnie L. Hays Shelter summed it up best: “It takes more work to save a life than it takes to end a life. But it’s worth it. We’re able to walk into our shelters and know that every animal that comes in through that door is going to have the best possible chance.”

“And that makes this work a joy.”


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