Despite its reputation as an “animal friendly” town, Portland, Oregon, has delegated companion animal responsibility to its surrounding county and Multnomah County Animal Services (MCAS). The result is an agency that hides government sponsored animal abuses behind closed doors and presents a false front, one built with copious taxpayer- funded propaganda campaigns. The companion animals of the homeless and minorities are especially targeted. Instead of choosing humane options (prevention and training programs that genuinely reduce recidivism) MCAS elects confiscation and destruction and is never concerned about the damage done to those whose animals are subjected to needless killing.
For the poor or homeless there is no “equality” under the law. The context of poverty and the emotional loneliness often felt by the homeless and their need for companion animals, often all they have, are never considered in decision making. Companion animals and the homeless are viewed only through a totalitarian window as nuisances, pests, and potential liabilities, not worthy of even rudimentary respect.
Mary M is only one of MCAS’s recent victims. Twenty one years old and homeless since she was fourteen, she has no support system. Her one steadfast companion is her pit bull mix dog, for all practical purposes her service companion animal. She lives under various bridges and gets around by skate board, her long red hair flying behind her in the wind. She is one case among many never publicized because the homeless and their companion animals don’t count; they have become soft prey for Multnomah County Animal Services. Mary has an appeal hearing on February 12 hoping to get her dog Dewbie back. We donated the money required to have a hearing and paid for her right to have one but her chances of “winning” against a system so deliberately stacked against her remain slim. And the pain of losing a beloved companion when all that is needed is corrective training and help can be lifelong. One mother of a homeless young woman, whose service dog was destroyed by MCAS in 2009 without notice and despite offers of multiple humane options, still corresponds with animal protection organizations across the country trying to learn how any justice for that killing can be found.
Mary’s case, five years later, is no different. MCAS ordered her dog seized in October and her ownership suspended following minor bite incidents that happened in rapid succession, a month apart: The first tickets were issued on October 15, 2013 and were served on October 24 ; the second on November 21, when the county went for ownership suspension. The fines for the first tickets totaled $500, far in excess of the damage the alleged “crime” caused. The restrictions imposed with the first ticket required that the dog had to be muzzled at all times unless eating (drinking was not noted) or in extreme heat. No definition of what qualified as extreme heat was noted. There was no concern about the damaging effects caused by constant muzzling.
The second tickets issued November 21, totaled $1000 (one ticket for the second incident; the other for failure to comply with restrictions imposed with the first ticket) and only sought ownership suspension. Fines totaling $1500 are meaningless when one has no money and needs skills. For those persons punishment “teaches” nothing.
Along with the tickets, Mary was given a Potentially Dangerous Dog sign showing a picture of a lunging, slathering red eyed dog (pictured). She was told to post the sign on her property even though she had no home. As Mary tried to explain the pointlessness of the sign, MCAS employees became indignant, irritated at what they considered her “resistance” to their rules and authority. Mary finally took the sign and, on the way out, threw it at the agency flag pole and building. The “dinged” composite board sign upset the employees. Asking a homeless person to post a sign on a home she didn’t have didn’t seem unreasonable at all. They set the sign aside to give it to her again the next time they saw her: “Sign will have to be served again.” On December 06, when Mary came to visit her dog despite the distance from downtown, a special hardship for anyone without transport Mary was told she couldn’t visit, instructed to make an appointment, and handed business cards. Does no one at MCAS realize that it is impossible to get telephone service when the hours are so restricted and one must borrow a telephone, each time using up another’s limited telephone minutes? Could no one have taken the time needed to supervise a 15 minute visit (the maximum allowed)?
The excessive fines and conditions are deliberate, and imposed to set up failure. MCAS also knows that punishing fines against the homeless have no corrective value, offer no incentive, and result only in defeat. MCAS also refuses to itself offer or help others provide humane alternatives. We asked if MCAS could inform Mary that our organization would help her appeal with pro bono legal assistance and also provide needed dog training to prevent future incidents. It refused.
MCAS assiduously rejects education and prevention programs in favor of a punitive system of escalating fines, threats, and extorted surrender. To escape fines, owners often abandon their animals. MCAS’s rejection of humanitarian help offered by others in the community is supported by Multnomah County government. The refusal to notify homeless people, including Mary, of available pro bono legal help and free training services is part of a calculated plan to extort surrender. In Mary’s case and in many others, MCAS has declined to offer interim help. Instead it aggressively pursues threats, unachievable conditions and unaffordable escalating fines, ignoring the fact the homeless have no money.
Mary and her young dog, Dewbie, who himself was once abused, have a common fate among Multnomah County’s homeless and poverty stricken companion dog owners. Most of the dogs of the homeless are really service dogs, often all the homeless have. Their loss is keen and significant. The most common outcome is extorted surrender accomplished by imposing conditions the homeless cannot meet. Refusing to allow information about free legal services is only one deliberate obstacle. Mary and her companion dog have no chance at all for a humane outcome on February 12. The hearings officer is chosen by MCAS. The hearing is pre-determined to be unfair. Given the odds, Mary and her dog will most likely both become just one more statistic.
MCAS and also Multnomah County government’s rigid opposition to notifying homeless populations about free legal assistance and accompanying free training effectively denies humane solutions to the most vulnerable populations. The county has consistently refused our request that homeless parties be advised of the availability of legal help and training when they are ticketed. We found Mary by handing out leaflets on Burnside among the downtown homeless population. It is not a secure way to notify those who are homeless and need help. Because of Multnomah County’s deliberately imposed obstacles, Mary’s chances of recovering her companion dog, Dewbie remain slim.
The fact that Dewbie’s behavior is correctable makes no difference to the county. An agency animal care technician, Stephanie Collingsworth, has already written into the record and advised that Dewbie will be killed if Mary fails on appeal noting that : “ 10.29.13 Field reports indicate two different bites in two different contexts (both involved strangers getting too close to the dog while he was restrained, once on leash and once tied up).’’ Her recommendations were that Dewbie is “unsuitable” for placement and required euthanasia. But the behaviors are easily correctable. Death is just more punishing and efficient. It drives the lesson home.
In addition to intentionally denying the homeless information about the availability of help, there are other common exploitive tactics and demands used by MCAS:
· Requiring a home with a fenced yard or enclosed kennel (defying the definition of homelessness: no fixed address) means that the homeless must be re-homed before they can redeem their animals.
· Imposing extraordinary excessive fines that no one, not even if employed party with a fixed address, could afford.
· Effectively blocking and denying homeless and poverty stricken citizens the right to due process by refusing any mitigation or exceptions to hearings fees. The $25 fee to appeal is often accompanied by a required $100 impound charge that is unaffordable to the majority of the homeless population.
· Providing no humane prevention and education services to address correctable problems.
· Making it difficult or impossible to visit dogs in lock up. Appointments must be pre-arranged, a maximum of 15 minutes only, and one cannot be late. Incarcerated companion dogs on Intake at MCAS are deprived of exercise and socialization for deliberately exaggerated “public safety” concerns. They see no one and receive no exercise often for months on end. This is institutionalized cruelty.
Multnomah County does not correct; they just kill the subject of their concern, while rejecting all common sense and compassion. MCAS, with full county government approval, violates this community’s progressive humane values and love for animals and hides its real policies and practices behind locked doors.
The many long term documented problems at MCAS have been raised by many citizens over and over again. No one has ever responded from what has become a closed “employees only” club, one supported by tax payer dollars
When humane options exist, it should be unconscionable to kill. We should understand that how we treat others defines us. When we look away from the pain and suffering of others then who are we?
Gail O’Connell-Babcock, PhD
Citizens for Humane Animal Legislation/Watchdog