Multnomah County animal shelter needs a system of accountability, not another review

Multnomah County animal shelter needs a system of accountability, not another review

Nick Hanauer

Hanauer served as a director at the International Fund for Animal Welfare from 2017 to 2020. He lives in Tigard.

The horrific conditions at the Multnomah County animal shelter in which animals aren’t provided minimum feeding and cleaning services, physical activity or medical care aren’t just a failure of those running the shelter.

The blame extends to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, which for years failed to drive change, even after a 2016 audit and 2018 follow-up review of the shelter revealed many of the issues that continue today. Now Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson – who joined the board of commissioners in 2017 – is planning yet another review, claiming this time will be different.

Unfortunately, another review won’t fix the shelter’s issues. Previous audits have already provided a roadmap for solutions that could have resolved many of the problems long ago. The missing cornerstone is accountability and that is only something the Board of Commissioners can provide.

As someone who has managed numerous animal welfare and wildlife conservation projects at a global nonprofit and partnered closely with grassroots rescue operations, I know what can bring the shelter back on track. When I led teams in starting new projects, we didn’t do so with the expectation that we would be in those places forever. Instead, we built systems with multiple checks and balances that we could hand over to local organizations. Ultimately, we must demand that commissioners and shelter leadership build a resilient system that reaches beyond the walls of the shelter, reinforces accountability at multiple levels and eliminates single points of failure, such as who happens to be leading the shelter or the commission in any given year.

In short, these are the basic steps the commissioners must take to drive change:

  • Define what success looks like and hold shelter leadership accountable: A humane, effective animal shelter should meet the minimum guidelines provided by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians. The commissioners should establish quantifiable goals and associated timelines for shelter leadership that are derived from the national standard and the roadmap described in the 2018 audit.
  • Establish quantifiable key performance indicators for each goal and require monthly updates: Examples include metrics already reported monthly such as animal intake, adoptions, transfers and euthanasia, but should also include new metrics related to audit recommendations such as median number of walks per dog per week. This information can be supplemented with a short meeting with the commissioners to review progress. If these targets drift off-track, shelter leadership and commissioners can proactively work to uncover solutions and discuss resource requests before the shelter leadership misses their goals.
  • Verify reported data are accurate through impromptu and planned inspections: The shelter posts robust reports on its website, but those reports are of no use if the goals aren’t confirmed with data, the data paints a misleading picture or the veracity of the data is questionable. For instance, in 2018, the shelter reported a “save rate” of over 90% (the widely accepted standard to be deemed a “no kill” shelter). But auditors found the shelter was also euthanizing on average 1.2 animals per day over a five-month period in that same year and failed to record all the euthanizations and reasons for euthanizing specific animals. Regular, impromptu spot checks by county staff are critical to ensuring accuracy in reporting and maintaining operational adherence; additionally, annual or biennial audits are necessary to track long-term progress. Robust reporting with regular audits are standard practice in the animal welfare and conservation space, particularly amongst the largest institutional funders such as USAID.
  • Conduct a resource review to include staffing and budget that supports shelter leadership’s ability to achieve goals: The shelter needs enough resources to meet its goals and maintain targets. This resource review should include funding for both operations and personnel and include a review of specific roles at the shelter to ensure the correct roles are in place at the shelter to deliver results. Notably, this was a recommendation in the 2018 audit listed as “not completed.”

The problems identified by the Multnomah County auditor’s office have persisted across changes in management and county leadership. Putting in place a structure such as the one outlined above can help fix those problems regardless of who’s in charge.

Multnomah County animal shelter needs a system of accountability, not another review

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