After a Landmark Year, Oregon Humane Society Looks Ahead

Jason E. Kaplan

In 2022 the Oregon Humane Society merged with another shelter system and opened a community veterinary clinic. President and CEO Sharon Harmon says it’s just the beginning.

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Sharon Harmon doesn’t take her work home with her.

“They come with me,” she says, tilting her monitor to show me her dog, Sea, a 7-year-old German shepherd napping quietly behind her desk at the Oregon Humane Society during a Zoom interview.

Harmon has served as OHS’ president since 1989, after working for the Oregon Zoo and the Portland Audubon Society, and starting as a kennel cleaner for the Marin Humane Society in Novato, Calif. When Harmon spoke with Oregon Business in November, the organization was wrapping a landmark year. In March OHS announced a merger with Willamette Humane Society in Salem, effective in July. In October the organization opened a Community Veterinary Hospital on its Portland campus.

0123Profile 556A3510Oregon Humane Society’s Northeast Portland campus.  Photos by Jason E. Kaplan

“Either one of those events would have been in the category of really, really monumental efforts for the year, but we did both,” Harmon says.

The latter is part of an expansion campaign OHS is calling the New Road Ahead, which Harmon says has been in the works since 2013. It includes the construction of a forensic lab for animal-cruelty investigations as well as dedicated space for animals who need behavior rehabilitation. OHS estimates the total cost at $39.5 million and has set aside $3.5 million from the organization’s reserve account — with a fundraising target for the remaining $36 million. (The organization’s annual operating budget in 2022 was $21 million, almost all either from program revenue or private funding, Harmon says, though the Willamette merger has led to some contracts with Polk County.)

0123Profile 556A3186The new forensics lab.

The New Road Ahead campaign’s backers include the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which granted $1.75 million for the project and, in 2021, awarded OHS with its highest honor, the Henry Bergh Award, at its Humane Awards Luncheon.

“The depth of Oregon Humane Society’s programs goes far beyond animal sheltering, including dedicated work in behavior rehabilitation, veterinary education, government relations, animal crime forensics, disaster response, and free and low-cost services for underserved pet owners,” Matt Bershadker, the ASPCA’s president and CEO, said in a statement to Oregon Business. “Oregon Humane Society has repeatedly demonstrated their deep commitment to protecting vulnerable and victimized animals across the country by anticipating what animals, owners and communities will need in the future, and taking new directions to meet those needs effectively and decisively.”

OHS was founded in 1868, making it one of the oldest animal-welfare organizations in the United States. The Portland shelter is also large enough that its capacity consistently exceeds the number of homeless pets in the metro area.

“For the Portland metro area, we’ve done such a great job in our community of spaying and neutering pets, and not allowing animals to reproduce, that we have very low cat overpopulation — and almost nonexistent dog overpopulation,” Harmon says. Of the 12,000 animals OHS took in in 2019, 9,000 came from other shelters.

That includes pets from shelters elsewhere in the state, including rural communities with less robust shelter systems — but also pets from out of state. In July authorities discovered a massive facility in Virginia where 4,000 beagles were being bred for research purposes; 150 of those dogs were flown to Oregon. OHS took in 80 of the dogs, with 70 others going to shelters around the state.

While the beagle-rescue operation was the subject of national media coverage, OHS also regularly assists with large-scale rescues closer to home: Harmon notes that in September the organization rescued nearly 100 cats from a Polk County home and 38 Alaskan malamutes from an “overwhelmed breeder” in Oakridge. The same week, the organization was dispatched to help save nine horses and four cows discovered during an Oregon City drug bust; all the animals were in a state of severe neglect.

“How do we have the capacity? We have a tremendous volunteer force. We also have this beautiful facility that was built in 2000 that has a lot of capacity to flex,” Harmon says. “Our dog kennels can handle one dog or they can handle 10 cats. Our emergency animal shelter is really designed for the odd animals that come in like fighting cocks and parrots and guinea pigs, so we can flex to those spaces. But really, it’s the volunteers that make it happen and the staff that rise to the occasion to say yes to any animal in need. And then we have this fabulous community that says, ‘Yeah, we want to help. You got any beagles? We’re going to line up 10 deep out your door to adopt them.’”

Due to that combination of capacity and community interest, OHS has a remarkably high recovery rate. It’s not a no-kill shelter, but it does not euthanize animals for space reasons and often keeps animals for months at a time while they wait for new homes; according to OHS’ website, 97.8% of the 7,204 animals taken in by the organization in 2020 were saved. The organization’s adoption rate is also consistently three to four times above the national average and is one of the highest in the nation.

It was also that combination of circumstances that prompted the Willamette Humane Society merger, Harmon says.

The two organizations had been discussing a merger for a few years, but it was never the right time; after COVID hit, it became necessary. The Salem shelter had reduced its hours to two days a week, with adoptions by appointment only. OHS’ Portland shelter went appointment-only during the initial stages of the pandemic but remained open seven days a week. Now both shelters are under the umbrella of one organization, have one set of operating hours and have increased starting pay from $13 an hour to $17.80 an hour when the merger became effective in July.

One of the cornerstones of the New Road Ahead campaign is an effort to improve animal-cruelty and neglect investigations. That includes the construction of an Animal Crimes Forensic Center, set to be fully operational by the end of 2022. Until its construction, animal necropsies had to be performed in the existing animal hospital, and all the animals had to be moved. The organization is also fundraising to improve the sophistication of its investigations, so it can use equipment like CT scans to determine more precisely the extent of injury or disease present in an abused or neglected animal.

0123Profile 556A3217Agency support specialist and evidence tech Lila Obeng with Sharon Harmon in the new forensics lab at OHS.

OHS’ track record of advocacy for animal welfare includes the 2019 passage of legislation streamlining enforcement and licensure of animal-rescue operations and a 2017 law protecting Good Samaritans from liability if they rescue an animal from a car parked in hot weather.

The organization also employs its own animal-welfare enforcement officers, though they are licensed by the state.

Harmon stresses that strong animal-cruelty laws — and investigations of animal cruelty — are important not just for their own sake but because crimes against animals are so often connected to crimes against humans. That’s particularly true in domestic violence situations.

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Forensics coordinator Samantha Lee with a new forensic CT scanner

“In Oregon we’ve linked human interpersonal violence cases with animal cruelty,” Harmon says. “One is a second offense to the other, and the penalties ratchet up because of that connection. It’s the same behavior. It’s just a different victim. And Oregon statutes recognize that.”

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Veterinarian Dr. Betsy Golden, discussing a cat X-ray with Sharon Harmon in OHS’ new Community Veterinary Hospital

OHS’ other big development this year — the October opening of the veterinary hospital — was a long overdue development. The number of pet owners is increasing and saw a particular upward spike in the first year of the pandemic; veterinary clinics have subsequently reported burnout, staffing shortages and a lack of ability to serve new patients who need routine care.

That problem is not limited to the pandemic, Harmon stresses, and isn’t likely to go away in the coming years.

“I couldn’t think of a better time to open a large veterinary practice than today,” Harmon says.

But the community clinic was born in response to a need that had been building for longer: the need for accessible care for lower-income pet owners who need low- or no-cost care.

There are other programs for low-income pet owners, including angel funds at nonprofit clinics like DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital and mobile wellness clinics that offer routine care like vaccinations.

“The model that we developed was taking the best practices from a number of hospitals to do it well, and then taking it to the next level,” Harmon says. The clinic will also serve as a teaching site for students in Oregon State University’s Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine.

Harmon says she doesn’t struggle with the temptation common to shelter staff and volunteers: to bring all the animals home.

“I don’t need to be an animal caretaker. And in fact, with the demand for animals here at the shelter — I would have to get in line to get a pet,” Harmon says. Harmon drew criticism in 2017 for a Facebook post about purchasing a dog from a breeder but says she now has just one dog. Sea, she says, was the subject of an animal-neglect investigation; her previous owners loved her, but the dog had complex medical needs they simply couldn’t afford to address.

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“I spent a lot of money getting her fixed. [Her previous owners] loved her; they trained her. She’s good with kids. She loves cats,” Harmon says. “I took her to a black-tie ball [last week], and we walked up to every guest and she said hi to them. When I went up on stage, she fell asleep on the stage. I mean, she’s great. They loved her, but they had to give her up or face criminal charges. They had to because they couldn’t afford veterinary care.”

That’s why the clinic exists, she says.

“That’s what that hospital is about — so dogs like her stay with the people that love them. So dogs like her live long, happy lives, and they’re healthy.”

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