Cat Project owner faces animal neglect charges

Dana Lionel charged with 2 counts of neglect

Photo Credit: REVIEW FILE PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Dana Lionels Oregon Cat Project on B Avenue included a no-kill shelter, thrift store and cat food bank.
Photo Credit: REVIEW FILE PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Dana Lionels Oregon Cat Project on B Avenue included a no-kill shelter, thrift store and cat food bank.

LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. (The Lake Oswego Review) — Neighbors and supporters of Dana Lionel’s Oregon Cat Project were surprised in late September to see an eviction notice posted on the organization’s front door.

After all, Lionel claims to have found homes for more than 3,000 cats during the nonprofit’s nearly five-year run in Lake Oswego, at times partnering with Petco for kitten adoption events that waived fees for military families. Her storefront on B Avenue also included a thrift shop and a cat food bank to aid low-income owners and other shelters. And some supporters insist that she is still accepting donations.

But Clackamas County Circuit Court records show that Lionel and Oregon Cat Project — which is also known as Oregon Cat Spay and Neuter Clinic, Inc. — failed to respond to the property owner’s complaints of “unpermitted use.” Records also cite neighbors’ reports of an offensive odor coming from the space at 340/342 B Ave.

On Oct. 5, the Lake Oswego Police Department responded to a complaint of “several cats locked in cages without care” at the shelter. The situation was labeled animal neglect and referred to the Oregon Humane Society.

And now, after a police investigation, Lionel has been charged with two counts of animal neglect in the second degree. She was scheduled to be arraigned in Municipal Court on those charges Wednesday, but waived her right to appear. A pretrial conference will be held some time in January.

City Attorney David Powell said one of the counts relates to a cat found at the B Avenue shelter. The other count, he said, involves the medical condition of a cat left at the Petco store on South State Street. Neither the police department nor the city attorney’s office would release any other details about the pending case.

If convicted, Lionel could face a maximum of six months in jail and a $2,500 fine on each count, Powell said.

In the eviction case, Lionel was accused by her landlord of boarding cats and keeping chickens on the premises, charges she denies. But the court ordered her to leave the building by Oct. 3 and pay $559.22 in restitution to the property manager, Hanna Network.

Lionel did not attend the eviction hearing.

“I did not attend because I wanted out,” she told The Review last week.

Lionel said she had six months left on a five-year lease when she received the property owner’s complaint. She said she had been looking for a larger space anyway, and in fact told her 45,000 Facebook fans in early October that she had been trying to close up shop since June.

In June, Lionel told The Review that plans were underway to purchase a 50-acre farm near Salem, turning it into a giant cat center where cats would be saved, restored to health, spayed or neutered and put up for adoption. When her new facility was ready, Lionel said at the time, she expected to be able to save 4,000 to 5,000 cats a year.

But last month, she informed key supporters that she would instead be traveling back and forth to Atlanta, where she hopes to establish a new cat adoption center. And she denied mistreating or abandoning any cats in her care.

“The cats were out of the building before the eviction notice ever went up,” Lionel said. “The cats were out by noon on Sept. 25, which was the court date for the eviction.”

Actually, Lionel said, she had to return on the morning of Sept. 26 to retrieve the last two cats because they took some wrangling.

“They did spend a night in an enclosure at the shelter, as I had all the other cats loaded and it was getting hot in the truck,” Lionel said. “I chased (the last two cats) in a 5-foot-by-5-foot pen for 40 minutes — they destroyed everything, including me, putting a four-inch scratch down the back of my neck. I returned at sunrise the next morning with a larger carrier and a blanket, and they were loaded with little effort and gone.

“None of my cats have been abandoned,” Lionel added. “In fact, close to 20 of them — deemed unadoptable due to behavioral issues, medical conditions and even blindness — will be making the 3,000-mile trip with me” to Atlanta.

It’s unclear what police found when they responded to the complaints of neglect in early October. A department spokesman referred all questions to the city attorney’s office, where Deputy City Attorney Jerry Seeberger said he was unable to release any further details about the case.

But Karen Green, the executive director of Cat Adoption Team in Sherwood, said her organization was involved in rescuing 42 cats that Lionel had abandoned at the Petco store in Lake Oswego.

Green said Lionel originally brought the cats to Petco from Columbia Gorge Cat Rescue, a small shelter located in Hood River. But Lionel later called the organization, Green said, and asked them to take back the cats — many of whom had upper respiratory infections and other medical problems.

At Columbia Gorge Cat Rescue’s request, Green said, Cat Adoption Team took in 14 of those cats; the rest were returned to Hood River.

Neither Lionel nor her attorney, Geordie Duckler of the Tigard-based Animal Law Practice, responded to The Review’s requests for comment this week.

Lionel’s Oregon Cat Project was by all accounts a popular no-kill shelter, and its disappearance struck many as abrupt and unexpected. Lionel established the organization as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in April 2010 to fill what she saw as the lack of cat adoption centers in Clackamas County.

OCP boasted some notable victories: In spring 2011, for example, Lionel quickly found homes for 57 cats rescued from a hoarder at the site of a drug bust in Goldendale, Wash. In June, she rescued close to 100 cats from a housing complex in Oregon City. The organization was far-reaching, and often partnered with other nonprofits.

But Lionel also developed a reputation for being hard to reach. Even now, The Review has only been able to communicate with her via email.

Kristen Castillo, who is in the process of opening Purringtons Cat Lounge in northeast Portland, found it especially hard to connect with Lionel. In March, Castillo said she would be partnering with Oregon Cat Project on the cat cafe, where patrons will be able to sip their lattes and mochas and spend time with cats before potentially adopting them. But she ultimately decided that Cat Adoption Team would be a better fit.

“She was just kind of hard to get a hold of, kind of hard to communicate with,” Castillo said of Lionel. “I thought, ‘What’s going to happen? I can’t drive to Lake Oswego every time I need to talk to her.’”

Castillo said she also received a surprising amount of negative feedback after she announced the possible partnership with OCP.

“It’s kind of hard to do research. I did read some of the negative reviews, to clarify some things with her. We’re all about transparency, but she took the offensive and was very offended by me (asking to see) the back of the shelter.”

Kim Everett-Hirsch, founder of the annual Oregon Cats Classic show and a longtime OCP supporter, said she has received conflicting accounts about Lionel’s plans for her shelter. Everett-Hirsh said that with proceeds from this year’s show, which was held at the Portland Expo Center in August, she was able to cut a $2,230 check to OCP. As late as October, she said, she understood Lionel was staying put. But even with a check in hand, it took some time for Everett-Hirsch to get in touch with Lionel.

“What she told me then was that she had a new facility in Clackamas County that will be tied in with a national group from the East Coast to the West Coast,” Everett-Hirsch said. It wasn’t until early November, however, that Lionel informed Everett-Hirsch that she would be traveling to and from Georgia and establishing a new cat adoption center there.

Via email, Lionel said the proceeds from the Oregon Cats Classic will be used for OCP cats only. “We are not taking anything from (the show) to pay for the new venture,” she said.

On Facebook, she explained her upcoming departure by expressing frustration. “The ability to even conduct business in Lake Oswego had become impossible, and an opportunity presented itself to get out and I took it,” Lionel wrote.

She said finding a larger, affordable facility to house OCP’s growing number of cats and kittens had been difficult, and that the struggle had prompted her to accept an offer to become a development director on the East Coast. Her new organization offered low-cost spay, neuter, medical and dental options for everyone, not just those on public assistance, Lionel added.

“The properties in the South … will allow me to continue my work with feral cats on an expanded scale, which has become my favorite,” Lionel wrote.

Green said Lionel has brought more than 30 of her animals to Cat Adoption Team, including three kittens on Tuesday and a group of six adult cats expected to arrive on Friday.

“We have continued to help her cats as much as we are able,” Green said. “She expects to leave town with (about) 25 cats in the back of her minivan for the cross-country trip, so clearly the more we can take off her hands, the better.”

Lionel said she expects to be established in Georgia by Christmas. In the meantime, she said, she and about two dozen “unadoptables” are staying with a friend.

She said she hopes that Oregon Cat Project’s supporters and fans will “continue to support our work and these great cats and kittens. This move is going to be huge and expensive.”

But she said she is concerned about what the closure of OCP will mean for local strays.

“We placed an average of 800 cats and kittens per year over the five years, and we specialized in the cats no one else wanted,” Lionel said, “so there will be a big hole come next year and for as many years as it takes for another rescue to come along. Those 800 cats will be looking for a place to go, and they aren’t going to find it here in Portland.”

Contact Saundra Sorenson at 503-636-1281 ext. 107 orssorenson@lakeoswegoreview.com.

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