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May 08, 2008

Born: Jan. 17, 1931, White Earth, N.D. Died: April 23, 2008, Portland Survivors: Partner, Steve Nettles; mother, Evelyn Troen; brothers, Donald and Norman Service: Has been held Remembrances: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals See a slide show of Roger Troen's life at www.blog.oregonlive.com/lifestories

For the animals, not the humans

AMY MARTINEZ STARKE
The Oregonian Staff

Even among fervent animal-rights activists, Roger Troen stood out. He'd be the one costumed as a demented butcher with fake blood and cleaver performing guerrilla theater during an anti-fur protest, or as Colonel Sanders outside KFC protesting factory farming, or chalking the ground outside OHSU's primate center.

About 30 years ago, Roger got the call to his life's purpose -- animal rights -- and his righteous battle became a nearly full-time focus. At any given time, Roger had either just come from a march or meeting, or from gathering signatures for a shelter reform initiative, or had just written a letter to the editor, or photocopied news releases or his newsletter.

But if he got a call to rescue an animal from death row at the Multnomah County animal shelter in Troutdale, he dropped everything.

When Roger got on his soapbox his was a loud, blunt voice, and often a lonely one. Behind the scenes, he did many of the most menial tasks and he got almost no positive strokes. He was sometimes kicked out of gatherings. Talk shows stopped accepting his calls.

Not everybody knew that the silver-haired man with the steel-blue eyes and the missionary zeal had been convicted for his role in a 1986 Animal Liberation Front raid on an animal lab at the University of Oregon.

Although frustrated that people didn't see things his way, he was in no way discouraged. He unapologetically and cheerfully came back to repeat his message: He was there for the animals, not the humans.

"Can't Kill the Spirit"

Roger was the middle of five children; his mother died when he was a toddler, and in 1936, he moved to a house on North Montana Street in Portland. Practically all the years of his life were spent in that house.

He was raised by his stepmother. His first animal was a cat, Juliet, when he was about 13. He went to Beach Elementary, Benson High School (class of 1949); then Vanport College. He enlisted in the Air Force, and served in Waco, Texas. While in Texas, he converted to the Mormon faith. He graduated from Brigham Young University and taught at Buckman and Astor elementary schools from 1959 to 1969.

In about 1970 he came out of the closet and became active in gay rights. By 1979, though, his focus had shifted, and he was rescuing animals.

He ran unsuccessfully for 18th District state representative in 1982, then two years later as one of 19 candidates for Portland City Council.

It was in 1986 that he was the getaway driver for an Animal Liberation Front raid on the UO lab. He escaped driving his aunt's Ford LTD crammed with rabbits and other furry critters at daybreak, with Beethoven blaring on the stereo. Roger took the stolen rabbits to a friend's place on the coast, where a veterinarian discovered their UO tattoos and called police. Roger was arrested and convicted -- the only one -- of theft, conspiracy and burglary.

When judgment was pronounced -- probation, $35,000 fine, house arrest, community service -- Roger was wearing a button reading "Can't Kill the Spirit."

Although excluded as a gay man from the Mormon fold, Roger still felt strong ties to the faith. He lobbied for his new church, Metropolitan Community, to honor animal rights, even protesting in church. Here too, he was often frustrated. But he kept on.

A critic of traditional animal shelters, he nevertheless went to the Troutdale animal shelter once or twice a week to get cats or dogs and take them to foster homes.

Every day, he took his list of goals and checked then off, often at Overlook Restaurant, the "battle pavilion" where he planned strategy. He sipped tea and wrote in his journal. His three dogs (Tanner, Lady and Hildigard), four cats (Bigger Boy, Muddy Cat, Creamsickle and Patience) and two unnamed rats, were his children.

Money was a problem. He spent what he had on stamps and photocopies -- he never entered the Internet age -- and gasoline for his 1986 Toyota pickup to rescue animals. Property taxes for his dilapidated house, where he lived with his partner of 13 years, Steve Nettles, were not as big a priority as paying $1,000 for surgery on a kitten that had swallowed a penny.

He would go into debt for a critter, but suffering from congestive heart failure, would not get himself to the hospital. Two weeks before his death at 77, on April 23, 2008, he went to a shelter reform group meeting with plans for action. But it was a cause with little support.

In 2003, Roger, who also rescued rats -- he called himself founder and international coordinator of Rat Allies -- wrote an essay for Willamette Week in defense of the rodent. When someone wrote him a short note of appreciation, he was astonished, gratified and humbled. Somebody finally understood what he was trying to communicate.

Roger, who sometimes felt like a martyr, sometimes like a voice crying in the wilderness, said, "Somebody changed their mind today because of something I wrote."

Amy Martinez Starke: 503-221-8534; amystarke@news.oregonian.com

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