A New Era

Has Memphis reached a turning point in how it runs the Shelter?



Buck

My husband and I recently lost a beloved family member. Our beautiful cat, Buck, died suddenly, a quiet passing that left us stunned. He came in that afternoon to eat (his favorite pastime) then stretched out on the cool hardwood floor to rest. The next thing we knew he was gone. We considered an autopsy, but we’d endured that procedure with another pet and received no clear answers and little comfort. We’ve accepted the fact that our precious Buck, at only six years old, has crossed the Rainbow Bridge.

Buck isn’t the first animal we’ve loved and mourned. But he was the first we adopted from the Shelter. Even so, I’ve followed the city agency, officially known as Memphis Animal Services, for years — volunteering at spay/neuter events, visiting the facility with rescue groups, and calling animal control officers about abuse or neglect. I know its highs: one especially dedicated officer who responds to cruelty reports; the volunteer who helped me select Buck and beamed when I took him home. I also know its lows: some rude employees who disregard animals and humans; sloppy record-keeping that leads to animals being destroyed even as their adopters wait in the lobby; botched euthanasia attempts that cause terrible suffering.

In 2009 a tip to authorities led to a raid that shocked the city. Some animals were so starved they had to be put to sleep, and three employees, including the director, were charged with animal cruelty. Mayor A C Wharton was soon installing web cameras and promising a facility “beyond reproach.” 

A new day had dawned. Or so it seemed.

Nearly two years later, disturbing incidents and outright scandals still plague the Shelter. Webcam photos of dogs and cats being mistreated, or at the very least carelessly handled, circulate regularly on the Internet. Common ground between city officials and animal advocates remains elusive. Meetings of the Memphis Shelter Advisory board — which until recently were open to the public — seem to pit the two forces against each other. Tension is thick between the volunteer-based Friends of the Animal Shelter and those who question Shelter policies. 

Debates rage over the 75 percent euthanasia rate and why the facility can’t achieve a no-kill status. One faction blames the problem on pet overpopulation caused by humans who won’t spay or neuter; others don’t argue with that, but insist Shelter staff are too quick with the needle. Although Matthew Pepper, who was hired as director in 2010, was credited by some for increasing adoptions and making improvements, he resigned this summer after death threats were lodged against him — despicable actions that only hurt a worthy cause. 

In July, the Shelter’s image hit a new low when supervisor Demetria Hogan — a felon hired through the city’s Second Chance program — was charged with animal cruelty. A mixed pit pull named Kapone went missing after she picked it up, and another dog died of heat stroke while left in her truck for hours.

All these events have pushed the Shelter to a crossroads. Despite its problems, signs show it moving forward. By October it should be in a larger, modern building. But more important, the city, with help from the Rotary Club and the Humane Society of the United States, is seriously considering privatizing the agency, a fact that has animal advocates cheering, assuming the right group takes it on. Privatizing will mean — among other things — more accountability for poorly performing employees, who would no longer be protected by civil service or union rules.

But no matter who runs the facility, transparency is essential in creating a Shelter “beyond reproach.” Toward this end I urge city officials to:

ω Keep the webcams. If some workers behave as heartlessly as they do under surveillance, what will they do in secret? 

ω Give every animal a chance to be seen by potential adopters. Don’t tell the taxpayers: “This area’s off-limits.”

ω Re-open all advisory board meetings to the public and listen with an open mind. Most of the attendees have fought tirelessly for years, pushing for spay/neuter laws and programs and stirring healthy debate that has sparked positive change. These are not the ones who sit at computers anonymously spewing venom. These are people doing all they can to bring the Shelter out of the dark ages. Use them to educate school children about humane treatment of animals; to carry out more low-cost spay/neuter surgeries in the inner city, a first big step towards a no-kill facility; and to adopt dogs and cats in the “off-limits” area that otherwise don’t stand a chance.

Other cities — including Austin, Texas — have tackled Shelters with similar scandals. They have set their course and turned facilities around. Memphis can do it too. For the sake of Buck and all those like him, let’s make the Shelter what the name implies — a refuge from harm.

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