Adopting Changes

Interim MAS director plans to clean up shelter

By Bill Dries

When the new Memphis Animal Shelter opened in November, an undercover police officer was among its employees, working as a technician.

James Rogers, with pit bull Buster, is the interim director of Memphis Animal Services. Rogers worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 38 years.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

But by this month – when three shelter employees were indicted on felony animal abuse charges and the undercover operation was revealed – James Rogers was already settled in as the interim director of the $7 million facility.

In both its old home and its new home, the city-run animal shelter has exhibited its own institutional timing.

The shelter’s policies and how employees have been following – or not following – those policies surfaced as an issue in October 2009, on A C Wharton Jr.’s first full day in office as Memphis mayor. That was the day the old shelter was raided by Shelby County sheriff’s deputies and investigators with the Shelby County district attorney general’s office.

Wharton, with some mischievous intent aimed at the facility’s interim director – refers to the Memphis Animal Shelter as “Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.”

After Wharton’s introduction, Rogers said, “I bet a lot of you weren’t expecting someone like me to be the next administrator for Memphis Animal Services. Up until seven months ago, I wasn’t either.”

Rogers has no experience working at an animal shelter. He is a former U.S. Postal Service senior manager of customer service operations, a profession that Rogers admits trains carriers to avoid contact with dogs.

“Yeah, I know dogs and postal employees aren’t supposed to mix,” he added before comparing his former job with his new title. “We both spend the majority of our time dealing with the public and we both probably could do a better job when it comes to customer services.

“We both have employees driving around town in highly identifiable vehicles, and we both work rain or shine, snow or sleet. The job is never done.”

Rogers started early, reading the thick policy manual for the shelter several times over, and after five days set up teams and shift rotations to begin cleaning kennels multiple times a day.

He says the policies are sound. The problem has been getting employees to follow them. And in that area he promises major changes he hopes will be “seamless.”

James Rogers, with Buster, is the interim director of Memphis Animal Services.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“We have the theory,” Rogers said. “Operational changes are coming – significant changes.”

Rogers will apply productivity standards to the shelter from other businesses, “then get more idealistic” once those standards and the ways of measuring them are in place.

Rogers bristles at questions about why he would take on the job knowing what a minefield it has been for the last four years.

“I’m from this community,” Rogers said. “I live here and in the event of a fire, there are three types of people – the ones that run from it, the ones that watch it and the public servant that goes to put it out. I’m a public servant. That’s what I do.”

The Booker T. Washington High School and LeMoyne-Owen College graduate has lived in several other cities. But Memphis is home, he says.

Rogers succeeds Matthew Pepper, an experienced shelter administrator and the shelter’s fourth director in seven years. He lasted less than a year.

Since then, there have been new allegations of animal abuse and lingering questions about whether pit bulls that come into the shelter are being diverted by corrupt employees to dog-fighting rings.

The recent undercover operation found no proof of a connection to dog fighting.

The shelter has been criticized, not only by local pet owners and animal rights advocates. City Hall has been kept busy by an outpouring of criticism from outside the city by other owners and advocates reacting to YouTube and other viral videos from the shelter.

“I didn’t make this decision with an eye toward affirming those who believe in us or placating those who don’t believe in us,” Wharton said. “I did it because I believe Mr. Rogers has the skill set needed.”

Rogers watched the controversy as he and Wharton had talked about using him in another position within the administration.

“Hopefully this won’t be a long-term permanent assignment,” Wharton said. “He has management skills that I need elsewhere.”

Wharton didn’t elaborate.

Rogers and Wharton acknowledge Rogers’ function at MAS is a rescue mission to put the shelter on a solid foundation for the permanent administrator. But they both admit that for now there’s no specific date by which that will happen.

“If an angel with a background were to descend, we’d sit down and say this is a better person for the job,” Wharton said. “All of the folks who tell us that there’s got to be somebody else out there – send me a name and we’ll check them out. We got two or three names, but the minute we get the names, we get a hundred people telling us how rotten the people are. That’s the way this works.”