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VOL. 131 | NO. 163 | Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Animal Shelter Moves Toward Three-Year Action Plan

By Bill Dries

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The Memphis Animal Shelter should have a three-year action plan by the end of October to end the killing of pets at the shelter for time and space considerations.

ALEXIS PUGH

“We’re a public safety agency so euthanizing animals that pose a danger to our community is something that is part of our core mission and humanely euthanizing animals that are sick, that are suffering,” said Alexis Pugh, director of Memphis Animal Services on the WKNO/Channel 10 program Behind The Headlines. “What we want to avoid is having to euthanize an animal that is adoptable, that is healthy, that is able to be placed, simply because we don’t have the space in our facility and this animal has been there too long.”

Behind The Headlines, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Target Zero is a 3-year-old national nonprofit animal rescue group that describes itself as a “mentor” for municipal animal shelters working toward the goal of no animals euthanized for space or time held.

The group will hold an Oct. 10 public meeting at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library and meet with local groups to come up with a recommended action plan.

Meanwhile, Pugh continues a “ground-up reorganization” of Memphis Animal Services.

She became director in June of an agency plagued by problems and controversy across the mayoral administrations of Willie Herenton and A C Wharton.

Pugh came to the post from being director of Mid-South Spay and Neuter Services and she worked for the Memphis and Shelby County Humane Society before that.

“I saw an opportunity for better processes. … They are swimming upstream because it’s a constant game of catch up,” Pugh said of the 75 full- and part-time employees of animal services. “I don’t think that there was top-level down support that this organization needed. I don’t think that past mayors or past high-level administrators said, ‘This is a priority to us. I care that this changes and I care that we become a progressive shelter.’”

Key to that, she believes, are low-cost spay and neuter options like the efforts she was involved in with Mid-South Spay and Neuter. Cost is the reason most pet owners in the Memphis area won’t participate.

The shelter spays and neuters all pets that leave the shelter, but does not offer the service to those who bring their pets in.

She would also like to see a tracking-and-release program to spay and neuter feral cats and then release them back to the colonies they came from.

“That’s a hard thing for people outside the animal world to understand. If you don’t put those altered cats back into the colony where they were, other cats will move in,” Pugh said of the strategy of “stabilizing and reducing that colony’s population until the point at which that colony eventually disappears.”

The relationship between local government operations and animal welfare organizations has improved in recent years from what Pugh describes as a segmented relationship in which municipal shelters were “sort of associated with this dog catcher era, this sort of dark prison for pets kind of attitude.”

Another goal Pugh has for the near future is to have a certified professional dog trainer on staff “as quickly as possible” to do preliminary assessments on animals that have had problems, including those involved in dog fighting.

“If we have an animal that was actively involved in dog fighting, it does not mean that he is not redeemable, that he can’t be placed into a home or some kind of environment,” Pugh said. “But that is not a determination that anyone without a lot of initials behind their names should be making. That needs to be done at the expert level.”

Pugh said shelters can’t necessarily rely on an owner’s experience with the dog.

“More often than not, when someone has told me a dog is ‘dog aggressive’ and doesn’t bite humans, guess who gets bit?” she said. “Humans – because they get in the middle of that dog fight to break it up.”

Some groups have called for animal behaviorists to be on staff for such calls.

“That’s not realistic,” Pugh said. “There are probably 10 in the country. There are very few people who are Ph.D.-level behaviorists.”

Dog fighting is so prevalent in the Memphis area, by her description, that “there’s no way we’re not going to come across it.”

The shelter’s officers are trained to tread lightly and go to police immediately because of the violence associated with dog fighting rings, as well as the possibility of a police undercover investigation.

“There is always gambling. There is almost always gang involvement. There are drugs. There are guns,” Pugh said. “You never know if there’s an active investigation going on. … Our officers are not armed. So it would be dangerous and unwise and potentially ruin an ongoing investigation.

“When we see signs that we know are indicative, we immediately forward that up the chain.”

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