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VOL. 132 | NO. 64 | Thursday, March 30, 2017

New Face of Memphis Animal Services Begins to Show

By Maria Zoccola

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When you walk through the doors of Memphis Animal Services, you may not recognize the place. Euthanasia rates are low. Relationships with local rescue groups are strong. Community outreach is booming. And there’s a new director at the helm: Alexis Pugh, a fresh pair of hands for a shelter that has had a rocky past.

Tails of Hope Dog Rescue foster mom Ginger Natoli recently visited Memphis Animal Services to pick up a sleepy Pomeranian that arrived at the facility the previous day. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

And there’s no getting around that rocky past. Even as recently as 10 years ago, the shelter was euthanizing more than 80 percent of the animals that walked through its doors. At its lowest point, MAS made national news in 2009 when the shelter was raided on animal cruelty charges.

“We were the BP after the oil spill ,” Pugh said. “We had a brand issue. We have a long way to go to hit the goals that we want to achieve, but a lot of it starts with just changing a negative cultural perception of who we are and what we do.”

And that change is coming. The end of February put MAS at a save rate of well over 80 percent – an impressive figure considering that MAS takes in about 9,000 animals every year.

But Pugh can’t take all the credit for the upward trend at MAS: past directors have certainly set the shelter on the right track, as has a partnership with Target Zero, a national nonprofit dedicated to reducing euthanasia at open-admission shelters through policy guidance and mentorship.

On Target Zero’s recommendation, MAS is in the process of making one very large change: organizing an owner-surrender prevention plan.

“Shelters have historically had this mindset that we open our intake doors and we don’t ask too many questions,” Pugh said. “Moving toward a managed-intake model is catching on around the country.”

Owners looking to surrender a pet will now need to make an appointment to do so. They will first speak with a surrender-prevention specialist, whose goal is to find solutions to whatever pet-related problems the owner might be facing. Sometimes this may be as simple as providing information on pet food banks or transitional housing.

“Research has shown around the country that most pet owners would not surrender their pet if given resources to be able to keep their pet,” Pugh said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched an owner cry because they didn’t want to surrender their pet.”

Reducing the number of animals entering a shelter reduces the number of animals that must be euthanized for length of stay and space. Target Zero hopes that its shelters achieve a save rate of more than 90 percent, but it is important to remember that Target Zero is not concerned with owner-requested euthanasia, court-ordered or behavioral euthanasia, or medical euthanasia. Sometimes, Pugh says, this is difficult for the public to understand.

A day after losing her 10-year-old pug, Lisa James acquaints herself with Leo, one of dozens of dogs sheltered by Memphis Animal Services.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Ending euthanasia completely isn’t one of our goals here,” she said.

Like her predecessors, Pugh occasionally struggles under the weight of public criticism, particularly from the community of animal advocates who think that change at MAS isn’t happening fast enough.

But it is with these very animal advocates that Pugh and her colleagues are hoping to build bridges. Only about half of the animals at MAS can rely on walk-in adopters to bring them into new homes. The rest depend on the networking efforts of local pet rescues to take them out of the shelter system as quickly as possible.

“It’s a length of time issue,” Pugh said. “It’s all about how we can start working on these animals from the minute they get here.”

To combat the drain on kennel resources, MAS has hired more staff for the in-house clinic and has begun spaying and neutering some animals before they are even adopted. There is also a new focus on keeping rescue groups in the loop through emails and online updates.

“Every day we post our discharge list, and that means all the animals that left the building that day,” said Katie Pemberton, community engagement specialist for MAS. “That’s to help the people that network and the people that rescue know to scratch those animals off their list, since they don’t need to worry about them anymore.”

Pemberton is also proud to show off MAS’s brand-new Facebook page.

“When I started we didn’t have any social media,” said Pemberton. “That is something that we’re going to continue to build on.”

In modern animal sheltering, social media is vital.

“We know that most animal adoption decisions and transactions happen at least in part, if not entirely online,” Pugh said.

High-quality photography is especially significant. Shelters that only post quick and blurry intake photos of their pets on their websites see fewer animals adopted and shared across social media. To combat this, MAS is working with volunteer photographers, especially with those from local groups Memphis Pets Alive! and Pic Me Pets.

“Now we’re getting consistently nice, beautiful photos of our animals,” Pemberton said.

Pemberton has also been planning benefit events with organizations around Memphis. MAS recently partnered with Crosstown Arts for an afternoon of cat yoga, where free-roaming adoptable felines made downward dog a lot more exciting.

“We were happy to help host an event that would provide some exposure for animals in need of permanent homes,” said Bianca Phillips, communications coordinator for Crosstown Arts. “We were thrilled that four of the cats were adopted that day! Those who couldn’t adopt donated cash or supplies to Memphis Animal Services.”

MAS animals have also been offered a new lifeline in the form of Wings of Rescue, a nonprofit organization that flies rescue pets from areas of overpopulation to the near-empty shelters in states like Oregon and Idaho.

Other changes have been smaller, but no less impactful. More kennel room for the dogs. Personality profiles attached to the animals’ cages. And perhaps most revolutionary, the elimination of dog-breed labeling.

“National research shows that most experts can’t even accurately identify a breed based on visual identification,” Pugh said. “So we decided we weren’t going to be a part of that ongoing discrimination against pit bull-type dogs and mixed breeds, because we have no facts whatsoever to support what breed they are.”

Memphis Animal Services has come a long way, but Pugh and Pemberton know that there is still a long way to go. The key, of course, is not to lose sight of the bigger picture.

“For me, it’s knowing that my work is directly affecting the number of lives that are saved, the number of animals that are getting their happy endings,” Pemberton said. “I really enjoy it.”

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