The new head of Memphis Animal Services (MAS), Alexis Pugh, was brought in to try to make the animal shelter a more compassionate place. The first big step she’s taken is a huge one — and one that will save the lives of many dogs.
As of October 1st, MAS is not listing the breeds of dogs on kennel cards or in their files. Pugh shared the fact that when shelters assign breeds to incoming dogs, “We are guessing. Research has shown that determining breed based on visual identification is extremely unreliable. Professionals were only able to identify breeds correctly 25% of the time. We want to judge each animal based on its personality and individual characteristics, not a breed label (that would probably be incorrect).”
Her background would indicate that she is a superb candidate to implement change. Pugh told Shelter Me that before taking this position, she was the Executive Director of the Mid-South Spay & Neuter Services. Prior to that she was the Executive Director of the Humane Society of Memphis and Shelby County. She has been with MAS since mid-June.
Already the shelter has seen progress; Pugh is not shy about sharing the statistics. This year, the September live release rate was 65%. That is 11% higher than the live release rate in September of 2015. Why?
Pugh said, “This is reflective of new staff, who are able to better identify and market animals to individuals and rescuers. A lot of it has been strategic on the operational side. How do we spay and neuter quicker (so the animals aren’t taking up space in the shelter while waiting for the surgery so they can go home with the adopter).” Checking for heartworm quicker also helps — the heartworm status affects a rescue’s ability to pull a dog because of the high cost of heartworm treatment. Quicker heartworm checks result in dogs being pulled more quickly, and that leads to empty cages.
Regarding how to save those animals in danger of euthanasia, Pugh is very clear. “We need to have better communication.” The shelter used to send out rescue pleas. According to Pugh, this was very labor intensive. “There was no way to know who was next and everyone was guessing.
Now every day there is an intake list with all the strays and owner surrenders. There is a critical list, the list of animals who will be considered for euthanasia when space is needed. We might not have to euthanize animals for several days, so some animals are on the list for a bit. These animals are the most critical, and it helps so people who want to save animals from euthanasia can target that list.”
What really upsets Pugh is when a dog dies due to lack of communication between rescuers and the shelter. “An example is a dog that had been here for two weeks. We put him on the critical list letting people know that he was in danger. The day after he was euthanized, a rescue called and said they had $700 in pledges, and why did we kill him? I went back to his notes and there was NOTHING in the notes to let us know he was being networked. Not one note from anyone.”
Pugh went on to say, “We have to be better in how we communicate.” She believes that there is too much negativity on social media. Instead of being angry at each other, she said, “(We) must be sad and angry together. Everyone is trying to do things to help — that’s how things are going to be fixed.”
Pugh has the support of Memphis Mayor Strickland. Improving the Memphis shelter was one of his campaign issues. According to Pugh, he is very invested in what happens at the shelter, and they meet regularly to talk about progress.
One step in that direction is that Pugh hired a certified professional trainer to be shelter supervisor. While her job is not training or assessing dogs, she is qualified to do that. It’s Pugh’s hope that she will be able to provide at least cursory behavior assessment for hard-to-read dogs or dogs whose behaviors might otherwise be misread.
One area that Pugh would like to see improve is the volunteer program. She told Shelter Me, “Yes, I need more volunteers. We never had a well-defined program to make it as effective as it could be.” Volunteers could help walk the dogs — their kennels do not have outdoor access. They could socialize and play with the dogs and help network them.
Pugh’s final thoughts were about her goals. She said, “My goal and focus is for our organization to really shoot to end euthanizing for space. I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t think we could achieve it.”
Best of luck, Alexis Pugh. The animals of Memphis deserve it!