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A Dog's Life

The Memphis Animal Shelter impounds 16,000 dogs a year. More than 13,000 are destroyed.

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One evening last January, Brenda Grant was on her way home from work when she got a call from her daughter. An animal-control officer was at their house and trying to take the family's three dogs.

When Grant arrived home a short while later, there were four police cars surrounding the house; her daughter was sitting in the back of one of them. Grant's dogs were in an animal-control vehicle.

According to an elderly neighbor, Grant's 14-year-old daughter and the animal-control officer had gotten into a verbal confrontation, and when the officer tried to enter the house to get the dog she had seen running loose in the front yard, Grant's daughter shoved her arm out of the doorway. The officer at some point decided to take all three dogs, even the two that were still chained in the backyard.

Grant was issued a ticket for having two dogs running at large and for four dogs without licenses or vaccinations. She was also issued a Juvenile Court summons for her daughter. But Brenda Grant's ordeal was far from over.

Grant called the Memphis Animal Shelter and was told that impounded animals were held for three days for the owner and then were held another seven if deemed suitable for adoption. Because she works two jobs, she had a friend call and ask as well, just to make sure she knew the timetable.

According to Grant, her dogs were taken on Wednesday night. She remembers because she doesn't work on Tuesdays, and at the time she thought about calling her mother but remembered she'd be at the church she attends on Wednesdays. Her ticket, however, handwritten by the animal-control officer, says the date was Tuesday, January 23rd.

Depending on who you believe, Saturday would have been either the dogs' third or fourth day at the shelter. Grant, her mother, and a friend arrived at 10 a.m. Saturday, the time the shelter opens to the public. They found their dogs, took the cards off the cages -- tags used to identify each dog with date impounded, date due out, sex, and breed -- and went to the front to pay. They stood in line for 10 to 15 minutes before getting to the window and giving the tags to the man at the counter.

"He called back to the back and then said into the phone, 'You're kidding.' And then he looked at me and said, 'They've already been put down,'" says Grant.

"They had removed my dogs from cages that had no tags on them and put them to sleep while we were in line waiting to pay the fines and take them home."

The Memphis Animal Shelter is a squat gray brick building near the airport on Tchulahoma Road. Inside it sounds as if the very hounds of hell have been unleashed -- the barking is ear-splittingly continuous. The smell is a combination of warm bodies, wet fur, fear, and ammonia. And it seems as if in almost every inch of space is a kennel or a cage with one or two animals inside, watching everyone who passes by.

R. Kenneth Childress has been the shelter's manager since 1991; before that he worked with humane societies in Orlando and Washington state. He says that by city ordinance a stray animal -- any animal not surrendered by the owner at the shelter -- has 72 hours, or three days, for the owner to claim it.

"You don't count the first day, you don't count the last day, and you don't count any days that we are closed," says Childress.

He says that Grant came in one day after the holding period but acknowledges that things like that can and have happened.

"Saturday is a bad day for us, and they didn't do euthanasia before the shelter opened one time and a similar situation happened. It's just one of those things," says Childress. "Because euthanasia is such a part of the daily routine here. It's picking the wrong animal. It's not verifying the numbers.

"None of the people can put an animal to sleep if none of that works. They have to come get a supervisor and have it signed off, but it doesn't prevent accidents from happening. It doesn't prevent the officer who picks up your dog today, on the 17th, to put down the 16th. And if the dog was entered on the 16th, and you come in Saturday to get it, it wouldn't be here.

"On the other side of the coin, from a technician's and the shelter's point of view, life goes on. You don't even expect [the owners] to come get [the animals] the majority of the time."

Grant says that no one ever apologized, but instead she was told that animal control had been out to the house on numerous occasions. "Bottom line, they put the blame on me," she says.

"I've lost a lot of faith in the system. The card is there for them to know what dog to get. Without the card, why did they even take them?"

Incidents like this one, as well as stories much worse, have kept humane and animal-rescue groups concerned about what's going on inside the city-run facility. Although many local group members would not go on the record for fear of repercussions from the shelter administration, rumors involving animal mistreatment at the shelter -- if not outright cruelty -- abound within the circle of rescue workers.

Grant's three dogs were just a few of the 16,000 impounded by the shelter each year. That averages out to 1,300 per month or about 44 per day. Most of these animals never leave the shelter. Because of irresponsible pet owners as well as the shelter's shortcomings in organization, policy, and community outreach, about 1,100 animals are destroyed every month.

Last year, the shelter went through a thorough evaluation of everything from administrative practices to the outside appearance of the building. And now shelter officials, still investigating a payroll problem discovered in late January, say they're in the process of changing for the better. But can an old dog learn new tricks?

HOUNDS IN HELL

Over 20 years ago, Beverly King founded the Animal Protection Association of Memphis (APA) because of something her sister told her. Members of a humane society in South Carolina had been trying to outlaw a euthanasia device they considered inhumane. King found out that the Memphis shelter used the same device and began a campaign against it that eventually led to the 1980 Tennessee Dog and Cat Humane Death Act.

Meanwhile, the group remained involved with the shelter. During the next 20 years they helped organize and run the "low cost" and "almost free" spay and neuter programs at the shelter.

A few years ago, they started hearing about something that chilled them to the bone. In 1997, the animal shelter in West Memphis, Arkansas, was short-staffed. Sherrie Beede was that shelter's worker charged with the task of bringing Arkansas' strays to the Memphis Animal Shelter for euthanasia.

"I said, 'Sherrie, this will be a good experience,'" says Julanne Ingram, the president of the Humane Society of East Arkansas, a group that works within the West Memphis shelter. Ingram assumed Beede would learn how other shelters did the lethal procedure. Instead, says Ingram, "she came back absolutely horrified."

Beede declined to be interviewed for this article, as did Memphis Animal Shelter employees. However, in a signed statement from 1997, Beede said, "Every time I carried puppies or cats, they were always given an IC [intracardiac] injection with no sedation beforehand. The animals would holler, but no one ever came back to check on what was happening." After being injected, the statement continues, she saw puppies get off the floor and flop around for about 15 minutes before dying.

Ingram called Grace Thompson, then-president of the APA, who called Childress and Memphis Director of Public Services and Neighborhoods Donnie Mitchell.

The animal activists were told it did not happen and that Beede did not know what she was seeing. "But," says Ingram, "an animal is either sedated or it's not."

An IC or intracardiac injection is delivered directly into the animal's heart, where it is pumped immediately to the brain. Of the different types of pentobarbital injections -- intravenous, intracardiac, intraperitoneal, and intraheptic, injected into the veins, heart, abdomen, and liver, respectively -- the intracardiac is the fastest-acting yet is also one of the most difficult to perform. According to the Handbook of Pentobarbital Euthanasia, a guidebook with input from the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), "an injection into a conscious animal's chest is stressful and undoubtedly painful, especially if the technician is unable to locate the heart on the first attempt. For this reason, an IC injection should be administered only to an animal that is already unconscious."

Rumors of other incidents continued to proliferate: dogs with obvious medical conditions -- broken hips or puncture wounds still oozing blood -- being ignored; a dog being stepped on to complete a failed euthanasia attempt; animals that were being put down before their time was officially up; others that would simply "disappear." And it was hard not to notice shelter employees hosing cages down to clean them while the animals shivered inside.

In January 1999 the APA asked Donnie Mitchell if the shelter could go through a National Animal Control Association (NACA) evaluation. The group cited a list of problems that they had observed "as ongoing" at the shelter during the previous two to three years, including various problems with security, housing, sanitation, food, euthanasia, and violations of city and state cruelty codes.

"We kept seeing things go wrong," says King. "Donnie Mitchell didn't know about NACA. We said, 'This is what they do. APA will pay.'" Mitchell agreed, and the city and the APA split the cost.

Around the same time, though, the shelter in Marion, Arkansas, was also training a technician.

"She came to our shelter to get some hands-on training in euthanasia," says Ingram. "She said, 'I'm just stunned. It's so quiet.'" Ingram asked her what she meant and the woman explained that they, too, had been taking their animals to the Memphis shelter for euthanasia.

"She said, 'There is no way for me to describe what they do. It's horrendous. They were just sticking unsedated puppies.'"

Because animals are different sizes and breeds, finding the heart is not always easy. If the animal is sedated, it makes it relatively easier for both the technician and the animal. But if animals are scared, unsedated, and trying to move around, it can take numerous tries before the injection finds its target.

Ingram scheduled a meeting that included the Arkansas trainee, Ken Childress, Donnie Mitchell, Keenon McCloy (deputy director of the Division of Public Services and Neighborhoods), and several witnesses.

After the meeting Mitchell issued a statement reading in part: "Ingram's group told Ms. McCloy and Mr. Childress that six months or a year before, one of the Marion, Arkansas, employees had witnessed one of our employees heart-sticking a dog without anesthetizing it first. Upon hearing this allegation, I immediately investigated the matter and issued a directive to all animal shelter employees that under no circumstance should an animal be euthanized in that manner."

NACA UNEARTHS A BONE

NACA is a non-profit organization based in Kansas City, Missouri. Started in 1978, its primary focus has always been training people in animal control. In 1993, however, they started doing program evalutions at shelters around the country and now visit about 10 shelters a year.

Johnnie Mays, the executive director of the association, and one of his staff members spent about a week at the Memphis Animal Shelter last year, conducting interviews with staff and community members and watching the day-to-day activities of the shelter.

"Our job is to point out the strengths and weaknesses," says Mays.

NACA evaluated the shelter's physical structure, administration, field operations, procedures, and community relations. Then they listed over 100 items they felt the shelter could improve upon, rating them as either a 1 (an immediate need), a 2 (should be implemented in 3-6 months), or a 3 (should be implemented in 6-12 months).

"Overcrowding was a problem. They need more room," Mays says when asked about his general impressions of the shelter. "There were also some staffing issues. They were short-staffed both in the field and in the kennel."

NACA also reported that animals routinely stay in the kennels while the kennels are hosed down, due in part to the understaffing. It rated this situation a 1, adding that animals should be moved while the kennels are being cleaned. The report acknowledged that such a change would increase staff cleaning time but would help prevent the spread of disease.

As for Brenda Grant's situation, in which her dogs were put down while she waited to pay for their release, the audit suggests this could happen to anyone: "On one occasion, a staff member was unable to confirm the proper identification of an animal scheduled for euthanasia. This situation was brought to the attention of a supervisor, who 'signed off' on the euthanasia without determining the correct animal had been selected.

"Animals are frequently euthanized prior to the shelter opening for the public in the morning. Although these animals may be eligible for adoption on their fourth day (or even had a potential adopter assigned to it), some animals are not given the opportunity to be placed in a new home. A few citizens interviewed stated that they had traveled to the Animal Shelter on the fourth day of an animal's impoundment, hoping to adopt a specific animal, then discovered that it had been euthanized."

And although Childress says that euthanasia is performed only in the morning, the study team was told that it is performed any time the shelter needs more space.

But perhaps the most shocking part of the audit was that NACA reported seeing the same thing that had horrified the rescue groups: animals being given intracardiac injections without anesthetic.

"During the course of the on-site study, workers were observed on several occasions performing IC injections on alert dogs and cats (these animals were not offered any anesthetizing agent prior to the lethal injection)," said the audit. NACA added a side note saying that it, the AVMA, and the HSUS all agree that intracardiac injections should never be performed on alert animals.

After he got the report, Childress says he called NACA to double-check the finding. Then he met with the staff.

"I said, 'Having somebody from the inspection team there, why would anybody not follow protocol? I was nonplussed. It was outrageous," says Childress.

To ensure it wouldn't happen again, the shelter manager added another person to do euthanasia and gave the technicians more time so they wouldn't feel rushed. And the person Childress suspects as being the one NACA saw doing IC injections no longer works at the facility.

"Shelter workers try to detach themselves from that, but you've got to be careful," says Childress, "because all of a sudden you get out of sync and instead of being caring anymore, you just have a disregard. And that's a common problem with shelters everywhere."

Mays also has a possible reason why the IC injections had been done without sedation.

"It used to be a common practice in this business several years ago. Typically, it's an issue of lack of training," says Mays. "I don't see it as people doing it intentionally [to be cruel]."

Before the NACA evaluation, most of the training at the shelter was on-the-job, with a one-day orientation before beginning work. Euthanasia is done by certified technicians who have completed three days of training.

After reporting that "some field personnel have very little confidence in their own animal-handling techniques," and that the catch-pole, a device used to restrain wild or aggressive animals, was overused, NACA observed that "increased training in animal behavior and capture technique is needed."

"Training is too often viewed as a luxury and is thus often the target of budget-cutting initiatives. It is also common for supervisory and mid-management personnel to complain about the scheduling of in-service training because it pulls people out of the field," said the NACA audit.

But even though extensive and continuous training could solve most of the shelter's problems, there is one that will remain: the sheer volume of animals impounded by the shelter each year. And that problem in turn causes others -- such as overcrowding -- that cannot be corrected so easily.

"The volume of animals -- it's unbelievable," says Mitchell. "It's so many and we're moving so fast, some of them get euthanized early."

Sixty percent of the roughly 16,000 animals the shelter impounds a year are strays. The rest come from pet owners who, for whatever reason, surrender them to the system.

"People ask how we can reduce euthanasia. I'll tell you right now," says Childress. "I can reduce it by 40 percent. We can just not take in all the pets from the owners who don't want their animals anymore."

"Animal control is just treating a symptom," adds Childress, "a symptom of irresponsible pet ownership." To him, the public sees animal control as the villains for putting the animals to sleep. What they don't see is where the problem comes from in the first place. They don't see the people who have not spayed or neutered their pets, or the ones who don't train their pets when they're young, so that later the animal develops behavioral problems and has to be put to sleep.

"If you asked everybody what causes pollution, they'll say, well, 'Exxon,' or 'all these chemical companies,'" says Childress. "But you know who causes pollution?" he asks. "We all do."

CHANGING THEIR SPOTS

After receiving a copy of NACA's evaluation and suggested implementation plan for the shelter, Childress began a training program wherein experienced members of the staff, with Childress co-training, teach their co-workers.

"The training side was where a lot of things fell through," says Childress. "[The new training program] is probably one of the best things we've done here."

Not that it's been easy.

"When you run shifts and you run a 24-hour operation and you don't have enough people to begin with, you're stretched. And we've not done training for a long period of time, so making a commitment to do it was a big leap," says Childress. But it's something to which shelter officials say they are committed.

The shelter also plans to make another big leap in a few years -- into a new facility. The city has appropriated $7.7 million for the plan over the next two years and Mitchell says they're currently trying to find a suitable location, as well as looking at other shelters around the country.

The current facility on Tchulahoma was built in the 1970s on 10 acres of the airport's land. It has about 150 kennels and almost 200 cages and runs at 100 percent capacity most of the year.

"It's the pits," says Childress. "We can't really do anything else about it." Recently, they finished about $100,000 worth of work on one wing of the shelter, including new kennels and benches for animals to sit on while the cages are being cleaned.

"We just went to San Francisco," says Mitchell. "That's the place area rescue people say to go to." The city has two shelters, one of them run by the SPCA that will take any treatable animals the other shelter, run by city animal control, is not able to place. Mitchell says he is interested in implementing a happy medium between the two.

"We want to move from being a shelter that's just warehousing animals," says Mitchell.

Childress agrees. "The concept when they built this shelter is going to be different from what our concept is going to be when we build a new shelter." Instead of just a place to house stray animals, Childress wants a place where people will feel comfortable coming and adopting a pet.

"We want to get a larger share of the animals going into homes in our community. We're going to try to focus on that." Childress says that they're thinking about working more closely with volunteers and rescue groups in the future to help with adoption outreaches.

And in the plans for the new facility Mitchell is also looking for input from animal-rescue groups. He says that together they can come up with a system that works.

"We're not going to run the same type of operation," says Mitchell. "We have work to do, and we plan to do it."

You can e-mail Mary Cashiola at cashiola@memphisflyer.com.

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