George Carlin once said, "When you get a dog, you know in advance that it's going to end badly." That's because the average canine lifespan is a short 10 to 12 years, depending on the breed. But Carlin, an animal lover, explained that this allows you to have a whole bunch of doggies in a lifetime, and he was never without one.
Then again, if Carlin believed the demise of a well-cared-for family pet is a life ending badly, he never visited Memphis Animal Services on Tchulahoma. Those folks can show you a thing or two about animals coming to a bad end. After the sheriff's department raid on the facility in October 2009 — resulting from accumulated evidence of animal mistreatment by the shelter's staff — the employees were relieved of their duties pending an investigation. But in fact, most were just on leave and only three people lost their jobs: a veterinarian, the shelter supervisor, and former shelter director Ernest Alexander, who was indicted on charges of animal cruelty. Mayor A C Wharton said, "The only thing we can do from this point is improve."
Unfortunately for the mayor, this whole matter landed on his desk on his first day in office. I think it's safe to say that Memphis Animal Services was not high on his priority list. The conditions at the shelter, however, were so wretched that it made embarrassing national news and the mayor was forced to pay immediate attention. The raid produced evidence of starving, neglected animals, the absence of any record keeping, and a euthanasia rate approaching 80 percent. If dogs were people, we'd be Texas.
Promising improvements and "transparency," Wharton delegated responsibility to director of public services, Janet Hooks, who, in turn, promoted the same woman who was only recently very publicly fired and charged with animal cruelty after Kapone, a pit bull who had escaped his yard, went missing while in her custody. The next day, a dog died from heat stroke in the woman's van while she attempted to avoid arrest. This sterling animal control officer was a hiree from Memphis' Second Chance Program for convicted felons. Not that I'm against giving former felons a break (after all, they rehabilitated Michael Vick), but guess who's also in charge of the Second Chance Program? Can you say Janet Hooks?
The first requirement of potential shelter employees should be: "Must love dogs."
The replacement for fired director Alexander was Matthew Pepper, who came to Memphis from Shreveport. Improvements were made. However, Pepper decided to restrict the public's access to the shelter's entire inventory of dogs by housing only the most presentable in an "adoption area." He explained that seeing all the dogs would only overwhelm and confuse people. Consequently, the adoption rate was limited and behind a locked door marked "strays," an animal holocaust continued unabated. The city accepted Pepper's "resignation" but, unbelievably, decided to keep his policies intact.
Pepper was quoted as saying he received pushback from city government and received "no support" over his attempts to fire those city employees he believed to be not up to the job. The city has yet to find a replacement for Pepper while the situation has become a large headache for the mayor: a stand-off with rescue groups and activists who wish to see the shelter privatized as a not-for-profit organization and de-politicized as an entity competing over the city's scarce tax funding. Meanwhile, the shelter is still 1,300 to 1,400 calls behind in field investigations (including bites) and charges of abuse and neglect. Kapone is still missing, and despite the pleas of several citizens, those ominous doors at the facility and the doomed inhabitants within stay locked away from public view.
The question I hear asked most often is, "Why can't the animal activists show the same concern for people that they do for dogs?" The answer is simple: Most people are born with a capacity to care for themselves, but since we have domesticated these former wolves, dogs are totally dependent on humans for their well-being. That's why half the blame of the shelter's problems are shared by irresponsible pet owners and reckless dog breeders. Not everyone is capable of caring for a pet, but spay and neuter services are often offered at a discount.
Through the Tennessee Open Records Act, animal activist Cindy Marx-Sanders found that two-thirds of the euthanized shelter dogs were put down for "space" — nearly 12,000 animals last year. There are an unbelievable number of pit bulls on the list, indicating over-breeding by greedy amateurs. These strays are the result of human indifference to our finest companions, illustrating a need for the training of pet owners, as well as employees of Memphis Animal Services.
To its credit, the shelter is trying. They have instituted more aggressive adoption policies, and every Thursday, they waive their usual fees for a special $10 "Yappy Hour." They're supported by a Friends of Memphis Animal Services Facebook page that posts pictures of available pets. They also sponsor off-site adoption events in parks and shopping centers which have proven very successful.
October is "Adopt a Shelter Dog Month," and if you're able, you should try it. After moving back to Memphis in 1992, I had turned into a taciturn loner and thought a pet might help to resocialize me. Nineteen years later, I have a wonderful wife and two rescued pets in the yard. I credit the dog for my recovery.
In mid-November, the shelter will relocate to a new $7.2 million, 35,000-square-foot facility, including classrooms to train new employees. The problem is they're bringing the old Tchulahoma policies and staff with them. You can't teach an old dog new tricks or compassion either. You either have it or you don't. That's why the shelter needs to work with those people who have only the animals' best interests at heart instead of locking them out. Before Memphis Animal Services moves to a clean house, they first need to clean house themselves.
Randy Haspel writes the blog Born-Again Hippies, where a version of this column first appeared.