Less than a year ago, Memphis Animal Services had no director, a sky-high euthanasia rate, and a bad reputation for customer service.
In November, a coalition of rescue groups and animal welfare enthusiasts demanded the city reinstate the animal shelter advisory board to allow citizens to investigate cruelty complaints and the euthanasia rate.
Earlier this month, that board, along with the shelter's recently hired director, Ernest Alexander, held its first meeting in a tiny room at City Hall.
"We hope this board can help create some positive change and debunk the old myths the community has about the shelter," says Alexander, the former head of the Albuquerque, New Mexico, animal shelter. Alexander was hired in March.
Currently, the seven-member board only has four members: Michelle Buckalew, editor of Animal World; Allen Iskiwitz, owner of Iskiwitz Metals; attorney Carol Katz; and insurance broker Steve Schwartz. The shelter is still taking applications for the vacant positions.
At the first meeting, the board discussed the shelter's euthanasia policy. Earlier this year, the shelter had an 83 percent euthanasia rate, one of the highest in the country.
"If a dog is adoptable and about to be euthanized, we start calling rescue groups," Alexander says.
Iskiwitz suggested adding more volunteers to make calls to rescue groups. Currently, Alexander says his staff makes as many calls as they can but would place additional calls if they had the manpower.
The group also discussed the possibility of lowering adoption rates for rescue groups registered as 501 C-3 nonprofit organizations and improving outreach to rescue groups.
"We hope, with this board, that we can create a shelter that's capable of adopting out more animals, lower the euthanasia rate, and provide a place where animals have a greater chance of survival," Iskiwitz says.
Already, board members think Alexander has made a huge impact on the shelter's image.
"The shelter's already made a 180-degree turn," Schwartz says. "It's clean now, and the staff is friendly."
Upon his arrival, Alexander instituted customer-service training for all shelter employees.
"I also started mandatory shots for all incoming animals. They receive shots when they come across the door sill," Alexander says. "They didn't do that before, and it was long overdue. I've already seen a substantial change in the number of animals getting sick."
Though he did not have specific numbers available yet, Alexander says the shelter is adopting out more animals and euthanizing less as a result. Before his arrival, the shelter held twice-a-month off-site adoption events.
"Since Ernie came, we've held off-site adoptions every weekend, sometimes two days per weekend," Buckalew says.
With the shelter's image improving, Buckalew says the board will concentrate on developing a shelter website with pictures of adoptable animals, increasing the volunteer base, and ensuring euthanasia rates go down.