Local animal advocates are cautiously optimistic about new Memphis Animal Services director Matthew Pepper after the last shelter director, Ernie Alexander, was fired and indicted for animal cruelty earlier this year.
"I think a lot of people are keeping one eye open since we were burned before," said animal advocate Beverly King. "When Ernie Alexander came, we were so hopeful and so desperate."
Last week was Pepper's first week on the job. The former director of the Caddo Parish Animal Shelter in Shreveport, Louisiana, has been lauded for lowering the euthanasia rate and raising the adoption rate at that shelter. Pepper served seven years as an animal control officer supervisor in Grand Rapids, Michigan, before moving to Louisiana.
When Pepper took over the Caddo shelter in 2008, it was suffering from a poor public image, much like Memphis' animal shelter is now.
"Matthew Pepper did a 360 on our shelter. He was nothing short of spectacular," said Randy Lucky, assistant Caddo Parish administrator. "He left us with the number-one shelter in Louisiana. It has come from a cellar to a penthouse."
According to Pepper, the euthanasia rate at the Caddo shelter was reduced from 85 percent to 70 percent in the nearly two years he was there. Pet adoption also increased from 1,000 animals in 2008 to 1,600 animals in 2009.
"The situation in Caddo Parish was very similar to the situation in Memphis," Pepper said. "What was needed there and what is needed here is structure. ... The employees in Memphis want to be successful, and there's a negative image of them that isn't necessarily fair."
"If something happens once, it's an employee issue. If something happens twice, it's a leadership issue," Pepper said. "Obviously, the things that were happening in Memphis were continuous, and that's where I come in."
Memphis Animal Advisory Board member Cindy Marx-Sanders is confident in Pepper's ability as a director, but it's the shelter employees who still concern her.
"I think [Pepper] is up to the job," Marx-Sanders said. "But I worry that the shelter employees have been basically left on their own to make up their own rules way before Mr. Alexander even came. It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks."
Pepper recognizes that he has a big job ahead of him, and he says community involvement in the shelter will be essential to steering its image around.
"I absolutely know it will be a lot of work, and I'm comfortable with that," Pepper said. "We're going to require the community's help to instill a high level of accountability for what happens in this shelter."
Marx-Sanders said Pepper impressed shelter volunteers when he was spotted demonstrating to employees how to properly clean with a squeegee.
"Ernie [Alexander] came in, and he knew all the buzzwords. He really knew how to rope the animal people in by talking about no-kill shelters and spay and neuter," Marx-Sanders said. "I think the difference is Matthew [Pepper] knows the buzz-work. I think he knows how to get things accomplished."