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Q & A with Memphis Animal Services
Q & A with Memphis Animal Services
Posted on 12/11/2018

By Leah Kraus, Digital Content Coordinator

Memphis Animal Services is the only open-intake shelter in the city, bringing in anywhere from 25 – 35 new pets every day. In the past nine years, MAS’ save rate has increased from 15 percent to nearly 90 percent. We sat down with Director Alexis Pugh to talk about changes over the past few years, tips for first time adopters, and the new door-to-door doghouses program.

What have been the biggest changes at MAS over the past few years?

Since Day 1 of my role as director of Memphis Animal Services, Mayor Strickland and his administration made it clear that they would support my vision for change. Because of that support, we were able to make a number of policy and programming changes, all with the ultimate goal of saving lives. 

There are some things we can’t control: We are the only open-admission shelter in the city of Memphis, meaning we take every animal that needs us whether we're full or not. We take 20-40 new animals most days—often more. But there are some things we can control. We have chosen to focus on those things that we can control and start change from there, including:

  • Dropped breed labeling
  • Eliminated the practice of euthanizing due to a time limit
  • Opened to the public areas that were previously closed to the public
  • Started sending two daily emails to our rescue partners with all the pets that came in the previous day and all the pets that are on the urgent list, so they can be more targeted in their networking
  • Started large-scale transport relationships with Wings of Rescue and Michigan Humane Society
  • Used donated funds to subdivide our outdoor spaces into more outdoor spaces so more dogs can be outside meeting potential adopters and/or getting time with staff and volunteers
  • Reduced kitten mortality by 76 percent due to improved medical care and neonatal kitten foster program
  • Reduced puppy mortality by 91 percent due to improved medical care and outreach to rescue partners
  • Implemented an owner surrender prevention program to try to keep loved pets in their homes with their families
  • Implemented community cat diversion
  • Run regular adoption promotions (our overall number of public adoptions has increased by about 10 percent over the past three years)
  • Regularly appear on TV and in the media raising awareness about the need for adoption
  • Started social media campaigns to promote adoptable pets
  • Received more than $200,000 in grant funding for life-saving programming, including $120,000 from Petco Foundation and PetSmart Charities to treat MAS-adopted dogs for heartworm disease, which affects half of our adult dogs
  • Streamlined and expanded our adoption hours
  • Received training from Dogs Playing for Life in having dog playgroups at the shelter in order to help get dogs adopted


Your save rate is nearly 90 percent. How were you able to achieve that?

Something really important to understand is that we haven’t done it alone—no shelter does. It takes an entire community coming together to make this kind of progress. Memphis Animal Services’ save rate has been slowly increasing over the past 10 years (in 2009 it was a dismal 15 percent), and there have been a number of things that have contributed to that, especially the rise of social media as a marketing tool for pets. Long before our team came in and established a social media presence for MAS, there were groups already doing this on our behalf, including Friends of the Memphis Animal Shelter and later Memphis Pets Alive! Those groups are responsible for significant progress in our save rate. Then there are the groups dedicated to proactive spay/neuter efforts, like Spay Memphis, Kitty City, Inc., and Memphis Pets Alive! 

I started as director in June 2016. In 2015, our save rate was 65 percent. It jumped up to 74 percent in 2016, then 85 percent in 2017, and year-to-date for 2018, we’re at 88 percent. One benchmark for no-kill status is that you’ve maintained a 90 percent save rate for a year or more. The other benchmark, which is much more important to us, is that you do not euthanize healthy, adoptable pets for space. We haven’t euthanized a healthy, adoptable cat in two years or a healthy, adoptable puppy or small dog in over a year. Where we consistently struggle is with large adult dogs, and so that’s where we continue to add more and more resources and programming.

While the shelter’s save rate has been on an upward trend for a while, all of those programming changes and improvements I listed above are another huge piece of the puzzle explaining our jumps in save rate. But I think it’s also the fact that, as a community, we expect better for ourselves now. We’ve seen what some cooperation and hard work can do. We have had a great response from our community when telling them what we need. And because MAS is constantly getting better, the community is more willing to get involved with MAS, whether that be through volunteering, fostering, adopting, or donating.

When it comes to taking in animals in cases of neglect, you’ve said confiscation isn’t the goal, education is. Can you expand on that?

When all we’re doing is removing dogs from homes, we’re doing nothing to stop the cycle of irresponsible pet ownership. When we work with those pet owners, we’re providing a better service to our citizens, and we do more to stop that cycle of pet owners not caring for their pets the way they should be. When we confiscate, there’s usually nothing stopping that pet owner from getting another pet—one that will probably contribute to pet overpopulation, and one that they’ll keep in the same exact conditions they kept their last pet in. When we educate instead, we make sure the pet taking up that spot in someone’s home is spayed or neutered so they won’t contribute to pet overpopulation. When we educate and help provide resources (such as All 4s Rescue League), we affect how a pet owner treats their pet. We help the pet owner do better for their pet. When we know better, we do better.

Does this mean we’ll never confiscate? Certainly not: If it’s clear that a person is unwilling to be a better pet owner and do the bare minimum legally, we’ll still move forward with removing the pet when we have the legal grounds to do so. The situations where we’re looking to educate vs. confiscate are those where the pet owner is willing to be a better pet owner but simply lacks the knowledge or resources. It’s a question of skill vs. will. If all they lack is the skill, we can help with that. But if they lack the will, often the only way we can help that pet is to remove them from the home.

What tips do you have for first time adopters? 
It is so important that you not to choose a pet based on looks alone. We see so many people do this, and how a pet physically looks is probably the least important thing for you to know about them! Have an open mind. Don’t box yourself in with very specific expectations. Go to the shelter or rescue you’re going to adopt from and tell them about your lifestyle. Tell them about what you’re looking for in a pet, and let them make some recommendations. They know these pets best, and you’ll get a much better fit this way than by simply walking through kennels and making a choice based on what a pet physically looks like.

One of your shelter dogs is now a comfort dog at the Memphis Jewish Home. Tell us a little bit about Ginger. 

Ginger came in as a stray last December. We could tell as soon as we met her that she was a very sweet, special dog—the kind of dog who bonds fast and hard. When Memphis Jewish Home contacted us and told us their needs, we knew immediately they had to meet Ginger. She was the only dog they met, and the rest is history! This was an instance where someone came to us and told us what they needed, and based on our knowledge of these pets, we made a great recommendation that has worked out beautifully. And that’s why we recommend that approach to first-time adopters.

Can you tell us about the door-to-door doghouses program?

Our Door-to-Door Doghouses program is funded by an Innovation Grant from Maddie’s Fund, a national foundation working to revolutionize the status and well-being of companion animals. For this new grant-funded program, we have partnered with local nonprofit All 4s Rescue League, which works in underserved areas to improve quality of life for owned pets.

The purpose of Door-to-Door Doghouses is to help dog owners provide a better quality of life for their outdoor dogs. The current protocol for MAS officers when they observe a dog to be lacking proper shelter is to issue a citation to the owner which sometimes results in the dog being removed from the home and admitted to the shelter population at MAS. Instead, providing the owners with a durable, high-quality doghouse enables them to be legally compliant and protects their dog from the elements.

It’s really a win/win all around: the dog gets a better life, the dog owner gets to keep their dog, a dog at the shelter doesn’t have to give up his kennel due to us seizing a dog without proper shelter, All 4s Rescue League delivers the doghouse and starts the conversation about spay/neuter, and all this is done without additional cost to the taxpayers. 

Thanks for your time!
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