Behind the Headlines – August 12, 2016

Behind the Headlines – August 12, 2016


(female announcer)
Production funding
for Behind the Headlines is made possible in part by.. (male announcer)
The Bartlett Area
Chamber of Commerce and its member A2H – engineers,
architects and planners creating an enhanced quality of life
for our clients and community. To learn more about
A2H’s services and markets, visit A2H.com. – The new head of Memphis
Animal Services tonight on Behind the Headlines. [theme music] I’m Eric Barnes, publisher of
The Memphis Daily News. Thanks for joining us. I am joined
tonight by Alexis Pugh, new head of
Memphis Animal Services. Thanks for being here. – Thank you for having me. (Eric)
Along with Bill Dries,
senior reporter with The Memphis Daily News. So, we’ll talk about
all kinds of things. Your goals. You’ve been on the
job just two months. But talk about.. Let’s just start there. Your goals for
Memphis Animal Services, which has been in the
spotlight, which has had, I think everyone would say,
some real troubled times. Your short term goals
and your long term goals. And then we’ll
break all that down. – Sure. Well, in the short term really
what we’re looking at now is a ground up reorganization. And it’s so critical, I think,
in any operation that you have the right people doing the right
jobs and the right segmentation of those responsibilities. So, I’m taking a really hard
look right now at how are we built organizationally. Do our job
descriptions need to be updated? Do we need to have different
people doing different roles and better segmenting those roles? And getting all of those
positions filled with the right people to be
a part of this change that we’re all hoping to see. So, that’s really sort of my
immediate short term goal that I’m working on at this point. The long term
goals are, of course, reduced euthanasia,
more live outcomes, more positive
outcomes for animals. And our ultimate goal is to
end time and space euthanasias. (Eric)
Which are what for
people not as familiar? – Sure. So, we’re a
public safety agency. So, euthanizing animals that
pose a danger to our community is something that is
part of our core mission. And humanely euthanizing
animals that are sick, that are suffering, that this is
the most kind outcome for them. What we want to avoid is having
to euthanize an animal that is adoptable, that is healthy,
that is able to be placed simply because we don’t have the space
in our facility and this animal has been there too long. And that is how we qualify
a time space euthanasia. And so, that’s really our
countdown to zero that we’re trying to achieve. – Your staff.. Let’s go through.. You talk about staff. How many staff
members are there? – Sure. So, our complement as
approved by city council is 51 full-time staff people. We do also have about 20
part-timers that come in, in varying degrees of hours. Some are students. Some are hoping to get
full-time positions. But so, we’re right around that
75 mark of actual employees who come to Memphis Animal
Services and do work. – And is there one.. I apologize for not knowing this
but I just kind of want to talk it through with you. How many facilities are there? Is it all one facility? Talk about that. – Sure. So, we have one physical
location and that is on Appling City Cove, which is
right off of Appling Road. It is a beautiful new facility
that was built not that long ago replacing the older facility
that has been on Tchulahoma. So, we have one
physical shelter location. However a big part of our
operation are our field operations where our animal
control officers cover all of the city of Memphis. And we’re supported by Shelby
County Health Department agents for the unincorporated
part of the county. – And I’m going to turn to
Bill and you can ask a question. But before, because there
has been such a spotlight. Some real negative things have
happened with Memphis Animal Services prior to
you being there. And so, maybe you can
real quickly run through, for those who haven’t followed
it as closely as others, some of the real.. I mean, some real sad
things, and some awful things, and some just mismanaged things
that have happened with Memphis Animal Services over
the last couple of years. – The agency has moved to
different divisions in city government starting with really
the administration of Willie Herenton into the
administration of AC Wharton. AC Wharton’s first day on the
job as mayor in October of 2009, you had investigators from
the district attorney general’s office as well as the sheriff’s
department in the Memphis Animal Shelter investigating some
of the allegations there. – Those allegations being? – Those allegations involved
basically the processes for animals coming into the shelter. They involved some allegations
which the investigation later did not find any evidence of
that some of the animals were being used in dog
fighting rings, things like that. – The phrase was sort of
sold out the back door. Coming in the front door and
being sold out the back door. But those were not proven. – Those allegations were not
backed up by the investigation. But what the larger problem
turned out to be was that basically you needed a better
system of accounting for the animals, the care
of the animals. Cameras were
installed at the shelter. There were some problems
with that early on because the cameras were on,
then they were not on. – And the cameras were meant for
people to be able to watch and kind of observe. Volunteers could see. And people did. – And people did. I mean, there were organizations
who organized watches. But basically, of the cameras. So, when the cameras went off,
everybody noticed it who was involved in this
very vital issue. – Towards the end of
his administration, Mayor Wharton appointed.. I don’t know him. I don’t know anything
about him other than he was not an animal person. Someone who had been a manager
or director at the post office and was put in charge for
that last, what, six months. – It was a little
more than six months. – So, I saw you nodding through
some of what Bill was saying, not that these were good things. But you, meanwhile,
through much of this time, you were the executive director
of the Humane Society and then you were at the
Mid-South Spay and Neuter. So, you were sort
of watching this as, from the sidelines
but involved sidelines. Right? I mean, your thoughts back then
on everything that was happening and what you now learn from all
those missteps and problems as you go forward. Then we’ll go back to Bill. – Sure. You know, obviously I think I
probably had a little bit more of an inside view of what was
going on than perhaps some folks who don’t work in the
animal welfare world. In that meaning, I would go to
MAS quite often at the Humane Society personally to pick up
injured animals that we would transfer into our care. While as Mid-South
Spay and Neuter, we did a partnership to help
them get some adoptable animals spayed and neutered to try to
increase those live outcomes. So, there was some partnerships
that occurred there. Also, while I was at
the Humane Society, I initiated and we came over and
did some on-site staff training to help their
animal control officers with handling
cleaning protocols. So, I had some awareness there. But I would say my real
takeaway is two-fold. One, I saw an opportunity
for better processes. I think staff craves, and I’ve
seen it in my two months there. They are swimming upstream. Many of them that want
to do the right thing, they’re
swimming upstream because it’s a constant
game of catch-up. There are efficiencies and
processes that can be put into place to make their jobs easier
and allow them to focus more on the things like working with
adoptions or potential adopters in the kennels. But we’re so busy doing
administrative paper work, we can’t get caught up on that. Secondly, I think there was and
I think I’m okay to say this. I don’t think that there was
top level down support that this organization needed. Meaning, I don’t think that
past mayors or past higher level administrators said
this is a priority to us. I care that this changes
and I care that we become a progressive shelter. Mayor Strickland does care. I know that he and his
wife personally rescue pets. He and I have had multiple
conversations that this is not just a
professional concern for him. It is a personal and
emotional concern. And that radiates down
my direct supervisor, Chief Operating
Officer Doug McGowan. There is a
commitment to improvement. And I feel that support. And I think that that’s going
to be so essential as we move forward and try to
implement change. – It also seems as if
Memphis Animal Services, what a lot of folks knew
as the animal shelter, had really not shifted along
with our increased awareness of animal welfare,
the welfare of our pets in all of this, too. Has the world kind of changed
around what we traditionally regarded as
Memphis Animal Services? – I think the world has changed
nationally in terms of what we look at as the role of
a municipal shelter. Historically, it was very
segmented where the non-profit community had this sort of
positive progressive approach and the municipal shelters were
sort of associated with this dog catcher era, this sort
of dark prison for pets kind of attitude. And what we’re seeing nationally
is more and more municipal shelters adopting more of the
philosophies from the private sector, from the
non-profit sector, and saying hey, we can
be a humane organization, too. We can be a progressive shelter. We can get rid of time
and space euthanasias. And so, I think other large
municipal shelters around the country have done it. And that’s really the path I
hope to lead our team on is to get us to that place where we
don’t have to think of ourselves as that prison for pets. It can be a stopping point on
their way to their forever home. – Yet when you were appointed,
you and the mayor both made it clear that animal services has a
basic mission that is basically the public’s safety from
stray animals who are out there. So, that’s a part of the mission
that other organizations, the non-profit organizations,
do not necessarily have. – Yeah and that’s a part of the
mission that has to be first and foremost and can’t be ignored. You know, we looked at the
headlines just this week about the little boy
that was attacked. You know, there are
animals in this community, through no fault of
their own, through genetics, through how they were
raised or treated by humans, that are not safe to be
replaced in our community. And the approach to
that is two-fold. Strong enforcement through
animal control operations, strong enforcement
through our court system, and then most importantly more
proactive spay and neuter to prevent the over-population,
which is where you see a lot of these animals and those
behavior concerns develop. It’s in animals that weren’t
really wanted in the first place and were a part of
that over-population. – I have so many questions
on what you just said in a good way. I mean, it’s a very sad thing. Some of this is just really sad,
the mistreatment and all that. But glossing over
that just for a second, how many animals
in a given year.. I don’t want to hold
you to a hard number. But a sense of how many animals
are out there that you all have to pick up that are dangerous,
that are past the point of being, you know, their behavior
modified or anything like that. I mean, is it a hundred a year? Is it thousands a year? How many stray
dangerous animals are out? – Sure. And so, I would say it
is hard to quantify. Because, again, when we talk
about processes in tracking, we haven’t had, I think,
the right people in place to accurately quantify that. What I would say is we’re
taking in last fiscal year, so calendar year
fiscal year 2016, we took in just
under 10,000 animals at Memphis Animal Shelter. I would say it’s fair to say
that five to ten percent of those are not safe to be
placed out in the community. – You talked about
spay and neuter, which you used to run
Mid-South Spay and Neuter and the Humane Society. How do those
three organizations, Memphis Animal
Services, the public city-run, and the two non-profits, how do
they work together in an ideal setting? If Memphis Animal
Services is doing a great job, does that put those
other ones out of business? Not in a bad way
but in a good way. Or do they always have a
role supplementing what you do? – Well, I think any non-profit
will tell you that the ultimate goal of a non-profit is to put
themselves out of business so their service is
no longer needed. So, long term I would
think that would be ideal. However, I think they each
provide such a specific subset of need that their role
won’t go away anytime soon. So, the Humane Society’s
focused on injured and abused. At Memphis Animal Services
with the volume coming in, the fact that we’re an
open admission facility, we don’t have the ability to
provide either long term medical care or some of that more
expensive orthopedic surgery, things like that due to
financial constraints as well as the time and the staffing. So, there’s really a need and a
role for that organization to fill that gap for those animals
that might otherwise fall through the cracks due
to those medical issues. – And the Humane Society, again,
not to put you on the spot, but they handle some couple
thousand animals a year or is it another ten thousand? – No. When I was there, our intake
was right around 1,500 a year. – And then the role.. Back to my original question. The role of Mid-South Spay
and Neuter in this kind of mix? – Sure. Every community that achieves
these lower euthanasia rates has a strong low cost
spay-neuter clinic presence. At Mid-South Spay and Neuter,
one of the things that I was very proud of that I was able to
accomplish with my team while I was there was that we
dramatically increased the number of discounted
surgeries that we offered. And by that, I
mean we were able to, for this entire
calendar year, for 2016, if you were on
government assistance, you can get your
pet fixed for $20. And what we were finding is even
the discounted rates that we offered across the board, $75
for someone who’s choosing to put dinner on the table for
their family or get their pet fixed, that’s not
really a choice. And we’re thinking that
$20 was more reasonable. And so, providing an option
for pet owners willing to do the right thing, willing to abide
by our mandatory spay and neuter ordinance but who do not have
the financial resources is a key component because one thing
every progressive shelter around the country will tell you is
a community that succeeds has strong proactive low
cost spay-neuter option. It’s essential. – And roughly
how many animals were spayed and
neutered last year? – It was just over 4,000. It was about 4,100 and
the target goal for this year was about 4,400. And when I left that position
to come to this position, we were already at the
beginning of the year tracking closer to 5,000. – Two more questions and
then I’ll go back to Bill. Does Memphis Animal Services
do any spaying and neutering? – We spay and neuter all of
the pets that leave our facility unless their medically
unable to be spayed or neutered. Right now, no. We do not offer
public spay and neuter. However, that is absolutely 100%
a part of my long term goal and plan that would hopefully
start with beginning some really strong TNR, which is trap
neuter release programs. We have a lot of feral
cats in our community. And it is considered the most
effective way to reduce that feral cat population or cats
that end up in a shelter that really have no business being in
there and that aren’t adoptable. So, we’re starting to look at
how we can do some Trap Neuter Release, even a quarterly day
where we bring in a bunch of feral cats and get them fixed. – When they’re released, are
they just released back in to the streets where they were? – They are. And that’s a hard thing for
people outside the animal world to understand. But the challenge is if you
don’t put those altered cats back into the colony
area where they were, other cats will move in. And so, yeah. It’s really important that we
focus our goal not on taking cats and moving them out, but
rather stabilizing and reducing that colony’s population until
the point where that colony eventually disappears. – Okay, Bill. – So, is the problem
with spay neuter awareness? Are there people who don’t
think they should do that? I mean, what is
the hang up there? – There are multiple reasons. The number one reason,
according to national studies, and it would be mirrored here
because of our population that lives below the poverty
line, the number one reason is financial and whether that be
simply the cost of the surgery or it’s transportation. I don’t have a way
to get my dog there. And the Humane Society just got
a mobile spay and neuter unit, which was something that I was a
part of helping to conceptualize while I was there to try to
reach those people who don’t have transportation access. So, that’s really
the number one. I think there’s sort of a myth
that the number one reason why people don’t get their fixed
is a moral or an objection for some reason. The number one is
really financial and access. Then we do get to
a segment of the population that is resistant. Whether it’s a male pet owner
who has an unnatural attachment to the anatomy of his male dog. – And the kind of
macho thing about it. I mean, there is
that whole thing of.. I grew up in a city where
there was a real attachment and association between
masculinity and the dog. And Dobermans back
then, and pit bulls, and all that. So, it’s not just what you said. There is this whole sort of
symbol that is truly a cultural thing across the
country about vicious, mean, dangerous dogs
and their fertility is somehow a part of that. So, I second what you’re saying. That’s interesting. – And there’s also some myths
out there that a lot of people don’t know. At Mid-South Spay and Neuter, I
always tried to debunk and we want to do more
education at MAS about this. Myths that it will
change my dog’s personality. My dog will get fat and lazy. You know, that it’ll take
away their masculinity. There’s so many myths associated
with spay and neuter that I think just go back historically
to people not being raised in environments where spay
and neuter was normal. And I think it’s sort of
changing that baseline perception that spay and
neuter becomes the norm. And so, we really try to focus a
lot of our education efforts on the negatives associated
with not spaying and neutering. A female dog that’s left
unspayed is far more likely to get an infection of her
uterus called pyometra, which can cause death. Animals, both male and female,
are twice as likely to end up getting cancer
related to, you know, testicular cancer,
prostate cancer, all of those sorts of
reproductive system cancers. Animals that are spayed and
neutered tend to live longer. So, there’s.. And certainly when we talk
about correcting those negative behaviors that sometimes result
in people surrendering their pets, male dogs are
less likely to mark, are less likely to fight, are
less likely to be aggressive or less likely to roam and
run away from your home. So, there’s a lot of
benefits associated. And so, that component of
education is essential, particularly in communities
where the number of spayed and neutered is far outweighed by
the number of unaltered pets. – We talked at the top of
the show about dog fighting. How much of a problem is that
here and is that a mission that animal services is involved in? Because dog fighting is a very
illegal but it’s a very popular past time here in Memphis. – Well, I would say this. There’s no way
whether, you know, you’re at the Humane Society and
their cruelty investigator or our animal control officers that
are not going to come across it. However, if there’s one thing
that we know about dog fighting and why folks who maybe don’t
even think it’s that big of a deal, I can’t
imagine not thinking that, but people need to understand
that there is a direct correlation between dog
fighting and other crimes. There is always gambling. There’s almost
always gang involvement. There’s guns. There’s drugs. There are other
crimes usually occurring. So, we always try to reach
out and partner and not try to handle anything on our own
because you never know if there’s an active
investigation going on. You know, organized
crime handles a lot of that. So, we try not to and
especially because our officers are not armed. So, it would be dangerous and
unwise and potentially ruin an ongoing investigation
if we were to try to autonomously handle that. So, when we see signs, and I
don’t like to share what those signs are because I don’t ever
want to give anybody any tips. You can Google it. But we don’t want to
put that out there. But the bottom line is when
we see signs that we know are indicative, we immediately
forward that up the chain and get Memphis police involved and
their organized crime division. It’s the right way to handle
something of that magnitude. – With the prevalence here
and I imagine in other places, but especially here given my
experience just covering stories about that, there is also the
perception that the dogs that are involved in
the dog fighting, first of all, are pit bulls. We always hear pit
bulls are involved in it. And those dogs are irredeemable,
unrecoverable if you will once they’re not in dog
fighting anymore. What do you see of that? Are these animals
that are beyond saving for that experience? – I would say in those
situations when you look at the large scale, you know, the
Michael Vick case and some of the other large ones that
the ASPCA handles nationally, it is not something that anyone
who is not extremely trained in assessing dog behavior and
determining an animal’s safety should be determining. What I mean by that is if we
have an animal that was actively involved in dog fighting,
it does not mean he is not redeemable, that he can’t be
replaced into a home or into some sort of environment. But that is not a determination
that anyone without a lot of initials behind their
name should be making. That needs to be done
at the expert level, someone who really has a strong
skill set in animal behavior, recognition, and assessment. – Do you have that expertise? – We do not. But I am looking actively and I
hope to very soon have someone in our management team who
comes in with some initials. Now I will say that
there’s a lot of terminology thrown around. People talk about having
a behaviorist on staff. That’s not realistic. There are probably
ten in the country. There are very few
people who are Ph.D. level behaviorists. The highest level certification
we have in our community is someone who is
known as a CPDTKA, which is Certified Professional
Dog Trainer Knowledge Assessed. Meaning that they’ve
gone through training. They’ve gone through
schooling, and they’ve tested, and they are continuing, getting
continuing education credits to keep up their certification. We have several of
those in our community. And my goal would be to have one
of those on staff as quickly as possible to run that
lower level assessment. But again, if we talk about an
animal coming out of a known dog fighting situation, we would
want to bring in a behaviorist or someone who has
even more credentials and is skilled at that. Because the one thing I will say
when people talk about an animal that is dangerous to people
versus dangerous to humans is that more often than not,
when someone is told the dog is dog-aggressive and
doesn’t bite humans, guess who gets bit. Humans. Because they get in
the middle of that dog fight to break it up. So, there are higher level
assessments that need to occur than I think we’re
capable of at our facility, at least at this point. – Let me ask you. We have a minute
and a half left here. So many questions I have. Target Zero, we talked
a little before the show. Talk about that’s a
national program that you’re.. Talk about Target Zero. – Sure. So, Target Zero. There was some local
volunteer-rescuers who had started talking to them before
I even came into my position. Then they reached out to me. They are a group that has
gone to other municipal shelters around the country, seen
who’s done things well, collected best practices, and
they’ve put together a plan. So, they’re coming
here in October. They’ll do a shelter assessment
to evaluate where we can make the most improvements
and what we need to do. They’ll do a town hall
meeting on Monday night, October 10 at the
Central Library. It is posted on
the city website. It’s open to the public to get
feedback from the community. And then they’ll present to us
a plan of action featuring best practices from around the
country of how we can achieve a zero euthanasia rate for time
and space euthanasias within three years. – And opportunities
for volunteers. That’s an opportunity for
public input, I assume. Because there’s clearly a huge
number of people who have lots of thoughts and desires on this. Are there opportunities
through MAS for volunteers? – Yes, we do volunteer
orientation all the time. Call up there, check it out. Come up and visit us. We need more volunteers. We want people
walking dogs, showing dogs, playing with cats. We need volunteers. More volunteers. There’s never too many. – Alright, we
will leave it there. Thank you so much
for being here. We appreciate it. Thank you, Bill. And thank you for joining us. Join us again next week. [theme music] (male announcer)
Production funding
for Behind the Headlines is made possible in part by.. The Bartlett Area Chamber of
Commerce and its member A2H – engineers, architects and
planners creating an enhanced quality of life for our
clients and community. To learn more about
A2H’s services and markets, visit A2H.com.

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