Mutts of all shapes and sizes in the Memphis Animal Shelter's new adoption area are on their best behavior on a recent afternoon. Tails and tongues wag as if to say 'pick me' as the pooches watch guests walk down the long hallway of cages.
These are the "lucky 30," as Memphis Animal Advisory board member Cindy Sanders refers to them. The new adoption area holds up to 30 dogs, all of which have been screened for health and behavioral issues. The rest of the shelter's strays are now off-limits to adoption by the public.
"We have an obligation to provide the general public with an animal that will be healthy and safe for them and their family," new shelter director Matthew Pepper said. "When people adopt animals that are behaviorally unsound or sick, they end up incurring serious medical costs or exposing their other pets to potential diseases."
Before Pepper came on board in March, the public was allowed to adopt stray dogs that may have had minor health or behavioral issues. But Pepper has reorganized the shelter, creating an adoption area for screened animals, a holding area for dogs in line for the adoption area, a stray area for animals that have yet to be assessed for adoption, and a "bite area" for dogs with no chance for adoption.
"It's obvious that a lack of structure is what got Memphis Animal Services into this position to begin with," Pepper said, referring to a sheriff's department animal-cruelty investigation at the shelter and the subsequent firing of former director Ernie Alexander.
Pepper said he's trying to create a flow through the facility by first placing strays into the stray area in the center of the shelter. Those strays are assessed for health and behavior issues. If the animal is deemed adoptable, it's placed into a holding area, and when space is freed up, the dog is moved into the public adoption area.
Reputable rescue groups are still allowed to adopt the strays that aren't in the adoption area. However, Sanders worries that some adoptable dogs may not make the cut for the public.
"On one hand, I can see [Pepper's] point in doing this because the biggest problem at the shelter is rampant disease. If you separate animals and isolate them, you have a chance at keeping them well," Sanders said. "But they're also assessing these animals for temperament. If you're snatched off the street by a catch pole and shoved into a kennel and hosed off, your temperament will not be normal."
Sanders also said animals in the adoption area receive better treatment than those held in the stray area. The animals in the adoption area are removed from their kennels each day and placed into outdoor cages while their indoor kennels are cleaned. Dogs in the stray area must remain in their cages while a shelter employee sprays away urine and feces with a power hose. Pepper blames that on the building's poor design.
"We do clean the adoption area in a different way, but that's because of facility issues," Pepper said. "One of the reasons we moved our adoptable animals to the other side of the building is because that portion of our facility allows for better practices. That goes back to maintaining the health of our adoptable animals."
"The shelter is not set up to be animal-friendly," Sanders agreed.
Pepper said he hopes some of these problems will be solved when a new shelter facility opens on Appling Road next summer. The shelter on Tchulahoma is 15,000 square feet. The new shelter will be more than double that size and have 30 percent more dog kennels.
"Animals shelters should work with an even flow. Animals should come in, be processed, and move out," Pepper said. "The shorter the time that animals are there, the less likely they are to be sick and the less likely they are to develop behavioral issues."