On September 26th, Barbara Standing adopted a brown and black mixed-breed puppy from Memphis Animal Services at the Woofstock dog festival in Overton Park. A few weeks and $500 in vet bills later, the puppy had to be euthanized for distemper.
"About two days after I got her, she started sneezing and coughing. It deteriorated from there," Standing said. "We took her to the vet five times for IVs, subcutaneous fluids, and antibiotics. After two weeks, she was completely emaciated. The vet said she had neurological symptoms of distemper."
Standing sent an angry letter to Memphis Animal Services director Ernie Alexander. He responded in an e-mail, stating that "proper air exchange would prevent the spread of airborne viruses and diseases. It is an unfortunate situation that we are in a building that was not designed to meet the growing needs and volume of animals housed in this facility."
What Alexander didn't mention, however, was that sick dogs are often housed in the same area with healthy ones. A search of the shelter executed by the Shelby County sheriff's office found that employees keep "dogs that are to be quarantined for rabies with dogs that are not required to be quarantined in the same kennel," according to the search warrant.
In early October, district attorney Bill Gibbons received a tip about the state of the animal shelter. Deputies found animals deprived of food and water.
Last Tuesday, deputies executed a search warrant at the shelter to gather more evidence of abuse. Trained investigators with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the American Humane Association assisted the deputies and cared for the nearly 300 animals in the shelter.
"It is very possible that one or more individuals could face criminal charges based on the outcome of this investigation," said Gibbons in a statement to the press.
The district attorney's office likely will present its findings to a grand jury this week. In the meantime, Memphis mayor A C Wharton has launched a task force to study best practice procedures and training for shelter staff.
Problems at the shelter are nothing new to local animal welfare advocates and rescue groups.
"You don't put a Chihuahua in with a German shepherd. There were several times when I saw 20-pound dogs housed with 80-pound dogs, and they were sharing one food bowl," said Cindy Sanders, a Memphis Animal Advisory Board member.
Lisa Trenthem with Good Dog Rescue said she often observes dirty kennels.
"The lack of disinfecting is worse than ever. They need to have people cleaning all the time, because disease is so prevalent," said Trenthem, who has had to euthanize three dogs she's adopted from the shelter in the last two weeks. All three had distemper.
Sanders says she's hopeful the new city administration will clean up the shelter once and for all. Until then, she isn't recommending people adopt shelter animals.
"I wouldn't adopt from the shelter, and I wouldn't tell anyone I know to adopt from the shelter," Sanders said. "It's riddled with disease."