Last week, many in the animal welfare world celebrated when Animal Services Director, Matthew Pepper, resigned from his position. Pepper resigned amongst a ton of criticism from activists and the public alike over the failure of the shelter. Pepper cited "uncertainty that engulfs my current position as well as the organization in general" as part of the reason for his resignation.
Let's make no mistake, Pepper has earned the criticism.
And while I won't pretend to have the full breadth of knowledge of the Memphis shelter situation, it certainly appears as if the problem runs deeper than Matthew Pepper.
Pepper took over a shelter that just months before he started, was raided by the Shelby County Sheriff's office, and the then-shelter director, Ernest Alexander (who was appointed to the position by then-mayor Willie Herenton), was arrested for animal cruelty. Pepper inherited that situation, along with a shelter that was killing 81% of the animals it impounded. And reportedly, Pepper has complained on several occassions about an inability to discipline employees (which isn't terribly uncommon in areas with union staffs).
Under Pepper's reign, there was little improvement. YesBiscuit! has pulled the numbers and it appears as if MAS adopted out only 11% of the animals in its care through the first 1/2 of 2011 - and 71% were killed.
In spite of this obvious failure, Mayor AC Wharton did not call for improvements at the shelter -- but instead blamed the irresponsible public, boutique shelters and even people from Arkansas and Mississippi (who were clearly not to blame), for the high kill rates. The same city allowed for the Memphis Advisory Board to meet behind closed doors (a violation of the state's public meetings laws), and is seeking to prosecute a former employee (and ex felon)who falsified city records and was responsible for the death of a dog that died in her truck as she hid from officials. Another dog that she confiscated from a home is still unaccounted for. This is the same city that in spite of all its problems, and animal control officers who are awaiting trial, agreed to not install webcams in their next shelter...because the poor animal control officers should not have to be subjected to such scrutiny.
The reality is, that for Memphis to make a real change, they're going to need civic support for making the change. They're going to need leaders who will demand better from their new shelter director instead of blaming the citizens and people in different states. They're going to have to allow for the firing and disciplinary actions against employees who are failing.
Without a change in attitude, real, positive change will be nearly impossible to achieve. And an attitude adjustment is just what is needed. Because it hasn't been "the public" that has been failing the Memphis Shelter, it's been the leadership. And that goes up even higher than Matthew Pepper.
In an Open Letter ot the People of Memphis, YesBiscuit! writes:
"What are your expectations Memphis? Do not be contrained by the learned helplessness that comes from years of being told "it can't be done here." Do not accept the low bar set by the city politicians who proudly send to the media a video of inept MAS workers mishandling dogs and beating them with steal poles on their way to the kill room saying. "Hey look, they we're involved in organized dogfighting -- huzzah! Yay us!"
Yogi Berra once said, "When you get to a fork in the road, take it."
The ironic and funny statement I think is very insightful. Because sometimes when there is a clear fork in the road, it is up to you to take it. It is up to you to determine the direction to go, or pave your own direction, because the path isn't chosen for you. And this is Memphis' fork in the road.
There is ever opportunity for them to change shelter management and keep their same attitude and continue down the same failing path. Or, they can choose a new attitude, a new direction, and fix the problem. But this is the time for the the residents of Memphis to make their voices heard, and let the leaders in the community know that this is important. And it's too important to not make the changes needed for success. This doesn't mean just changing shelter directors -- it means changing what is expected.
Memphis -- here's your fork in the road. Your chance to change your direction, your future. Take it.
Related: Got a Prayer in Memphis? - Ryan Clinton