Shelter under siege: Controversy at Memphis Animal Services

(WMC-TV) - A new shelter could be the first step toward a new future for Memphis Animal Services without former shelter director Matthew Pepper.

Memphis Animal Services has faced a government raid, employees charged with abuse, and the recent resignation of Pepper.

With a nationwide search underway for a new director, employees are being retrained again in data entry.

"Was Matthew Pepper run out of town?  I wouldn't say he was run out of town, I think he met some challenges here that he did not anticipate," said Memphis Animal Services Advisory Board Chairman Dr. Stephen Tower.  "It's almost like a cannibalization there.  The difficult part for administration or anyone on the advisory board is there will be a strong, robust opposition to what we do, regardless of what we do."

Cindy Marx-Sanders, a member of Community Action for Animals, is part of that opposition.  She is concerned about new shelter records obtained by Action News 5 investigators.

"I think it's come down to a standoff and who's going to blink first," said Marx-Sanders.  "I think the problem there is the city's not blinking and the animals are suffering."

Marx-Sanders pointed to euthanasia records that show 592 dogs euthanized in July and August with no reason given.

The city directed questions about the records to Chief Administrative Officer George Little.

"Without additional information, I could only speculate," Little said.

City spokesperson Mary Cashiola later provided a response, saying, "It seems that is a data entry issue.  Employees are being retrained to correct it."

Other records show the shelter has more than 1,300 open calls as of September 15.  Some of the calls include "investigate bite" and "investigate cruelty" calls.

"I'd have to go through the data and see if there are really that many calls," said Little.

Cashiola later said by e-mail that most of those calls are the result of data entry issues as well.

"We are working to address that," Cashiola said in the e-mail.

"Could we do better?" asked Little.  "Certainly adding staff to be able to get out in a more timely manner would be helpful."

But adding staff may not be necessary.  "Officer Activity Reports" appear to show some officers not getting in the field until an hour after their start time and coming back to the shelter two hours before they are off.

"I'm not sure what they were doing in this time period," said Little.  "Just looking at the log, without having some key to those codes."

Action News 5 calculated nearly 20 hours unaccounted for in the logs at the start and end of an animal officer's shift in just a 12-day period.  Cashiola said those hours are spent working at the shelter.  She added, "...two employees were just recently fired for tardiness and another two disciplined for the same reason."

"It's our tax dollars," said Marx-Sanders.  "They should be doing what's correct."

While Marx-Sanders believes many shelter employees are doing a great job, she is concerned the city does not always fire the ones who are not.

One of the reasons is because of a provision in a union agreement with the city.  It says, "any employee who does not receive any disciplinary action for a period of six (6) months, shall have his or her record cleared."

That means employees disciplined in January could have a clean slate by July.

Little admitted the provision is a challenge.

"It does make building a case very difficult," he said.  "And very time consuming.  There's no doubt about it."

Little said he will bring up the clean slate issue during annual negotiations with the unions in animal services and other departments, but he expects resistance.

Little said there have not been consistent yearly performance reviews citywide.  The administration plans to change that.

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