Fixing Memphis’ Broken Shelter System

Memphis Animal Services is a badly mismanaged house of horrors where roughly eight out of every 10 animals are put to death; where animals have been starved to death; and where animals have been neglected and abused by those who were supposed to protect them from it. In addition, Memphis Mayor AC Wharton promised reforms but the city has instead embarked on an illegal campaign to intimidate and silence critics by threatening them with spurious litigation in violation of their federal civil rights. You can read the sordid details at YesBiscuit by clicking here.

According to the website of the Memphis Rotary Club,

The Memphis Rotary Club will be performing as management study for the Memphis Animal Services shelter. This study will be free of charge and our recommendations will be posted here when complete. We are seeking input from all interested parties and those familiar with shelter operations. Please send any information to

The following is my submission:

Members of the Rotary Club Memphis Animal Services Management Study:

In the last decade and a half, several shelters in numerous communities have comprehensively implemented a bold series of programs and services to reduce birthrates, increase placements, and keep animals with their responsible caretakers. As a result, they are achieving unprecedented results, saving upwards of 95 percent of all impounded animals in open admission animal control facilities. Some of these communities are in urban communities, and others are in rural communities. Some are in very politically liberal communities, and others are in very conservative ones. Some are in municipalities with high per capita incomes, and others are in communities known for high rates of poverty. And some are run by municipal shelters and others by private ones with animal control contracts. These communities share very little demographically. What they do share is leadership at their shelters who have comprehensively implemented a key series of programs and services, collectively referred to as the “No Kill Equation.”

The fundamental lesson from the experiences of these communities is that the choices made by shelter managers are the most significant variables in whether animals live or die. Several communities are more than doubling adoptions and cutting killing by as much as 75 percent—and it isn’t taking them five years or more to do it. They are doing it virtually overnight. In Washoe County, Nevada, local shelters   began a lifesaving initiative that saw adoptions increase as much as 80 percent and deaths decline by 51 percent in one year, despite taking in over 15,000 dogs and cats.

In addition to the speed with which it was attained, what also makes their success so impressive is that the community takes in over two times the number of animals per capita than the U.S. national average and as much as five times the rate of neighboring communities and major U.S. cities. (Indeed, Washoe County shelters are taking in roughly 35 animals for every 1,000 people, over two times the Memphis rate of 17 animals for every 1,000 people.) In 2010, however, 91 percent of dogs and cats were saved, despite an economic and foreclosure crisis that has gripped the region. They are proving that communities can quickly save the vast majority of animals once they commit to do so, even in the face of public irresponsibility or economic crisis. This is consistent with the results in other communities. There are now No Kill communities in California and New York, Michigan and Texas, Kentucky and Virginia, and elsewhere. In Austin, Texas, the municipal shelter takes in roughly 25,000 animals a year but is saving over 90% of dogs and cats. In short, there are no valid excuses as to why Memphis cannot do the same if it chooses to.

Memphis officials, however, remain steadfast in their refusal to embrace the No Kill paradigm. Among the various excuses for why it cannot be done are that the shelter* does not have adequate funding to get the job done without killing and such funding is not available in this economic climate, there are simply too many animals for the available homes (“pet overpopulation”), No Kill is not feasible in a municipal sheltering context, and the No Kill philosophy is inconsistent with their public safety obligations. These excuses are just that, excuses.

Excuse: “We Can’t Afford It.”

To begin with, many of the programs identified as key components of saving lives are more cost-effective than impounding, warehousing, and then killing animals. Some rely on private philanthropy, as in the use of foster homes and rescue groups, which shifts costs of care from public taxpayers to private individuals and groups. Others, such as the use of volunteers, augment paid human resources. Still others, such as adoptions, bring in revenue. And, finally, some, such as neutering rather than killing feral cats, are simply less expensive, with exponential savings in terms of reducing births.

In addition, a 2009 multi-state study found no correlation between per capita funding for animal control and save rates. One shelter saved 90 percent of the animals. Another saved only 40 percent. One community has seen killing rates increase over 30 percent. Another has caused death rates to drop by 50 percent. There was, however, no correlation between success/failure and per capita spending on animal control. In other words, the difference between those shelters that succeeded and those that failed was not the size of the budget, but the programmatic effort of its leadership. The amount of per capita spending did not seem to make a difference. What did make a difference was leadership: the commitment of shelter managers to saving lives and their follow through by holding their staff accountable to results.

Excuse: “It’s Pet Overpopulation.”

The second reason often cited for failure to embrace and/or achieve No Kill is the idea of pet overpopulation, but the data here has also not borne out the claim. It is important to note that the argument that there are enough homes for shelter animals does not also include any claims that some people aren’t irresponsible with animals. It doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be better if there were fewer of them being impounded. Nor does it mean that shelters don’t have institutional obstacles to success. But it does mean that these problems are not insurmountable. And it does mean shelters can do something other than killing for the vast majority of animals.

In the United States, current estimates from a wide range of groups indicate that approximately four million dogs and cats are killed in shelters every year. Of these, given data on the incidence of aggression in dogs (based on dog bite extrapolation) and save rates at the best performing shelters in the country from diverse regions and demographics, better than 90 percent of all shelter animals are “savable.” The remainder consists of hopelessly ill or injured animals and vicious dogs whose prognosis for rehabilitation is poor or grave. That would put the number of savable dogs and cats at roughly 3.6 million.

These same demographics also tell us that every year, roughly 23 million Americans are considering bringing a new dog or cat into their home, and 17 million of those households have not decided where they will get that animal and can be influenced to adopt from a shelter. Even if the vast majority of those 17 million (upwards of 80 percent) got a dog or cat from somewhere other than a shelter, U.S. shelters could still zero out the deaths of savable animals. On top of that, not all animals entering shelters need adoption: Some will be lost strays who will be reclaimed by their family (shelters which are comprehensive in their lost pet reclaim efforts, for example, have demonstrated that as many as two-thirds of stray dogs can be reunited with their families). Others are unsocialized feral cats who need neuter and release. Some will be vicious dogs or are irremediably suffering and will be killed. In the end, a shelter only needs to find new homes for roughly half of all incoming animals.

Memphis Animal Services (MAS) serves Shelby County, Tennessee which has a population of 920,000 people. MAS intake for 2010 was 15,400. They killed 11,900. By contrast, Washoe County, Nevada saves 91% of animals even though they take in the same number of animals despite half the population. In other words, MAS takes in about 17 pets per 1,000 people, while Washoe County takes in about 35 pets per 1,000 people. Comparing for population with Washoe County and then comparing adoptions per capita, if MAS did the same level of adoptions as they do in Washoe County, they would adopt out about 21,349 per year, more than total impounds.

From the perspective of achievability, therefore, the prognosis for No Kill success in Memphis is very good. But let’s put all this aside. Let’s assume “pet overpopulation” is real and insurmountable. To do that, we have to ignore the data. We also have to ignore the experiences of successful communities. In the United States, to accept the “No Kill is impossible” argument requires pretending the knowledge and the results do not exist.

How does this change our support for the No Kill philosophy and the programs and services that make it possible? Even if “pet overpopulation” were true, it doesn’t change the calculus. In Memphis, the pound is killing roughly 77% of all incoming animals. To borrow an overused sports analogy: that puts the save rate at its own 23-yard line. And although the evidence is overwhelming to the contrary, let’s say that shelter can never cross the 90% save-rate goal line because of “pet overpopulation.” What is wrong with moving the ball forward? If Memphis Animal Services put in place the programs and services that brought rates of shelter killing to all-time lows in communities throughout the United States, they can save thousands of additional lives, regardless of whether they ever achieve an entirely No Kill community. That is worth doing and worth doing without delay. Because every year they delay, indeed every day they delay, the body count increases as does public dissatisfaction.

Excuse: “We’re a Municipal Shelter.”

A No Kill shelter is one which saves all healthy and treatable animals, roughly 90% and more of all incoming animals. It does not matter if the shelter is public or private, municipal or a contract facility, “open-admission” or “limited-admission.” What matters is who is running the facility and how dedicated that person is to implementing the programs and services which make lifesaving possible. What matters is whether the political establishment is willing to hold that director accountable to results, rather than allowing him or her to hide behind overused clichés about “public irresponsibility” and the “need to kill.”

As indicated above, there are now communities saving in excess of 90% of dogs and cats and many of those communities are being led in that initiative by the municipal shelter. The pound in Austin, Texas takes in roughly 25,000 animals a year and is saving 90% of all dogs and cats. Shelby County, Kentucky’s municipal pound has been saving over 90% of dogs and cats for three years. In other communities, the initiative is run by private shelters with animal control contracts. They are also “open-admission” shelters, acting as municipal shelters under contract. To suggest it cannot be done when it, in fact, has been done across the country is a non-starter. [As an aside, the term “open-admission” is used normatively to imply a “better” shelter than one which does not kill animals by limiting admissions. The argument being made is that some shelters are derelict because they refuse to kill animals. Aside from this absurdity, it is important to note that such use of the term is misleading as many communities have proven that “open-admission” does not have to be an open door to the killing of animals as it is in Memphis. Moreover, the term “open-admission” is itself a misnomer as these facilities are actually closed to compassionate people who do not want to see animals killed.]

Excuse: “We Must Protect Public Safety.”

And finally, a No Kill community is one where no savable animals are killed. Unfortunately, there are some animals who are hopelessly ill or injured, irremediably suffering, or in the case of dogs, vicious with a poor prognosis for rehabilitation. These animals are not adoption candidates and sadly, at this time in history, they are often killed, unless hospice care and sanctuaries are available. But since the No Kill philosophy does not mandate that vicious dogs or irremediably sick animals be made available for adoption, it is wholly consistent with public health and safety.

In fact, today, No Kill is a humane, sustainable, cost-effective model that works hand in hand with public health and safety, while fulfilling a fiscal responsibility to taxpayers. The success of this approach across the country proves the viability of the No Kill model and the above principles. And in every community where it is a reality, it has been achieved through rigorous implementation of programs and services which have come to be known as the “No Kill Equation.”

The No Kill Equation

The first step toward lifesaving success is a decision, a commitment to reject kill-oriented ways of doing business. No Kill starts as an act of will.

Following a commitment to No Kill is the need for accountability. Accountability requires clear definitions, a lifesaving plan, and protocols and procedures oriented toward preserving life. But accountability also allows, indeed requires, flexibility. Too many shelters lose sight of this principle, staying rigid with shelter protocols, believing these are engraved in stone. They are not. Protocols are important because they ensure accountability from staff. But inflexible protocols can have the opposite effect: stifling innovation, causing lives to be needlessly lost, and allowing shelter employees who fail to save lives to hide behind a paper trail. The decision to end an animal’s life is extremely serious, and should always be treated as such. No matter how many animals a shelter kills, each and every animal is an individual, and each deserves individual consideration.

And finally, to meet the challenge that No Kill entails, shelter leadership needs to get the community excited, to energize people for the task at hand. By working with people, implementing lifesaving programs, and treating each life as precious, a shelter can transform a community.

The mandatory programs and services include:

I. Feral Cat TNR Program
Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) programs allow shelters to reduce death rates of free-living cats.

II. Rescue Groups
An adoption or transfer to a rescue group frees up scarce cage and kennel space, reduces expenses for feeding, cleaning, and killing, and improves a community’s rate of lifesaving. Because millions of dogs and cats are killed in shelters annually, rare is the circumstance in which a rescue group should be denied an animal.

III. Foster Care
Volunteer foster care is a low-cost, and often no-cost way of increasing a shelter’s capacity, caring for sick and injured or behaviorally challenged animals, and thus saving more lives.

IV. Comprehensive Adoption Programs
Adoptions are vital to an agency’s lifesaving mission. The quantity and quality of shelter adoptions is in shelter management’s hands, making lifesaving a direct function of shelter policies and practice. If shelters better promoted their animals and had adoption programs responsive to community needs, including public access hours for working people, offsite adoptions, adoption incentives, and effective marketing, they could increase the number of homes available and replace killing with adoptions. Contrary to conventional wisdom, shelters can adopt their way out of killing.

V. Pet Retention
While some surrenders of animals to shelters are unavoidable, others can be prevented—but only if shelters work with people to help them solve their problems. And the more a community sees its shelters as a place to turn for advice and assistance, the easier this job will be.

VI. Medical and Behavior Programs
To meet its commitment to a lifesaving guarantee for all savable animals, shelters need to keep animals happy and healthy and keep animals moving efficiently through the system. To do this, shelters must put in place comprehensive vaccination, handling, cleaning, socialization, and care policies before animals get sick and rehabilitative efforts for those who come in sick, injured, unweaned, or traumatized.

VII. Public Relations/Community Involvement
Increasing adoptions, maximizing donations, recruiting volunteers and partnering with community agencies comes down to increasing the shelter’s public exposure. And that means consistent marketing and public relations. Public relations and marketing are the foundation of a shelter’s activities and success.

VIII. Volunteers
Volunteers are a dedicated “army of compassion” and the backbone of a successful No Kill effort. There is never enough staff, never enough dollars to hire more staff, and always more needs than paid human resources. That is where volunteers make the difference between success and failure and, for the animals, life and death.

IX. High-Volume, Low-Cost Spay/Neuter
No- and low-cost, high-volume spay/neuter reduces the number of animals entering the shelter system, allowing more resources to be allocated toward saving lives. While spay/neuter is important, it is also important to note that virtually every community that has achieved No Kill success has done so before a comprehensive spay/neuter program has been in place.

X. Progressive Field Services/Proactive Redemptions
One of the most overlooked areas for reducing killing in animal control shelters are lost animal reclaims. Shifting from a passive to a more proactive approach has allowed shelters to return a large percentage of lost animals to their families.

XI. A Compassionate Director
The final element of the No Kill Equation is the most important of all, without which all other elements are thwarted—a hard working, compassionate animal control or shelter director who is willing to be accountable to results by implementing these programs instead of regurgitating tired clichés about “public irresponsibility,” hiding behind the myth of “too many animals, not enough homes,” and the “need to kill.”

Comprehensive Implementation

To succeed fully, however, MAS should not implement the programs piecemeal or in a limited manner. If they are sincere in their desire to stop the killing, MAS will implement programs to the point that they replace killing entirely. Combining rigorous, comprehensive implementation of the No Kill Equation with best practices and accountability of staff in cleaning, handling, and care of animals, must be the standard.

Prior to 2011, before it embraced the No Kill philosophy, animal control in Austin, Texas allowed only employees to participate in its foster care program. The shelter claimed it was implementing the programs and services of the No Kill Equation, but it was excluding thousands of animal lovers from participating in the lifesaving effort, seriously limiting how many lives they save. When they finally began implementing the programs in earnest, their save rate hit 90%.

A shelter committed to No Kill does not send neonatal orphaned kittens into foster care “sometimes,” but rather every time. A shelter committed to No Kill does not merely allow rescue groups access to animals “some of the time,” but every time a legitimate rescue group is willing to take over care and custody of the animal. Indeed, a No Kill shelter actively seeks these groups out and contacts a particular rescue organization whenever an animal meets its criteria.

Shelters must also put forth more effort to reunite lost animals with their families. Traditional shelters do little more than have people fill out lost pet reports. As a result, in a typical shelter, less than two percent of cats and roughly 20 percent of dogs are reclaimed by their families. At MAS, the percentage of animals returned to their families is a paltry 6%. This is unfortunate because being more proactive and comprehensive would have a significant impact on lifesaving.

Shelters in communities that have systematized their approach and become more proactive have more than doubled this rate of redemption. Washoe County Animal Services in Reno, Nevada, for example, returned seven percent of lost cats and 65 percent of lost dogs to their homes. Given the high per capita intake of animals (which some suggest would evidence high rates of “public irresponsibility”) one would expect the agency to have a very low redemption rate. Instead, it is very near the top in the nation. Why? The shelter is proactive in finding the people who have lost the pets.

Before impounding stray dogs, Washoe County animal control officers check for identification, scan for microchips, knock on doors in the neighborhood where the animal was found, and talk to area residents. They also carry mobile telephones so that they can immediately call the missing animal’s family and facilitate a quick reunion. While this may seem an obvious course of action, it is, unfortunately, uncommon in American shelters-often with tragic outcomes. The more traditional approach is simply to impound any animals found wandering the streets and to transport them immediately to the pound. Once there they can get lost in the system, compete for kennel space with other animals, and are often put to death. In Washoe County, impound is a last resort. But if animals are impounded, shelter staff is equally as proactive in facilitating redemptions. They immediately post to the Web photographs, identifying information, and the location of where the animal was found. People can search for the animals from their computers at home or at work.

This not only shows how the achievement of a No Kill community is well within our reach, it demonstrates how modernization of shelter practices by bringing them in line with the No Kill Equation can yield dramatic declines in killing virtually overnight. In short, shelters must take killing off the table for savable animals, and utilize the programs and services of the No Kill Equation not sometimes, not merely when it is convenient or politically expedient to do so, but for every single animal, every single time. A half-hearted effort isn’t enough. It is primarily the shift from a reactive to proactive orientation and from a casual, ad-hoc, limited implementation to a comprehensive one, which will lead to the greatest declines in killing, and fix Memphis’ broken animal shelter system.


* Please note: in my submission, I used the term “shelter” in the colloquial sense. MAS is not a “shelter.” It is a pound facility. But including this distinction would not have served the ends sought and I chose to refer to it as a shelter in my submission.