Memphis: A Public Trust Betrayed

From YesBiscuit

August 25, 2011

The Honorable Robert E. Cooper, Jr.
Office of the Attorney General and Reporter
P.O. Box 20207
Nashville, TN 37202-0207

Dear Attorney General:

Because of widespread malfeasance at Memphis Animal Services (MAS), which implicates the staff, the director, the city council, the city attorney, and the Mayor, we are calling for your office to initiate litigation with the goal of placing the agency into receivership. The revelation that the President of the Memphis Rotary Club was arrested for drunk driving, reckless driving, and public intoxication, and repeatedly asked to see Memphis Mayor AC Wharton during his arrest, is only the latest embarrassment to plague the Wharton Administration and implicate MAS. (See attachment 1.)

The Rotary Club had offered to do a management audit of MAS at no cost in response to sustained controversy involving neglect, abuse, and rampant killing at MAS. Given the Rotary Club’s apparent lack of expertise, we were suspicious of the impartiality of the review. But the recent scandal involving the Rotary Club’s President reveals the offered review to be a partisan ploy, a favor between two friends.

Tragically, MAS 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; where known felons are hired who then turn around and commit animal cruelty; and where animals have been neglected and abused by those who were supposed to protect them. Unfortunately, neither the Mayor’s Office nor the City Council appears willing or able to protect the animals from further neglect and killing.

During Wharton’s tenure and despite promised reformed, the City has embarked on an illegal campaign to intimidate and silence critics by threatening them with spurious litigation in violation of their federal civil rights. (See attachment 2.)  And rather than correcting widespread problems, the Mayor announced he was removing the cameras at MAS’ shelter that allowed the nation to see what the animals there must endure, violating his promise of transparency and leaving the animals at the mercy of those who have demonstrated, time and time again, that they do not care about them. (See attachment 3.)  Any hope that the City Council could fill the lack of oversight has proved to be without basis. Despite the rampant neglect, abuse, deaths, disappearances, criminal behavior, and killing, as the pound’s controversial director announced his resignation, the city council commended his leadership, said he was doing a “great” job, and requested that he withdraw his resignation. (See attachment 4.) In addition, the City’s Advisory Board which helps set policy for MAS has closed its meetings to the public, which we believe is not only illegal, it shows a disregard for transparency and democratic principles of government. (See Tenn. Code. Ann. 8-44-101 et seq.) In short, city officials are complicit in hiding the mistreatment and needless killing of animals when they should be fixing it.   Because of that, we believe the city is not qualified to run the animal services program.

Placing an institution in the control of a receiver, a person “placed in the custodial responsibility” for the agency, is appropriate and warranted when the agency falls below minimally acceptable standards of conduct, repeatedly fails to make needed reforms, and causes ongoing irreparable harm. In California, for example, a receiver has been appointed to oversee the state’s prison health-care system after years of promised reforms that were not made. We are requesting your assistance as it is the job of the state Attorney General to investigate malfeasance and misuse of taxpayer funds by municipalities and their agencies. As repeated entreaties to local officials have been ignored, we believe the only effective recourse would be for your office to begin an enforcement action in order to place the agency into receivership. Quite simply, the neglect and abuse of animals constitutes irreparable harm, and the killing of thousands of animals needlessly every year can never be undone.

In October of 2009, for example, Sheriff’s deputies raided MAS after a puppy was “non-accidentally” starved. (See attachment 5.)


Puppy at the time of impound at MAS. Puppy after several weeks in the MAS shelter.

This was not an isolated incident. Citizens had been complaining of neglectful conditions in the facility for years.   (See attachment 6.) In fact, a live dog was buried beneath dead dogs, and sent to the incinerator to be burned alive. (See attachment 7.) Hundreds of animals die in their cages at MAS every year, and hundreds of others simply go missing. In 2009, 255 animals were found dead while in the custody of MAS. In 2010, that number rose dramatically to 357. In 2009, 282 animals disappeared. In 2010, it was 155. In 2007, after dogs were seized from dog fighters, the dogs disappeared from MAS. According to reports, “There were no obvious signs of a break in from the outside. No broken glass or windows, but police said the break in happened over the weekend and was discovered Monday morning.” (Fox News Memphis, November 12, 2007.) Installed webcams have also captured mistreatment of animals and inappropriate conduct including puppies being tossed into a trash can before being wheeled to the kill room and staff poking late-term pregnant cats with sharp objects.

Problems plaguing MAS include

  • Inappropriate, neglectful, and even abusive handling. Dogs are lifted off the ground by a hard-wired noose around their necks, cats are lifted by the neck using tongs, and dogs are dragged to the kill room to be put to death.

  • Rampant killing. In 2010, despite only taking in 17 animals for every 1,000 human residents, MAS killed 11,930 of the 15,404 animals it took in, nearly eight out of 10 animals. (See attachment 8.) By contrast, many communities with higher overall intake rates and higher per capita intakes (as high as 35 animals for every 1,000 human residents) are saving over 90% of the animals. (See By refusing to follow basic protocols for finding animals homes, thousands of animals are being needlessly killed.
  • Animal cruelty. MAS hires known felons, fails to train them appropriately, and then fails to supervise them adequately. Kapone, a family dog, “disappeared” after being picked up by MAS staff. Although the staff member, hired despite past convictions for crimes of moral turpitude, has been charged with two counts of animal cruelty for allowing one dog to die of heatstroke by leaving the dog in extreme temperatures and in relation to Kapone’s disappearance, the whereabouts of Kapone and 155 other missing animals remain unknown.   (See attachment 9 and attachment 10.)

  • Failure to provide prompt and necessary veterinary care. Just as examples, a suffering, emaciated dog was not provided any veterinary care for three days before being killed, and     another dog (pictured earlier) came in healthy but was starved by MAS. Failure to provide food and necessary veterinary care would violate anti-cruelty laws by private citizens. Such conduct by MAS is no less reprehensible and no less a violation of such laws.

  • Failure to train and hold staff to minimally acceptable standards of care. Because of incompetent cleaning, handling, and care, frequent disease outbreaks lead to mass killing. For example, one distemper outbreak that cost 60 animals their lives. (See attachment 4.) It has also led to fights. By way of another example, a staff member not only allowed two unrelated dogs in the isolation ward to come into contact and fight, he also showed no knowledge in how to respond appropriately. In fact, another employee became abusive by repeatedly hitting one of the dogs with a pole.

While initially giving lip service to reform, the Mayor now excuses and defends the agency, arguing that all the incidents of neglect, abuse, criminal behavior, and rampant killing are the result of isolated incidents of poor judgment or are even necessary and proper. Rather than investigate conditions or fix widespread problems, the City has chosen instead to intimidate concerned citizens into silence, in violation of their constitutional and federal civil rights. The City Attorney recently threatened spurious litigation against a public critic of the agency, in violation of 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983.  (See attachment 2 and attachment 11.) This followed revelations that the City attempted to intimidate another blogger in a separate incident. (See attachment 12.)

At MAS, tens of thousands of animals have been either neglected, abused, killed, have died, and/or come up “missing.” The Mayor, the City Attorney, the City Council, and agency staff seem unable and unwilling to reform MAS. The City has attempted to cover up agency malfeasance by violating the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens. And its current plan to remove webcams will further conceal ongoing neglect and abuse. As a result, we believe that an investigation and litigation in the hopes of placing MAS under the control of an outside party is warranted in this case.   If the Attorney General’s office fails to act, animals will continue to suffer, the taxpayers will continue to have their money squandered, and further criminal behavior will likely continue, while the City condones, rather than corrects widespread problems.

Very truly yours,

Nathan J. Winograd

Shirley Thisthethwaite