Strut, a six-year old dog, has been sitting at the Memphis Animal Shelter since May 24. A 72-pound dog who is housetrained, heartworm negative and great with other dogs and kids, Strut has been living in shelter director Alexis Pugh’s office .
“There is no reason that this dog is not in a home,” Pugh said. “And we have tried every single social media and traditional marketing, we took him on a field trip this weekend, he’s been on regular TV, he’s been everywhere.”
Strut’s story, Pugh said, is a perfect case study for a wider problem the shelter has been facing. The gap between the number of dogs coming into shelters and dogs leaving shelters is widening, leading to dogs sitting in shelter kennels for longer.
“Being in a shelter is no place for an animal, it should be short term, temporary,” Pugh said. “But these guys are sitting here longer, the length of stay for dogs, for example, was 12 days, we’ve seen it spike up to 19 days. A full extra week that dogs are sitting here because adoptions are down, fostering is down, rescue transfers are down, all of our outcome strategies, we have just seen decline. And this is happening across the country.”
In part because of this, the MAS hit a new record; on Tuesday, they exceeded 300 dogs in the shelter when they were only prepared for 200 or less.
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“Today, when we pulled up those numbers and looked, I said ‘this is a milestone I hoped we would never hit’,” Pugh said. “And here we are.”
When people struggle, pets struggle, Pugh said. And because of an increase in the price of housing, groceries and gas, more people are struggling to provide for themselves, let alone their pets.
“The call for services, to our pet resource center, has spiked dramatically,” Pugh said. “The number of people asking for help with pet food, with medical care for their animals, so basically we’re just seeing a world where the average American is struggling to make ends meet and one of the areas where that struggle is manifesting is the ability to provide care for pets.”
The result is unprecedented levels of staff exhaustion and burnout. In addition, it’s become impossible for the staff to provide every single animal with everything they would want to give them.
“What it may mean is that dogs don’t get to go out to playgroup as often, and exercise their normal sort of dog like tendencies, that the amount of one on one out of kennel time that each dog receives is not happening as often as it should, that dogs that maybe need more marketing attention, more efforts by us to get them out, there’s just so many it’s hard to post them all on social media and get them all the individualized marketing attention they deserve,” Pugh said. “Core necessities are absolutely being met, and we will never not meet those, but it’s all the things that add to the quality of life for an animal.”
If dogs can’t be placed into homes, Pugh said, the shelter will have to start evaluating the animals in their care to decide which animals might have to be considered for euthanasia. Animals that are suffering medically will always be looked at first, and then dogs with behavioral issues, who can’t go out to play group, can’t be cohoused with other dogs, or are willing to bite staff.
Pugh said since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, no healthy, friendly animals without behavioral or medical problems have been euthanized for lack of space at the shelter.
“But I will say, the definition of whose considered has greatly expanded due to our overcapacity constraints,” Pugh said. “Meaning an animal with a more mild behavior problem that we might not have had to make that decision on before, may be put on the consideration list now because we just can’t continue to hold these animals indefinitely if there’s no outcome pathway for them .”
There are two solutions to the problem, Pugh said. Either fewer animals come into the shelter, or more animals leave the shelter. There are lots of ways people in the community can help, including adopting or short term fostering. Right now, the shelter is working to get 30 dogs into foster homes by the end of the week.
“It’s only 25 dollars to adopt right now, and we’re even going to do another special this weekend that will probably reduce that,” Pugh said. “We need fosters – fostering is such an easy way to help. We have these transports, if we can get 30 dogs out to foster between now and Friday, that would be huge. And we know that many of them would be able to come back next Friday to get on the transport bus, so it’s not even a long commitment It’s a short term, easy way to help.”
In order to help prevent animals from coming into the shelter, the MAS is asking pet owners to make sure the pet is wearing visible ID tags and has been microchipped, both of which MAS provides for $5 each. There are microchip scanners at every single fire station in Memphis, Pughsaid, allow people who find a lost dog to scan them.
In addition, the MAS is asking people who find lost dogs to make an effort to keep them in the neighborhood by walking them around and asking neighbors if they know whose dog it is. The chances of returning a dog to it’s proper home are much higher, Pugh said, if the dog stays in the neighborhood it’s found in versus being taken directly to a shelter.
“A great analogy that was shared with me is, if you lose your kid in Target, do you want someone to call the police and take the child to the hospital or a police station? No, you want them to look for you in Target ,” Pugh said. “That is what neighborhood reunification is. If you find a dog in the neighborhood and it’s healthy and friendly, can you walk it around? Knock on doors, ask other people walking their dogs, they probably know that dog.”
Gina Butkovich covers DeSoto County, storytelling and general news. She can be reached at 901-232-6714 or on Twitter @gigibutko.