Saturday, November 7, 2009

Shelter Crisis Tests Wharton’s Mettle Immediately

ANDY MEEK | The Daily News

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s first full day on the job began with a major crisis before the sun came up.

It started with a 5:15 a.m. raid of the Memphis Animal Shelter by Shelby County sheriff’s deputies. By the end of the day, the facility was closed to the public. And some shelter employees had been put on leave with pay while an investigation into alleged animal abuse and cruelty continued.

Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Shular said the shelter could reopen as soon as this morning.

Deputies took control of the shelter and shut it down Tuesday morning at the request of Shelby County Dist. Atty. Bill Gibbons’ office. A tip had been called in alleging a variety of problems, and prosecutors decided it warranted an investigation.

Asst. Dist. Atty. Bill Bright declined to provide details about the tip. But Gibbons released a statement suggesting one or more people may face criminal charges once the investigation wraps up.
Body of evidence

When deputies arrived at the animal shelter near Memphis International Airport, they found extreme conditions that corroborated information from Gibbons’ tipster. Animals starved to the point of requiring euthanasia were among the things they encountered.

Wharton already had brought Memphis City Council members up to speed on everything he knew and could share with them by mid-day Tuesday, the day after his swearing-in. Mayoral aide Robert White would not identify the shelter employees put on leave, but they reportedly include city animal services administrator Ernest Alexander.

The raid was expected to leave the shelter closed for a few days while law enforcement and animal investigators – some of whom had sterling credentials and were brought in from out of town – sorted out the problems.

“At the request of law enforcement, I have directed Janet Hooks, director of the Division of Public Services and Neighborhoods, to work with Human Resources in taking necessary steps to ensure investigators have free access to all sources covered by the search and warrant,” Wharton wrote in his e-mail to council members. “These actions will include placing certain supervisory employees on ‘leave with pay’ to guard against any appearance that their presence might impede the investigation.

“I should note that at this point ‘leave with pay’ is the action taken, given that no one has been charged and no indictments or criminal complaints are currently in place.”
Under the microscope

Investigators from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and emergency responders from the American Humane Association were on hand Tuesday helping deputies.

Part of the team included two women involved in the dog-fighting investigation that ended in NFL player Michael Vick’s 2007 indictment: Catherine Desteza, an ASPCA animal investigator, and Dr. Melinda Merck, senior director of veterinary forensic services for the ASPCA.

Merck, a consultant on animal cruelty cases, is routinely is tapped as an expert witness.

The ASPCA also brought its Mobile Animal Crime Scene Investigation Unit to the shelter to help collect and process evidence. The unit includes state-of-the-art forensics tools and has medical equipment for animals that need care.

Law enforcement officials combed through the shelter a month after Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery and other city leaders broke ground on what will become a new animal shelter near Bartlett. That facility is being built at 2350 Appling City Cove.

The $7.6 million facility will include extra cage and kennel capacity and is scheduled to open by the middle of 2011, according to information from the city. The current shelter holds 341 cages and kennels, and the new shelter will have 546 cages and kennels.
Not new news

Meanwhile, meeting minutes of the animal shelter advisory board over the past few months reflect a belief by some board members that lingering problems with basic animal care have plagued the existing facility.

In response to an e-mailed complaint from someone who adopted a shelter dog last month that had to be euthanized after showing signs of distemper, shelter advisory board member Cindy Sanders said she sympathized with the loss.

“Unfortunately, your story is not unusual,” Sanders wrote to Barbara Standing, who had adopted a puppy named Carmen. “I am a newly appointed member of the Shelter Advisory Board and receive at least an e-mail every week or so regarding the poor medical condition of adopted shelter animals.”

The correspondence proved somewhat prophetic, as it came a week before the shelter closure Tuesday.

Standing’s e-mail to shelter officials cited several problems at the facility.

“It is doubtful that the ‘new shelter’ will solve many of the current problems, such as inadequate ventilation, as well as several additional problems inherent in poorly funded shelter situations, including poorly trained employees, insufficient protocol and a lack of post-adoption follow up,” she wrote.

At the shelter advisory board’s Aug. 11 meeting, board member Michelle Buckalew said overcrowding remains a problem and some “smaller, less aggressive dogs” are being held in cages without food and water until they are euthanized.

Keenon McCloy, Hooks’ predecessor as interim director of the city’s Division of Public Services and Neighborhoods, was asked at that August meeting about the possibility of combining the city’s animal services with Shelby County’s.

“The city favors this, as it makes financial sense, but the county only wants to contribute, not consolidate,” the minutes read.

Meeting minutes from previous months depict an animal shelter whose resources are stretched thin. Alexander said at the board’s July meeting that “55-75 dogs are being destroyed every day.”

After animals are held at the shelter for a minimum of 72 hours, they become the property of the city of Memphis, according to the Web site of Friends of Memphis Animal Services,