Behind the new day at Memphis Animal Services

May 24, 2017

Challenge shelter Memphis Animal Services has been in the news lately, thanks to an amazing turnaround led by new director Alexis Pugh. As an article in the Memphis Daily News put it, “When you walk through the doors… you may not recognize the place. Euthanasia rates are low. Relationships with local rescue groups are strong. Community outreach is booming. And there’s a new director at the helm: Alexis Pugh, a fresh pair of hands for a shelter that has had a rocky past.”

Ten years ago, the article pointed out, the agency had a poor relationship with its community and a save rate of around 20 percent. Today, that number is 80 percent and climbing, despite intake of around 9,000 animals each year.

The Million Cat Challenge spoke with Pugh about what was behind the transformational change at MAS, and what the future holds for the organization and its community.

Alexis and catPrior to joining MAS, Pugh was executive director at Mid-South Spay & Neuter Services, a nonprofit spay/neuter clinic, and before that, executive director at the Humane Society of Memphis & Shelby County, a nonprofit animal shelter focusing on injured and abused animals. What led her to take on the challenges at MAS?

“It’s something I felt called to do,” Pugh said. “I wanted to not judge and question from the sidelines, but rather bring in my skills and experience to help make MAS a shelter that citizens can be proud of.”

Among the changes Pugh put in place right away was streamlining what she described as bulky, complicated processes, “making efficiency improvements in the use of our shelter software system (Chameleon), and re-writing our euthanasia policy to make it 100 percent clear and bulletproof. We also ended breed labeling, and improved the way we communicate with rescue groups on pets that come in and pets that are in danger of euthanasia if we run out of space.”

Next, Pugh expanded her team and resources to help animals, particularly cats. “We’re better able to tailor our care and outcome strategy to each cat’s individual needs now that we have a shelter supervisor who is an animal trainer, a volunteer and outreach specialist who is a self-proclaimed cat lady, and a veterinary medical director who’s truly a cat person,” she said.

Among the changes implemented by the new team:

  • Better identification of feral cats
  • Incentives to rescue groups to pull feral/barn cats
  • More education on TNR

Additionally, the new volunteer and outreach staffer manages volunteers, fosters, and rescue groups. “She started in March and has already sent nearly 100 at-risk cats (bottle babies, moms and litters, weaned kittens too young for S/N) into foster homes or rescue groups,” Pugh said. “Without around-the-clock care, of course, bottle babies would have to be euthanized.”

MAS got a huge boost in lifesaving and improved welfare thanks to its partnership with Target Zero, who contacted her just a month after she started at MAS. “I was thrilled for the help from an organization that has demonstrated success in other communities,” she said.

Also a member of the Million Cat Challenge, MAS is working on implementation of the project’s key initiatives.

“Our managed intake is part of our new MAS Safety Net program, which is a group of initiatives designed to keep pets in loving homes,” she said. “It includes surrender intervention assistance as well as our NextDoor Proactive Reclaim effort, in which volunteers will post each pet who came in stray in the NextDoor neighborhood in which it was found, along with instructions for potential owners on how to reclaim that pet from MAS. Our animal control vehicles are also being equipped with tablets so our officers can get pets’ photos online from the field, letting potential owners find them online more quickly.”

As part of an effort to reduce the number of cats housed in the shelter and ensure more cats get back to homes and habitats where they’re thrivng, they’ve begun to implement return-to-field, where healthy adult cats are returned to their place of origin instead of entering the shelter.

“We’re phasing in our programming improvements, and return-to-field is one of the last ones left to implement,” Pugh  said. “We are in discussions with the city attorney on eliminating or reducing the legally required stray holding period for cats, since as we know the chances of them being reclaimed from a shelter are very slim. We know that the notion of community cats will probably be a foreign concept in Memphis, but knowing that communities like Jacksonville, Fla., and Greenville County, S.C., have been successful with this approach really gives me hope that we can accomplish it here, too.

“Our plan, as soon as we feel that our owner surrender prevention program is a well-oiled machine, is to work on community cat diversion. Meanwhile, we’ve really started working on getting barn cats placed.”

One of the major focuses of the Challenge is capacity for care — staying within your shelter’s determined population number to support meeting the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare for all animals in your care. Thanks to their work on managing admissions, finding alternatives to shelter intake, and return to field, as well as their partnership with Target Zero, Pugh says the shelter currently operates at one-third or less of total cat capacity in adoption areas.

“Now that kitten season is really in high gear and summer is approaching, we’re definitely filling up, but it was really nice to have such a low population for so long,” she said. “I think that’s due to aggressive spay/neuter programs available in our community, a small group of extremely dedicated cat rescues who work tirelessly to divert cats from shelters, and a great transport program many of us have been fortunate to benefit from — Wings of Rescue has transported 68 MAS cats alone since January. We’re in a great position as far as capacity for the influx of the summer.”

They’ve also made big changes in their adoption programs, with more in the pipeline. “When I got here, we already were doing open adoptions for cats, and we already were open every day of the week, and until 7 p.m. on two of those days,” she said. “Something we’ve made a point to do more of, however, is cat adoption marketing and promotion. For example, we have a volunteer events team who planned a Pop-Up Cat Café on National Cat Day in October that was a huge success; we hosted a Cat Yoga event in February that people loved; and we’re hoping to be able to take adoptable cats to a cat-related film screening in June.

“I do think our adoption process is somewhat bulky, although we’ve taken steps to streamline it where we can. To help explain it to potential adopters, though, we now have large, colorful signs with step-by-step instructions, as well as signs decoding a kennel card.”

Overall, things are vastly improved for cats in Memphis thanks to the shelter’s turnaround. However, Pugh and her team aren’t satisfied. “Our ultimate goal is to make our shelter a place where cats go only if it’s their best option, not as the first stop,” she said. “In that scenario, we would consistently have empty kennels due to us having implemented the proven strategies in the Million Cat Challenge’s approach. Our cat population would be stabilized and ultimately reduced because of those strategies.”

Has being part of the Challenge helped MAS? “The strategies that the Million Cat Challenge promotes have absolutely been helpful, and will continue to be,” Pugh said. “We only recently joined as a participating shelter, so we haven’t taken full advantage of all the resources available on your website, but we are increasingly using it to build our knowledge base on how we can continue to improve care for our cats.”


Share with:



  1. As someone who has been an outspoken critic of the atrocities at Memphis Animal Services since they were located on Tchulahoma, I am thrilled and very optimistic that there is now a director in place at MAS who is making much needed changes at this facility. Alexis Pugh is open to change and listens to those who have suggestions for improvement at MAS. She responds quickly to emails. There is now transparency in this position and a welcoming feeling when a potential adopter walks through the shelter doors. Her one-year service anniversary (June 13) is approaching and I want to be the first to wish her continued success and appreciation in her role as director of Memphis Animal Services.

    Comment by Jan Courtney — June 1, 2017 @ 9:54 am

  2. Finally, someone with some animal sense and who really seems to care about the animals. It is about time. Thank you for your efforts and for letting Best Friends become an advocate to MAS. Their approach is one for the animals above all. This city has never been good to animals, but hopefully with Miss Pugh that will change.I applaud you and say keep up the good work.

    Comment by Eva Fussell — January 2, 2018 @ 3:30 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Loading Facebook Comments ...