Local animal shelters at all-time low during COVID-19 outbreak

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 25, 2020 10:57 AM CT | Published: March 24, 2020 9:28 PM CT

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Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s Safer at Home order didn’t start the madness for Memphis Animal Services Director Alexis Pugh. 

That began “a week to 10 days ago” when Pugh started coordinating with national welfare organizations and infectious disease experts to best plot the path for MAS and other municipal shelter organizations. 

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“It sort of feels like you’re captaining a ship in a storm with your eyes closed, and you’re trying to rely on the experience and background you have of which way to turn the steering wheel,” Pugh said. “There’s a lot of blindness to this because this is uncharted territory. I can’t think of a time when the animal welfare industry has faced this kind of challenge.” 

Pugh has prepared for the Safer at Home order Strickland handed down Monday afternoon. MAS entered into an emergency intake-only mode while it limits shifts to 10 people. Officers are staging offsite and still responding to emergency calls in Shelby County. 

<strong>Alexis Pugh</strong>

Alexis Pugh

Strays will only be taken if they’re ill, injured, in medical need or a danger to public safety as MAS, and shelters in Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Shelby County and rabies control, have moved to “emergency intake only.” Strickland’s executive order means MAS is adopting and fostering by appointment only. 

Caring for the animals is at the forefront of Pugh’s mind along with the health and safety of the caretakers. Reduced staffing means if one shift comes in contact with the coronavirus, they will have a “bench” of other workers to take their spot. At the same time, that means less personnel to take care of any possible strays that would come their way. 

“We’re asking if you find a stray ‘can you hold onto that pet for now?’ ” Pugh said. “There’s no way any sheltering agency would be able to keep up with the capacity of animals coming in if we’re not operating at full operational levels. That’s a great way to reduce the amount of public traffic. I think it is important right now to say, with these safer at home orders, what would happen if one of our staff were to test positive and we had a significant portion of our team forced into a quarantine status.” 

Memphis head coach Ryan Silverfield made MAS a priority in his philanthropic mission when he arrived in Memphis four years ago as an offensive line coach. Dogs, specifically pit bulls, are a passion of his, and he wanted to be as involved as possible. 

Silverfield established the “Tiger Takeover” of MAS where his offensive linemen would act as counselors, helping adopt both dogs and cats each summer. The first-year head coach recently spent an afternoon at MAS and made a public service announcement asking Memphians to foster or adopt animals during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

“It’s something I wanted to do,” Silverfield said. “Look, it’s rare to have a free weekend, especially this time of the year. I miss having my dogs so I wanted to go see some there. I kind of reached out to them and see if I could help them with a PSA. I know how important it is to make sure their kennels are empty because you don’t have to worry about euthanization or anything of that nature.”

Response to the crisis has provided a ray of light in hard times for Pugh. Each shelter is at an all-time low because of fostering and adoptions while citizens socially distance and work from home. 

City leaders have responded by adopting or fostering dogs with ongoing medical needs and even one who was nursing puppies. 

“A silver lining to this entire story is that once again, the citizens of Memphis and Shelby County have stepped up,” Pugh said. “I think we’ve seen that in cities across the country, but I can speak personally to what’s happening here and that people have stepped up. The animal population at all of our municipal shelters and the Humane Society are at all-time lows because this community has said, ‘I’m at home, I have capacity to help. Who do I need to foster?' ”

When the curve flattens and order is restored, fosters may have found lifelong companions during quarantine. According to Pugh, a good portion of fosters end in adoption. If a permanent home isn’t found by the foster or the MAS marketing staff, there are benefits to time spent with a caring foster. 

“You are going to have a certain percentage of those pets that come back,” Pugh said. “That population becomes so much more manageable of who returns. Plus we now have an amazing advantage of having all of this information that we would never have gotten for a pet were it still in the shelter. That helps increase the adoptability of an animal because adopters are looking for more information like that.” 


coronavirus Memphis Animal Services Ryan Silverfield Memphis Football Alexis Pugh
Jonah Jordan

Jonah Jordan

Jonah Jordan was born and raised in Memphis, graduated from the University of Memphis and has covered the Memphis Tigers for three years. When he's not writing, he enjoys golfing and eating barbecue.


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