Memphis: A Public Trust Betrayed

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 attachments 9 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 attachments 2, 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 Thistlethwaite

43 thoughts on “Memphis: A Public Trust Betrayed

  1. If you would like to take action to support this effort, please write a brief note to the TN AG requesting that he investigate the issues addressed in this letter and pursue litigation with the aim of placing MAS under the control of an outside party.

    As always, keep your comments respectful.

    Office of the Attorney General and Reporter
    P.O. Box 20207
    Nashville, TN 37202-0207

    Fax: (615) 741-2009

  2. Thank you for shinning the light on the abusive happenings at the mess that is MAS. There should be no question whatsoever that the animals brought there will suffer and die a certain death.

    The people that come to look for their pet may find that the pet is not there. That’s assuming that they were allowed to view the stray areas. When one realizes that so many are put to death daily, it doesn’t take long to wonder if their pet has just been hauled off to the kill room minutes before. That injured dogs brought in are not given any vet care whatsoever but allowed to suffer for three days and then hauled off by chokepole to die. It doesn’t take long to imagine that at all.

    There is no question that this is a place of horrific treatment of animals. There is no question that this treatment must be stopped immediately. Shelter pets deserve so much more than MAS has provided for them. It’s way way past time that they received that care.

  3. Will do. WIsh I could do it by email, though. Thank you both for this initiative. Shirley, did this letter go by email? I want to know so I know how to address the AG to the proper letter. Thanks.

  4. An amazing letter but together by Nathan and Shirley! It is direct and to the point and these all need answering, how much longer does this have to go on for? These animals deserve better from a country that is one of the richest in the world. Animal ownership and responsibilities need to be addressed and people should face fines for abandoning animals willy nilly. In some shelters to aviod the surrender fees people say that they find the animals. Pure selfish. If you cannot look after a pet for its life in the best possible way then you should not have one in the first place. But these shelters and their employees need to be watched and it has to change permanently for the sake of thousands of innocent pets who die in the most cruelest ways.

  5. The sound you hear is loud applause! I will compose my letter and have it in the mail tomorrow. I pray that this will be the beginning of some good for the animals of Memphis and those people who care about them.
    Bless you both for taking this on. I am so proud to be a teeny part of this blog and effort to make things right.
    Imagine there will be some opportunities for comments on CA when this breaks.

    1. Ditto to db. Thank you Shirley and Nathan. On behalf of all your readers and the animals at MAS, I thank you both. I’ll be sending my letter tomorrow as well.

  6. Interesting. And a very workable solution for the Mayor to wash his hands of the whole messy business. If he’s smart, he’ll jump at the chance to divorce himself from MAS and all the taint it brings.

  7. Praise the Lord for Nathan and the dedicated animal lovers and animal advocates in Memphis. You go get ’em. I’m with you 100%. Although I’m not there physically, I’m with you in spirit and support your efforts. Thank you for caring and not letting this matter be swept under the carpet. The killing and cruelty and ignorance must stop!!!!!

  8. I pray the Attorney General will not choose to ignore this situation the way the Mayor of Memphis has. Excellent letter! Great job to you both. Thank you for keeping this matter in the forefront!

  9. Great job guys,

    The only gripe I have is that you didn’t include the info that after the video of the MAS advisory meeting was brought to Mayor Wharton’s attention, the one where Stephen Tower stayed only long enough to make sure it was noted that he was present as he walked out the door, Wharton studiously ignored this dishonest behaviour (which Wharton’s own spokesperson was witness to) and instead of Tower being disciplined, he was promoted to Chair. That video and the aftermath clearly summed up Wharton’s attitude and moral fibre to me.

  10. Outstanding letter. Thank you Nathan and Shirley. The more voices that protest the atrocity that is MAS, the more likely someone in authority will finally hear.

  11. and also let’s not forget another indication of the administration’s attitude–when “bombarded” about the picture of the two dogs fighting, and the subsequent video showing the employee beating one of the dogs, the administration’s response was that the dogs were slated to be euthanized anyway, as if that justifies mistreatment.

  12. These are four-legged children who need a home…someone to care for them. Please enforce a spay neuter program…only then can we control this over population. This is something they cannot do for themselves.

    M.E. Fent

  13. My letter is already in the mail. This is it:

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

    Dear Attorney General Cooper:

    I am writing to you today to affirm and add my name to the letter you have received from Nathan Winograd and Shirley Thistlethwaite (enclosed sans appendices).

    I too have been watching the webcams at MAS for several months, have been in touch with several of the City Council, the Mayor and members of the MAS Advisory Board. There is absolutely NO excuse for the behaviours that continue to torture innocent lives every single day, for killing for “space” when there are empty cages, for NOT allowing the general public to view the population of strays who might either be their lost pets, or that their families might be interested in adopting, for not utilizing the software that has been in place for quite some time in order to establish an Internet presence to promote adoptions, for lack of veterinary care and oversight, and well, I suppose I COULD go on, but you no doubt get the picture here.

    MAS is rotten to the core and all the way to the top. I URGE you to accept the request for legal action based on malfeasance, misuse of the public’s funds and trust, and animal abuse, neglect and cruelty. This entity needs to be placed into receivership and handed over to a private not-for-profit OR legitimate for-profit organization for management, the current staff needs to be placed on unpaid leave, and the unholy mess that is MAS needs to be fixed. On behalf of the hundreds of thousands of lives who had no voice, and now will never be heard, I ask this of you. The kindness of a response would be appreciated.

    Sincerely Yours,

    Morgana Washington
    Cc:/ File

  14. God this moves me to write a letter too. Thanks Nathan and you guys for your input. Gotta go write. Bye Kathy & Wolf the cat.

  15. Nathan & Shirley…I APPLAUD you! My friends! Wonderful Letter!

    We find Beauty in the most incomprehensible places and other-
    wise homely Faces..It is our GIFT to see beyond the Dirt, Terror,
    Sadness and Defeat to find the true Soul that lies within…


    For every Animal that DIES in Memphis Shelter…A Human some-where in Memphis Area is responsible for its DEATH!

  16. Why do we keep appealing to the Memphis and TN governments? It’s clear that they have no interest in the humane treatment of these animals. Has anyone contacted the ASPCA and HSUS about this situation? They’re always first in the spotlight when it comes to publicizing a large puppy mill or dogfighting bust–how about forcing them into the national spotlight over this situation?

    When the “execution room” in N.O. was discovered by rescuers after Katrina, we contacted CNN and Anderson Cooper, who personally broke the story, and even followed up on it later in “Keeping Them Honest”. Has CNN been contacted over this situation? Has Best Friends been asked for support? I believe that this deserves national attention at this point, and these photos tell enough of the story to appeal to the sensationalist media on every level.

    I don’t mean to sound like I’m trying to “pass the buck” on this; I live in Clarksville, and therefore don’t have first-hand knowledge of this situation.I believe that those who contact the media should be persons with first-hand info who are willing to be interviewed and can present the case as Nathan and Shirley have done in this letter. The time for polite letters to the TN Atty Gen has passed–now the gloves should come off and the fight should begin in earnest with a National Shaming of all involved!

    1. I understand what you’re saying, but the ASPCA and HSUS are not the organizations you think they are. If you take a look at how much money they bring in and how they spend it, not much goes toward actually helping the animals. They have also been behind the scenes trying to prevent legislation from passing that does not suit their agenda. These folks are quicker to kill than you might think.

      I have contacted Anderson Cooper, but feel like that might be another option.

      Let’s see how the AG responds. Anyone who wants to support the letter that was sent can also send a letter to the AG. I did, as did several others. If we get enough people to write letters of support, they will know they are being watched and will not be able to avoid dealing with these important issues.

  17. db, I don’t dispute you about ASPCA and HSUS, but feel that if enough publicity can be generated this might be a good opportunity to force them to take a stand or risk tarnishing their “image”. Also agree that letters to the Tn AG are worth a try, but have less confidence in that route. After all, they already know they are being watched d/t the camera blowup, but that only resulted in the camera being slated for turnoff.

    I’ll be very eager to hear if you get a response from Anderson, There is also another woman reporter/co-anchor on CNN (whose name escapes me now) who is very into animal welfare; I have seen her call out other CNN colleagues on the air over animal issues, and she has pursued several stories–including the MV story–pretty vigorously.

  18. Lorraine,
    The woman’s name is Jane Valez-Mitchel. She is a big animal rights advocate. It would certainly be worth a try.

    1. Yes, that’s her! Thanks! Please keep us posted on any reply from Anderson. I’ll try to contact Jane Velez-Mitchell and also post my results. Is anyone willing to give the ASPCA and HSUS another try? Even if we don’t LIKE them, that doesn’t mean we can’t try to enlist their aid. After all, that’s what they’re SUPPOSED to do….

      Also, any contact with Best Friends? They can’t do anything to the City, but again, having them lend their support and perhaps advice can possibly make a difference.

      1. Someone posted a comment awhile back I believe containing the response received from ASPCA. I don’t recall exactly but it was basically a “they’re not doing anything wrong in Memphis” type thing. HSUS is likely going to perform an audit of MAS, at taxpayers’ expense. The city is negotiating with them now reportedly. I doubt they would take any action that might spoil their chances of getting that paycheck.

  19. Sincerely hope there’s some positive action because of this!

    I’m very cautious of the privatization route because there’s the chance for even less public input and insight as to how the shelter is run. I know of a private shelter that is clean, doesn’t mention on it’s website that it kills animals for space twice a week, and aggressively pursues revenue from fines and licenses. Animal advocates now have that city’s ear, but the contract won’t be up until 2012.

    I really hope you can get a non-profit group or coalition to run it if the city wont go for a joint venture. Even a well run funding model in conjunction with a no-kill non-profit with reformed animal control ordinances would be better than what they have now.

  20. Morgana,

    I wrote a message to the AG also, but wow your letter was perfect. You have a way with words. Thank you too from me. Kathy & Wolf the cat

  21. Whats going on over there ? Who is respond this mess i cant belive what happennig even i saw with my eyes ! This cruelty must be stop .This world not just belongs to us . We share with others please be kind and others life rights !

  22. Are there any updates? I just found this thread while trying to post a comment about the Memphis News 5 promotion for Memphis Humane.

    Wish they’d do a series talking about the conditions at MAS.

    That photo of that sorry excuse for a human holding that cat by the neck has me so angry I am ready to get in my car and drive from Nashville to beat on the front door and ask these people HOW DARE THEY. Please sign me up for any future involvement.

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