Matthew Pepper didn’t have a dog’s chance of success at the Memphis Animal Shelter.

As the new, improved head of the City of Memphis agency, he was under fire from the day he walked through the door.  He inherited an agency rocked by controversy that ranged from simply stupidity to animal cruelty.

As a career animal control officer with a passion for his job and the animals, he knew how emotional things can get when animals are involved, but surely he believed that his professional background and personal commitment were strong testament to his seriousness about his job.

He never had a chance.  From the beginning, he had a target on his back…if not a webcam…and almost any action by his staff was forced into a prescribed narrative of uncaring workers who abuse the animals in their care (not that there weren’t things that kept concerns alive).  No one who knows him suggests that he would countenance such behavior or abide by it in his agency.  He’s the kind of animal control official that doesn’t ask anyone to do something that he’s not willing to do himself – from chasing down animals to cleaning out cages.

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City government’s Civil Service policies make it hard to fire anyone, and there’s little question that he could have benefited – and wished for – more latitude than what is allowed by city government’s personnel rules.  That’s a familiar chorus heard from many government managers who call for more balanced policies that allow quicker action to get rid of bad apples in the workforce.

But the controversies at the Animal Shelter also shined a light on one of today’s most tiresome national pastimes, developing a firm opinion about somebody or a situation with only partial information.  In that mode, some of the animal rights advocates screaming about Mr. Pepper and his agenda for the Animal Shelter have about as much objectivity as Nancy Grace.  It’s little wonder that personal threats and bomb scares are simply part of daily life at the Animal Shelter.

We’re not saying that we don’t think concerns about the Animal Shelter were misplaced.  Even Memphis Mayor A C Wharton himself, upon taking office, labeled it a disaster that would define the management city government’s work by his administration.  There are some pundits that we respect who say that the mayor himself made this a big news story by setting it as the yardstick by which to judge his administration, but even if you agree, it’s hard to justify the current blood in the water media coverage of every issue involving the Shelter.

In this environment, it’s often opinion first, facts later.   Last week’s poster child for this was the photo of two Shelter employees with pit bulls on leashes that appear poised to attack each other.  There were reports that employees were conducting dog fights inside the Animal Shelter, but the web cam showed clearly that the employees were simply trying to control a troublesome dog.

Scandal de Jure

We are not trying to diminish problems at the Shelter, but we do diminish people who determine their opinion and then drive the facts to support it.   A few weeks before, the scandal de jure was the fact that carcasses of euthanized animals were being put in the landfill because the incinerator was broken and the city had no funds for its repair.  There was less uproar a few years ago when The Commercial Appeal ran a story about the poor and stillborn babies born in Shelby County Government’s version of “potters’ field.”

Incineration is preferable for a number of reasons but optics ought to be way down on that list.  More interesting to us is that city budgets have been pared down so much that there’s no funding for emergencies like the breakdown of an incinerator.  Either that or the budgetary process has a gap in information and departments aren’t assessing equipment to determine their life cycles, conditions, and costs of replacement or repair.

Regardless, we have had a steady diet of Animal Shelter reports, rumors, and innuendos, and despite some progress and the plan of action by Mr. Pepper to improve operations, responsiveness, and professionalism, it’s hard to imagine that he could do anything to satisfy a hard-core group of animal rights critics.

It’s inarguable that some of the most incendiary claims have hurt their credibility.  Also, it’s been off-putting to see a group of Caucasian activists investing this much energy on dogs in a majority African-American city with 40% of its children living in poverty.

What Matters Most

For each dog at the Memphis Animal Shelter, there are 181 children living in poverty that puts them at risk for options for the future that the rest of us take for granted.  While we appreciate concern about a caring environment for dogs at the Animal Shelter, we wish that there was as much interest, emotion, and media attention about an environment that gives every child in Memphis an equal start in their lives and equal opportunities for success.

They live in neighborhoods with 50,000 vacant houses, there are half as many as 30 years ago, more than half the families live on less than $8,700 a year. Most of the children’s friends were born out of wedlock and live in a single female-headed household.

Here’s the thing: we were appalled by conditions of the dogs at the city animal shelter, but we think there are reasons to hold protests on the other days of the years when it’s not about animals, but people who are being emotionally starved and educationally malnourished.

As former Indianapolis Mayor Steven Goldsmith said: “It’s not just that poverty is morally inappropriate. It’s also economically dangerous.” That’s why it’s in the enlightened best interests of every Memphian to put the most attention and investment of time into the at-risk children who live just a few miles from the rest of us.

We’re ready to protest lack of action about that anytime anyone wants.