Memphis Animal Services, Fire Department team up to help lost pets

TML Communications Specialist

A new partnership between Memphis Animal Services and the Memphis Fire Department is working to ensure more missing pets find their way home.

The new Fire Finders program has put a microchip scanner in each of the 57 fire stations across the city of Memphis. Funded entirely through a Maddie’s Fund Innovation Grant, the goal of the program is to provide more resources to those who find missing pets and help those pets find their way home.

Katie Pemberton, a community engagement specialist with Memphis Animal Services (MAS), said similar programs are already being implemented in cities across the country.

“One of our employees went to an animal welfare conference and heard about this idea, which was being done in El Paso,” Pemberton said. “She thought it was a great idea and brought it back to our Animal Services Director Alexis Pugh. Alexis then went to our fire department to see if they would be interested. There were really three reasons why we decided to work with the fire department. We have partnered with them on various programs before and their director is very receptive to adding innovative programming and is a big animal lover. We had a great relationship already there.”

Pet ownership is on the rise in the U.S. with 57 percent of all Americans owning at least one pet. Approximately 38 percent of households owned at least one dog while 25 percent owned at least one cat.

Between 11 and 16 percent of dogs and 12 and 18 percent of cats will go missing at least once every five years. Missing dogs are more likely to be recovered than missing cats, largely because dogs are more likely to be microchipped or wear a license, personalized ID tag, or rabies tag than cats.

Alexis Pugh, director of MAS, said grants helped finance the purchase of a microchip scanner for each of the nearly 60 departments across the city with a few extra in case one scanner breaks.

“Every fire station is equipped with a microchip scanner and instructions on how to use them,” she said. “They take the microchip scanner and run it between the pet’s shoulder blades. That is where the microchip is supposed to be, but sometimes they migrate. If they can’t find it in the first place they run it all over the body. If they find a microchip, they have information on how to research the microchip and find who the owner is. The fire department then puts the finder in touch with the owner.”

If there is no chip, Pugh said the department can then instruct the finder on how to proceed with either finding the animal’s owner themselves or how to surrender it to the shelter as a lost pet.

“They will not be keeping any pets at the fire station,” she said. “The finder doesn’t leave the pet there. If there is no microchip or no owner we are aware of, the fire station will give the finder information on how to surrender the pet during our shelter’s surrender hours.”

Pemberton said there are several reasons why MAS decided to partner with the Memphis Fire Department on the project.

“Fire stations are the most prolifically located throughout the city,” she said. “We have 57 fire stations spread throughout the city of Memphis, and pretty much one fire station in every neighborhood. When we talk about the convenience of someone finding a lost pet and needing a place to scan that place for a microchip, we have areas that don’t have a vet clinic nearby or don’t have a clinic within walking distance. A person who maybe doesn’t have transportation has an alternative.”

A fire station may also be a more convenient place than finding a veterinary office or shelter with a scanner.

“Firefighters are always there,” Pemberton said. Even if they are out on a fire call there is usually someone who is behind at the station. Instead of having to find an emergency clinic or vet clinic that is open after typical hours, this gives you the opportunity 24 hours to go to the fire station and get that pet scanned for a chip.”

Pugh said the further away from home an animal is when it is found, the less likely it will be returned to its owner.

“This program means we don’t lose any opportunities for a pet to be returned to an owner,” she said. “Rather than having to leave their individual neighborhood and come all the way to the shelter, the pet can be returned closer to home. Sometimes a pet owner lives across the city from the shelter and doesn’t have transportation to get here. They might be able to take a bus here, but they can’t take their pet on the bus home. The further a pet is from home, the less likely that a pet is going to be reclaimed. Having this happening in the neighborhood will result in more pets returned.”

The program also helps the shelter toward its goals.

“Ultimately, one of the things we are always looking at is how we can increase our live release rate, particularly for large breed adult dogs,” Pugh said. “We have eliminated euthanasia for small bred dogs, puppies, and cats, but large breed adult dogs are still our shelter’s biggest challenge. This isn’t just about adopting and rescuing but increasing our return-to-owner rate. That is critical to our success and the number of lives saved. If we can find ways to get pets home more quickly to their owners rather than having them take up space in the shelter, that’s a win for everyone. It means more space in our kennels for the pets that truly need them."

Pemberton said the program also increases the level of service provided to local citizens.

“This improves the service that we provide to citizens,” she said. “Before this program, not everyone in the city of Memphis had the same opportunity to get their pet scanned for a microchip or have their pet returned to them. This provides that equity for people who may have more geographical challenges.”

For other cities interested in implementing a similar program, Pugh recommends doing training with the fire department or any other department interested in participating on the front end to ensure they know how to operate the scanners and what resources finders might need otherwise.

“The shelter itself should help with the training and implementation,” she said. “The shelter should write the standard operating procedure for how to scan a pet for a microchip and provided them with graphics that show them how to. Give the department fliers and resources to give finders about intake hours at the shelter and what to do with a pet if you want to hold on to it while you are looking for the owner. This provides a sort of mini-community pet resource center. Putting these plans in place on the front end helps set the program up for success.”

Maddies Fund is a family foundation created in 1994 by Dave and Cheryl Duffield. Since its inception, the foundation has awarded more than $225.7 million in grants toward increased community lifesaving, shelter management leadership, shelter medicine education, and foster care. Learn more at