Guy Bilyeu was the face of "Paws in the Park" for its first 11 years, but Sunday's installment was about him.
The late executive director of the Humane Educational Society was the beacon of hope for countless animals in the area, advocating adoption and foster homes at a time when euthanasia was Chattanooga's standard.
After he died in a September bicycle accident, dogs, their owners and loyal animal advocates gathered at the Baylor School with tennis balls, shaved ice, rawhide bones and smiles to ensure his legacy sticks with the program.
"Before he came, the city was just euthanasia, euthanasia, euthanasia," said Jeanine Cloyd, a volunteer who contributes to the HES rescue and foster programs.
When Bilyeu started, Chattanooga's shelters were forced to euthanize 90 percent of its dogs because overpopulation. His "Getting to Zero" campaign worked to create awareness about adoption and foster-adopting benefits around town.
Right now, only 30 percent of local dogs face that grim possibility, Cloyd says.
"He changed Chattanooga," Cloyd said. "Right now, we have empty kennels. We've never experienced that, ever."
In addition to the plethora of pups owners brought to the event, volunteers in blue T-shirts walked dogs available for adoption. Two residents approached the HES about wanting to take home a dog that same day.
By the end of the year, they would be two of the estimated 1,000 families the HES connects with an at-risk animal.
"It's a celebration of people and their pets," interim executive director Tai Federico said. "It's a chance for the animal-loving community to get together and celebrate what Guy stood for."
The HES exists as a "hybrid organization," providing animal protective services to Hamilton County. The $30,000 raised Sunday will go toward additional costs like its adoption programs and improvements to local shelters.
"It started as a little something, but now it's our largest fundraising event," Federico said.
Individual families were finding their own ways to celebrate their canine companions by sharing stories: The dog that showed up on family property unexpectedly. The pup that stuck around after a loss in the family. The boxer with a special trick.
Preston Dean of "Georgia Disc Dogs" showcased his dogs' love for Frisbee tricks. He takes the hot-dogging so seriously that he must wear a scuba vest in order to avoid injury -- he has the chest scars to prove it.
"I got bit in the arm so badly I needed stitches," Dean said. "They don't mean to. They never mean to. They're just going for the Frisbee."
The club-music-fueled performance saw Dean's dogs jump over him, crawl under him and leap for Frisbees like they were in the Olympics. Occasionally, he would get nipped, but the 100 dog-lovers in attendance -- and the dogs themselves -- barked on in approval.
"I'm just used to the pain of dog bites," he said. "I've been doing it for so long, I wouldn't change it for nothing."
Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592.
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