David Cook: A tail of two cities

David Cook: A tail of two cities

May 1st, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

This morning, the sheriff's office takes over control of the Murray County Animal Shelter in Chatsworth, Ga. This news is not necessarily Cruella De Vil bad, but sure isn't St. Francis good.

Saying goodbye is Pauline Davis, the shelter director who worked about eight days a week to find homes for dogs and cats. Folks say that under her watch, the shelter kill rate was minuscule, thinner than a mouse whisker.

So why she's leaving (give the real reason, not the official version), and how on God's green earth the already-busy Murray County police officers will be able to maintain such mercy at the shelter is a story that needs telling.

But not today.

Today, I'd rather talk about the Cleveland Animal Shelter, not that far up the road from Chatsworth, and how its transformation should be made into a book read near and far.

Chapter One: St. Gravelle.

One of the first things Betti Gravelle did when she moved from Etowah, Tenn., to Cleveland, years ago, was to visit the old animal shelter.

"I walked into a hellhole," she said. "It was an old cement brick building out by the dump. Animals were everywhere."

Gravelle, with her Great Dane conscience, went to work. Living off Krystal kids' meals and extra cabbage from friends' gardens, Gravelle saved and saved until she was able to buy a used building (hers was the only Ebay bid) and have it transported to a (donated) lot in Cleveland.

She turned it into the Dixie Day Spay: a nonprofit guarded by several cats and a big dog named Henry and held together by prayers, generosity and donated Sheetrock. Since 2009, its veterinarians have performed more than 20,000 spay/neuter surgeries -- she charges less than a tank of unleaded -- on area dogs and cats.

Think that's Disney-feel-good? Then she met Beth Foster.

Chapter Two: No means yes.

At one point, the Cleveland Animal Shelter was euthanizing 98 percent of its cats and 70 percent of its dogs. Foster, who has this contagious mix of gently fierce activism, knew that had to change.

"I had to do something," she said.

She eats lunch with some friends at Jenkins, the popular Cleveland cafe, where they create a group -- Cleveland for a No Kill City -- and cook up a great formula: They would take pictures of shelter animals, post them to Facebook and then build a network.

Today, they have a 24-hour phone hotline, volunteers from Seattle to Germany and nearly 7,000 Facebook followers. They did it all while hearing one very long "No!" from Cleveland authorities, most of whom proved to be about as flexible as the Berlin Wall.

"We screamed and we yelled and demanded they do things different," she said. "None of that made a difference."

Foster had been attending Justice School, a summer workshop hosted by Chattanooga Organized for Action focusing on how to create the world as it should be rather than the world as it is. So, with a blend of punk rock creativity, Foster did what any Do-It-Yourself visionary would.

"We built the alternative," she said.

January 2012? The shelter euthanized more than 200 animals.

January 2013? Only 13 shelter animals killed.

Chapter Three: Gene Smith's goodness.

Gene Smith, director of the Cleveland shelter, could be angry. Bitter. Weaker men would be.

Once, Smith opened his office door to Foster and about 40 other women who came to demand he change his shelter ways. It's hard to be on the receiving end of such organized protest.

But Smith, thankfully, didn't see it that way; instead he opened up to their suggestions. Now, Smith, Foster and Gravelle are allies and friends.

"To be honest, I love it," he said recently, putting down his lunch break turkey sandwich. "I go home and tell my wife it's incredible what they can do."

Smith said the current euthanasia rate is around 5 percent.

"He is amazing," Foster said. "He fights for this as hard as we do."

The Cleveland story can be exported and retold, serving as the example for no-kill counties across the South.

"Animal rights issues are the next big social justice movement," Foster said. "We want to see Tennessee be a leader."

Chatsworth as well.