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When a government animal shelter believes that euthanizing dogs and cats is an easier option than finding homes for them; and local elected officials are unwilling to work to improve the heartbreaking situation, what can concerned residents do to make a difference?


The volunteers behind Cleveland for a No Kill City proved this by revolutionizing the Cleveland Animal Shelter, changing it from a place where animals go to die to a place where animals are adopted by families that promise to love them for life.

Before Cleveland for a No Kill City came together to create a network for adopting the shelter's unclaimed dogs and cats, the Cleveland Animal Shelter, which serves as the shelter for all of Bradley County, killed up to 98 percent of cats and over 70 percent of dogs that entered the facility. Today, without changing a single law or spending a single tax dollar, Cleveland for a No Kill City has effectively turned the Cleveland Animal Shelter into a no-kill facility.

As a result of the group's work, the only animals put down are those with painful terminal illnesses or dogs so dangerous they can't be rehabilitated. In January 2012, for example, the shelter euthanized more than 200 animals. In January of this year, only 13 animals were put down. In recent months, the shelter's euthanasia rate has dipped below 3 percent, an incredible success given that a shelter qualifies as "no-kill" with a euthanasia rate of less than 10 percent.

How has the group been so successful? It hasn't been due to assistance from the city government, which has often been more of hindrance than a help.

Last year, several Bradley County-area animal lovers who were outraged by the shockingly high kill rate of the Cleveland Animal Shelter set a goal of transforming the shelter into a no-kill shelter within five years.

The group, which includes the organizer Beth Foster and Betti Gravelle -- who has prevented hundreds of unwanted animals through Dixie Day Spay, her nonprofit, extraordinarily low cost spay/neuter clinic -- began lobbying the Cleveland City Council to enact a no-kill policy in the city shelter, but were unsuccessful. When they then asked for permission to take photos of the shelter's dogs and cats in order to post them on adoption websites and try to find homes for the animals, they were told "no."

Undeterred, Foster visited the shelter, covertly snapped cellphone pictures of a handful of adoptable animals and posted them to Facebook and Twitter. Within hours, the pets were adopted.

After that show of success, shelter officials reversed their position and allowed Cleveland for a No Kill City members to begin taking photos of new dogs and cats. Those photos, which are now taken by two volunteers a day, six days a week, are posted on the organization's Facebook page, which has an astounding 6,750 followers. Cleveland for a No Kill City even has a 24-hour-a-day phone line, manned by people as far away as Seattle and New Hampshire, allowing people to begin the pet adoption process at any hour, day or night. As a result, dozens of dogs and cats find forever homes each week.

Still, problems with the city persist. Despite saving the lives of hundreds upon hundreds of animals and making the city's shelter a de facto no-kill zone, the Cleveland Police Department, which manages the shelter, charged one Cleveland for a No Kill City activist with harassment after she complained about the treatment of animals. The absurd charge was quickly abandoned after it became public. Other members have been threatened with similar charges for making public statements critical of animal control, according to Foster.

The organization's attempts to request public records related to the shelter and the harassment allegations were met with a $31,049 charge from the city -- a fee that might make a reasonable person wonder if the city is trying to hide certain records from public view.

Along the way, however, Cleveland for a No Kill City picked up one unexpected ally from city government. Gene Smith, the city's Director of Animal Control, has embraced the organization's no-kill push. The man responsible for overseeing a shelter that, as recently as last summer, killed nearly 80 percent of all animals that came through the door looks as if he had a weight lifted from his shoulders. That's understandable since his shelter is now a place of hope, rather than a place of despair.

"I'm still amazed at what they're doing," Smith said referring to Cleveland for a No Kill City. "I love it. They're doing a service for the animals, for the families [that adopt the pets] and for the city."

Cleveland for a No Kill City proves that you don't need government action to change things. Even though the city has yet to pass a no-kill law, these volunteers have made the Cleveland Animal Shelter a no-kill facility. And rather than taking five years, it took barely five months.

What's next for Foster, Gravelle and the 100 or so other members of Cleveland for a No Kill City? They are excited to share their revolutionary volunteer-driven methods with other cities and counties across the state and throughout our region. Since they've made all of Bradley County a no-kill area for adoptable pets, they figure, why not the rest of the Southeast?

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