A Small Shelter on the Brink of Bigger Things

August 18, 2022

On her one-hour commute (each way, each day) Melissa, the executive director of the SPCA Of Bradley County – TN has a lot of time to think about ways to improve the situation at the shelter. Her sunny personality, quick wit, and willingness to tackle even the toughest challenge make her the perfect leader for this small, busy shelter.

Melissa, along with Ashley, the volunteer and foster director, met when both were working at a large shelter in Georgia, but about year ago, after learning about the need in Bradley County, they decided to jump in and make a difference, despite the drive, the long hours, and what I can only imagine is not a lot of money.

It was exciting the hear how Melissa, along with her enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff are turning things for the county shelter Like so many small open-intake shelters there is a tough history to overcome. And they have their work cut out for them in the campaign to change public opinion. Evidence of their progress can be seen in the banner hanging along the front wall of the office/cat building.

The shelter board began a capital campaign for a new shelter last fall and have already raised 800 thousand of the 1.5 million they need. They are currently looking for land in the county on which to build. The county shelter currently resides inside the city of Cleveland, TN, which is cause for much confusion as Cleveland has a city shelter that is well-known as a kill-shelter. Luckily there are local rescues and an organization called Cleveland for No-Kill who work to help the city shelter get dogs out.

As an open-intake shelter, the SPCA takes in animals from the public. And while they don’t have a contract for animal control, the SPCA is who law enforcement calls in to handle animal control situations.

The animals at the SPCA get out mostly through adoptions, but Melissa is hopeful they can build a network of rescue partners to get more dogs out faster. At the time of our visit, she had a few dogs who had been there for months.

I asked Melissa what happens when they reach capacity (which they did just a few weeks before our visit). She shook her head and said, “Then we have to close to intake, which is hard. There’s nowhere to send them.”

She tries to tell people looking to surrender animals, to reach out to Cleveland No-Kill when that happens and hopes for the best. Just recently when they were full-up, they dropped their adoption fees, and managed to move a few dogs out with the help of Atlanta Humane.

The SPCA is a hodge podge of a trailer (for office and cats), a metal building to house the dog kennels, and many makeshift outdoor kennels. The dogs are moved outside for the morning (or most of the day if the weather cooperates but most don’t have roofs), so the staff can thoroughly clean. There are no drains in the building, which makes cleaning the building with the dogs inside very difficult. Melissa has gotten one grant that will partially fund pouring a new floor with drainage but needs to raise the rest of the money for the project.

Walking through the buildings and visiting the dogs in the outdoor, muddy kennels, it was clear they deserve a new building. It will enable Melissa and her staff to do even more. She’s already instituting lots of good changes like updating and improving recordkeeping, applying for (and receiving!) grants, and doing dog enrichment.

The shelter gets a weekly donation of food from a local pet food distributor and a volunteer drives a trailer over to pick up the donations. That week’s load was pretty light, so we loaded them up with food we had with us, plus busy bones, treats, cap star, and heavy-duty Max&Neo slip leads and collars.

I checked in with Melissa recently to see what their current needs are bedding/towels, paper towels, cat scratchers for the kennels, contractor trash bags, laundry detergent, pens, clipboards, and post-its.

The shelter would love to find more fosters and volunteers. Melissa has many ideas, likely marinating in her mind on that long drive to and from the shelter. The frustration, she explains, is that when she arrives at the shelter there are too many immediate and unexpected fires to put out, and time to work on new projects quickly disappears.

The day we were there, they were short-staffed. Ashley was cleaning the cat building, Melissa was working on cleaning the dog building, and Tiffany, their executive assistant was working alongside Shirley, an animal caretaker to clean and feed.

The needs of the animals are endless. The shelter handles about 1500 animals a year and receives only $200,000 per year from the county which doesn’t come close to covering the shelter costs. So fundraising is always ongoing.

As we stood in the parking lot unloading our donations and posing for a picture for the shelter’s Facebook page, a car pulled in. A woman got out wanting to surrender a dog she’d had only three days and said she couldn’t handle. She’s a county resident, so Melissa asked her to come back when the shelter was open in a few hours. The woman shook her head and said, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

I wondered where the dog came from, what the real story was, and why she couldn’t wait another hour or two. These are the situations that Melissa untangles on a daily basis. Lucky for Bradley County, she is smart and passionate and committed to improving the situation for the animals (and people) in her care. The message on her shelter t-shirt seems to underline her attitude: Be Kind to Every Kind.

I’m excited for the future of the SPCA of Bradley County and inspired by the leadership of Melissa. We need more people like her working in the rural southern shelters. No doubt, with an army of Melissa’s we could turn the tide.

If you’d like to Bradley County SPCA, consider shopping their Amazon wishlist or Chewy Wishlist, or donate to the shelter, which is struggling for donations at the moment despite doing so well with their capital campaign.

Until each one has a home,


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The mission of Who Will Let the Dogs Out (we call it Waldo for short) is to raise awareness and resources for homeless dogs and the heroes who fight for them. Find links to everything we do here.

You can learn more about what is happening in our southern shelters and rescues in the book, One Hundred Dogs & Counting: One Woman, Ten Thousand Miles, and a Journey Into the Heart of Shelters and Rescues (Pegasus Books, 2020). It’s the story of a challenging foster dog who inspired me to travel south to find out where all the dogs were coming from. It tells the story of how Who Will Let the Dogs Out began. Find it anywhere books are sold. A portion of the proceeds of every book sold go to help unwanted animals in the south.

Amber’s Halfway Home is our short documentary film produced in partnership with Farnival Films. It follows the work of a remarkable woman and one day of rescue in western Tennessee. Selected for sixteen film festivals (to date), it’s won eight awards (including Best Short Doc, Best Soundtrack, Best of Fest, and Audience Choice), and was nominated for an Emmy! It is a beautiful, heartbreaking, inspiring story we hope will compel viewers to work for change. Please watch it and share it far and wide.

For more information on any of our projects, to talk about rescue in your neck of the woods, or become a Waldo volunteer, please email whowillletthedogsout@gmail.com or carasueachterberg@gmail.com.

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