The Humane Educational Society of Chattanooga benefits from Bob Citrullo’s discipline and compassion.
The old brick buildings on Highland Park were not built to be a place to house homeless pets, but they have served in that capacity for many years now. They are the home of the Humane Educational Society, a nonprofit shelter for animals abandoned for any number of reasons. The numbers are staggering—but so is the effort to keep as many pets alive as possible. regardless of the limitations of time and money.
The HES has had a roller-coaster history in the city of Chattanooga, and was on the rise again when its beloved director, Guy Bilyeu, was killed suddenly in a bicycle accident last year. But faced with a radical disruption, the Society would benefit from a man whose entire life seems to have been leading to this place.
A 25-year veteran of the United States Army, Bob Citrullo is a restless soul. Even in the Army, he started out in the infantry, moved on to aviation—and finally got his nursing degree. Then, even before he retired from the Army, Cutrillo began working with animals. He was asked to serve on the board of directors of a shelter in Pennsylvania, where he was stationed at the time. In time spent with shelter pets and people responsible for them, Citrullo learned much about the human/companion animal relationship.
Once discharged, Citrullo got a job running a shelter in Northeast Georgia. When he arrived, 96 percent of the animals taken in were killed. For an animal lover like Citrullo, that was a hard statistic to swallow. Using what he had learned in Pennsylvania and some creative thinking of his own, he reduced the “kill ratio” to 32 percent.
Fast forward to Chattanooga. Citrullo returned to the South because he felt this is where he was needed most. In the Northeast, “Their laws and ordinances and their spay/neuter programs have been so successful for so many years,” Citrullo says, “that you would go into a shelter and there wasn’t even a puppy on the floor.”
While the kill ratio in Chattanooga was nowhere near that of the shelter in Georgia, Citrullo says only 70 percent of the pets at HES made it out alive when he arrived. “Now, last month we were 86.6 percent,” he says. Citrullo says the only animals that don’t have a chance are highly aggressive or terminally ill pets that just can’t be adopted out.
He’s instituted a progressive plan to get animals healthy and behaviorally stable so that they can leave and lead better lives. Pets arrive at the shelter one of three ways: Owner surrender, stray or apprehension by an animal control officer.
Once in the system, Citrullo says he goes the extra mile to ensure the animal is cared for medically, including vaccinations and even surgery, if needed. The cost is worth it. “When an animal comes in injured, we don’t just give up on it,” says Citrullo, “We treat heartworm animals here, we work on behaviors that can be modified and make them a good companion animal.
“I heard this when I started here: ‘Oh, it’s an HES dog, it’s going to have worms.’ I didn’t like that,” growls Citrullo. “It’s very simple to take care of, but we have to stay on top of it.”
In addition to the three ways in which animals arrive at HES, there are also three ways out: Euthanasia, adoption or transportation. Citrullo says that with spay/neuter programs so effective in the Northeast, there is actually a “pet desert” there. Now, HES animals are often transported to shelters there if they can’t find suitable adoptive families here. PetSmart Charities alone transported more than 300 pets during September.
As with any nonprofit, money is always a factor in how they do business. Forty percent of the Society’s million dollar-plus budget comes from a contract with Hamilton County for providing animal control services.
The other 60 percent comes from donations and volunteers. There are 23 paid staff members at HES. But there are upwards of 30 docent-level volunteers. indispensable by virtue of their expertise, and as many as 250 key volunteers who perform tasks such as walking the dogs and just spending time with the pets.
Citrullo wants to do as much as he can for the pets but admits budgeting is a concern. “I have to balance that out,” he says, “or raise money for [the higher level of care]. But lifesaving of an animal that would otherwise be put down, that, with intervention, would be fine...I say we do that.”