Susan Ruelle loves animals so much she volunteered at the Gwinnett County Animal Shelter and helped organize an independent Facebook page showcasing pets available there for adoption.
But last month Gwinnett officials said Ruelle couldn't work at the shelter while maintaining the Facebook page, citing a policy against employee use of social media for county business. She gave up the volunteer work to continue her Facebook campaign, but she believes the county's skittishness about social media shows a reluctance to embrace change that has hindered the adoption of animals.
"There are people with all kinds of experience who want to help," Ruelle said. "But they're just not welcome. It's a shame."
A Gwinnett citizen task force has recommended the shelter embrace both Facebook and volunteers to increase animal adoptions and decrease the number of dogs and cats it kills.
County Administrator Glenn Stephens said Gwinnett's restrictive social media policy is designed to ensure sensitive information about taxpayers or government operations isn't disclosed, which could result in litigation.
"If we get sued because somebody puts something on Facebook, it comes with a cost," Stephens said.
Nonetheless, he said the county already is reviewing its policy and will review the task force recommendations.
Other local shelters -- including those in DeKalb and Cobb counties -- have embraced social media and other marketing techniques.
Capt. Jeff Patellis of Cobb County Animal Control said he doubts he can completely eliminate euthanasia -- the killing of animals that aren't adopted or that pose a danger to people or other animals. But he thinks more aggressive marketing can save the lives of many dogs and cats.
"The whole mission is to reduce the euthanasia rate to the bare minimum," Patellis said.
That's a message some animal lovers hope will catch on in Gwinnett. They say the county doesn't do enough to save the lives of stray animals and pets dropped off at the shelter.
The Lawrenceville shelter euthanized 4,128 animals and adopted out 1,856 last year. Some residents say the Gwinnett County Police Department, which oversees animal control, hasn't made adoptions a priority.
"The shelter has to be run by somebody who knows how to run an animal shelter," said Carla Brown, a State Court judge and co-founder of Canine Pet Rescue. "That's not a policeman."
Gwinnett police officials declined to comment on animal control issues, citing an ongoing investigation of shelter personnel. They have not disclosed the reason for the investigation.
Last year the County Commission created an animal task force to study the issue. A chief goal: Find ways to increase adoptions and decrease euthanasia without spending more money.
Last week the task force unveiled its recommendations. Among other things, it said Gwinnett should market animals using Facebook, the county cable television channel and other media. It also said Gwinnett should hold regular public adoption events and seek more help from volunteers.
Task force members said such efforts would cost the county nothing or could be paid for by donations.
"It's kind of a no-brainer, but it's never been done," task force member Elizabeth Burgner said of the marketing recommendations.
Other counties have embraced new animal marketing techniques.
Cobb's shelter has its own Facebook page, holds adoption events and has helped establish homeless pet clubs in local schools. The clubs pick animals and use their own social networks to find homes for them.
"That's thousands and thousands of people that we wouldn't reach," Patellis said.
DeKalb County Animal Services and Enforcement also has its own Facebook page and uses websites such as Petfinder to market animals. The department has changed some of its procedures to discourage euthanasia, Director Kathy Mooneyham said.
When owners bring their pets to the DeKalb shelter, employees don't automatically accept them. Instead, they provide information on where owners can get free food and other services and a list of animal rescue groups that will try to find a new home for the pet.
Employees are also blunt in telling owners their pets are likely to be euthanized if they insist on leaving them at the shelter.
Mooneyham said some owners get angry. But many are grateful to learn about resources that can help them keep their pets.
Over the past two years the number of animals DeKalb killed dropped 30 percent to 3,871. The number of adoptions rose 4 percent to 806 and the number of animals taken by rescue groups rose 79 percent to 2,027.
Mooneyham said the biggest change has been the mind-set of employees. "We're not just out there to pick up animals and bring them in and kill them," she said.
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