Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Gwinnett County Police Sgt. Chip Moore gets a dog out of its pen for play time with a sponsor club. Moore is the new director of the animal shelter in Lawrenceville.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- One Thursday last March, Sgt. Chip Moore got a call.
Having served with the Gwinnett County Police Department since 1995, Moore was no stranger to transition -- during his career he'd spent time as a radio operator and pretty much everything else, from the burglary and gang units to narcotics and robbery-homicide. At that moment, he was working morning watch (third shift) at the eastside precinct.
This call, though, was quite different.
"Never in a million years had I ever thought about it," Moore said. "They just moved me over. I have no idea (why)."
Moore -- a downright jolly father of two -- was going to the police-run Gwinnett County Animal Shelter, and the timing likely wasn't coincidence.
While the news didn't go public until the spring, an internal investigation into allegations of a "culture of bigotry" at the shelter was launched early in 2012 -- it resulted in the retirement of manager Lt. Mary Lou Respess and the revelation of several unsavory details.
Respess, who had been the shelter's manager since 2007, was accused of allowing racist comments in the shelter to go unpunished, and also of making a few such comments herself. Employees interviewed during the probe described the shelter's overall atmosphere as "very negative."
Outside of the investigation, many volunteers also expressed concern about a general tension between themselves and shelter leadership. At the same time, some of the same volunteers and other members of the animal care community outspokenly supported the notion that it was time for someone other than Gwinnett County police to run the shelter.
"When I arrived, there was just an air of tension. Of course, there was a lot going on," Moore said recently. "But now as I've seen it, the staff is a lot more relaxed. You know the success of this place is because of the people that work here ... You see a lot of smiling, you hear a lot of laughing and that's the kind of place you want to work."
When Moore was first assigned to the shelter, he was placed over field operations and rewrote that division's policy, basically reworking its formal list of standard operating procedures. He then did the same for kennel operations. As Maj. Dan Bruno -- who had replaced Respess -- eased out of the role of shelter manager and into retirement, Moore eased in.
Though technically on an interim basis, Moore officially took over as lead dog in January. The difference, in many ways, has been huge.
"It's amazing," said Susan Ruelle, who volunteers her time running an unofficial Facebook page to help get Gwinnett's shelter animals adopted -- and had her fair share of friction with previous leadership.
"I feel like a giddy little school girl to think last year at this time where we were ... I truly feel like Gwinnett County has this amazing opportunity to set the standard for animal control in the nation. They've got the facility and now they've got the leadership."
Last year the Gwinnett County Animal Shelter saved more animals than it euthanized for the first time ever.
A news release in January painted that picture, but Moore said that thanks to an original spreadsheet error, the margin between euthanization and new life was even greater than originally reported. In all, 3,238 dogs and cats were killed at the Gwinnett County Animal Shelter in 2012, while 4,543 were "saved" -- a category that includes adoptions, reclamations and rescues.
Last July, highlighted by an "Adoption Explosion" event, marked Gwinnett's most ever adoptions for a single month. December topped that mark thanks to a few different promotions. The shelter set yet another new adoption record in January, even without the benefit of a special event.
A big part of all that is increased promotional efforts and, since December, the launching of a partnership with Homeless Pets Clubs.
Under that program, businesses, school groups, scout groups and pretty much anyone else that wants can sponsor a shelter animal for free -- their only job thereafter is to get that dog or cat adopted, whether it's via social media, old-fashioned fliers or water cooler talk. While that's happening, the shelter is committed to not euthanizing the animal.
Since its enactment, the program has already helped save a few dozen more animals. It now has about 30 participants.
"It's proven unbelievably successful," Moore said.
Success has become a running theme at the shelter, and Moore -- who's ended up taking home three dogs and two cats himself -- credits both his staff and volunteers with the turnaround.
Pretty much everyone else, though, credits Moore.
Susan Rutherford, the coordinator of Gwinnett's Homeless Pets program, also works with an Atlanta Weimaraner rescue group. She travels the state for the latter.
"(Gwinnett) is probably the best shelter, in my opinion, in the state," Rutherford said. "It's a wonderful shelter, and the people there are so nice. I see the people there, the attitudes and all, seem to have changed for the better."
Kenny Jackson is the shelter's lead volunteer.
"It's been a drastic change since (last year)," Jackson said. "The place is a lot cleaner, the animals are taken care of a lot better, there are a lot of activities going on to make sure that the animals are adopted."
"I could only speak to the volunteers," he added, "but we have a lot more volunteers now, and they're a lot happier to come in."
A Gwinnett County police spokesman said Thursday that Chief Charles Walters couldn't comment on Moore's performance specifically "because we are still vetting candidates for the management position," but didn't have any other details on that process.
It was unclear how many other candidates were being considered, if they were from inside the police force or elsewhere, and if there was a timeline for a decision.
Those that spend the most time at the shelter seem to think the department may already have its man.
"Sgt. Moore's such a humble man, he won't take credit for any of the changes that took place there," Ruelle said. "But honestly none of it would've happened if he hadn't had a total open mind ... He expects a lot out of the staff, but now they're willing to give it because they feel valued."