Nearly 15 years ago, while in Atlanta for a football game, Tallulah Trice noticed an injured dog staggering around Georgia Tech's downtown campus.
Trice, who at the time operated an animal rescue in north Georgia, brought the animal to a nearby shelter while others enjoyed themselves on fraternity row.
From that one act, she cemented a partnership with the Atlanta Humane Society that later became one of the first shelter-transport operations in the Southeast.
In a roundabout way, it also led her to the Beaufort County Animal Services, where in a year's time she has launched new initiatives and slashed the shelter's euthanasia rate.
Trice says the shelter's dedicated volunteer corps, strong partnerships with local rescue groups and support from county leaders have spurred the improvements.
That may be, but others believe Trice deserves credit for changing the shelter's culture to one in which prevention and animal health come first.
"Tallulah is a bundle of energy wrapped in a great love for animals," said County Councilman Rick Caporale, who started raising the alarm when the county shelter's kill rate approached 70 percent about three years ago.
Franny Gerthoffer, director of the Hilton Head Humane Association, says Trice is changing public perceptions about the county shelter. Once seen as a grim last stop for stray animals, she says that's no longer the case.
"People would say, 'I don't want to work with the county shelter. All they do is kill animals.' ... Well, Beaufort County doesn't just kill animals. That is the message we have to try and get across," Gerthoffer said.
A NEW APPROACH
Trice, 43, was hired as the county's shelter director in March 2012. Since then, she's championed trap-neuter-release programs for feral cats and the Beat the Heat program, which offers free or reduced-price spaying and neutering for cats and dogs through April. That effort, in which as many as 40 animals a week are treated, was possible through a $20,000 grant from Sheldon Animal Rescue.
A grant from the American Society for the Prevention Cruelty to Animals is paying for adoptable animals to be transported from the county shelter -- where adoptions are few -- to cities such as Atlanta and Richmond, where animals are in higher demand.
Trice used donations to open the Tabby House in Beaufort's Town Center to promote cat adoption, and the county also has hired the Hilton Head Humane Association to provide veterinary services and help with adoptions.
The net result is a sharp drop in euthanasia rates, even as the shelter has taken in more cats than before.
Between April 2011 and March 2012, 48 percent of dogs and 75 percent of cats that arrived at the shelter were put down. For the year ending March 2013, Trice's first year, just 22 percent of dogs and 44 percent of cats were euthanized.
Trice says those achievements would be impossible without scores of volunteers and the growing number of partnerships.
"Everyone is helping out in different areas," Trice says. "It's like a football team. Everyone plays a part."
Trice, who grew up in Lookout Mountain, Ga., always hoped to be a veterinarian. That hasn't happened, but she has spent most of her adult life working with animals.
In the mid-1990s, she founded a shelter near Chattanooga that transported animals from a high-kill shelter to no-kill centers like one run by the Atlanta Humane Society. Although the shelter ultimately closed, the group Trice founded, called the Hand Foundation, continued animal transports.
After moving to Bluffton in 2007 with her husband, Trice eventually continued her work with the Hand Foundation. She helped arrange transports from Lowcountry shelters to rescue organizations across the South and up the East Coast. Through these efforts, she solidified bonds with local rescue organizations.
While Trice is proud of the shelter's improvements over the past year, she says more work can be done -- especially with spay-neuter programs -- in the year ahead. She's also focusing on an making rabies vaccines more widely available to residents who can't afford them.
"I have known people that were passionate about their jobs, but Tallulah goes above and beyond," said Phil Foot, the county's public-safety director. "I have never seen someone that puts the amount of hours and personal sacrifice towards helping animals and their owners."
Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.