The 2018 Best Friends National Conference: “They laughed at us”

By Julie Castle

The 2018 Best Friends National Conference that took place in Los Angeles last week (July 19-21) was one of our best yet and, in many ways, marked a quantum leap for Best Friends and for the no-kill movement.

The conference has been and remains a transformative experience, both in its rejuvenating energy and critical distribution of information and expertise. However, the 2018 conference marked something new: For the first time, there was a clear sense of purpose and coordination with regard to our national strategy to achieve no-kill by 2025.

This purpose and coordination were reflected in the presence of animal control agency leaders from across the country who were attending their first no-kill-themed conference not as skeptical observers, but as engaged and enthusiastic partners in our drive to end the killing in U.S. shelters. The old “us vs. them” divide is a thing of the past. Everyone wants the same outcome — to not only end the killing in shelters but to create a future in which no one’s job description includes killing healthy and treatable shelter animals.

At the 2016 national conference in Salt Lake City, I had the privilege of planting Best Friends’ stake in the ground to lead the country to no-kill by 2025. This challenge, as I said in the 2016 closing address, would be our movement’s “moon shot,” invoking President Kennedy’s famous speech that challenged the country to achieve greatness.

Planting that stake for no-kill nationwide by 2025 was a bold statement by Best Friends. Too bold, some said; too ambitious, too audacious, said others. But how can we not be bold in striving to achieve our mission when more than 4,100 dogs and cats are killed in our nation’s shelters every day?

Well, getting to no-kill by 2025 may be all that — bold, ambitious and audacious — but coming out of our 2018 conference in Los Angeles, I can say with confidence that this is happening, folks! People are stepping up across the country and raising their hands to do more to help shelter pets in their community and their region, in collaboration with Best Friends and other no-kill leaders.

During my closing address on Saturday, I asked several municipal shelter operators to stand and be applauded by the crowd for the work they are doing to increase lifesaving and turn around programs that have historically had low shelter save rates. In past years, such an accolade would likely have gone to a nonprofit shelter partner or rescue coalition that was driving the change, but increasingly it is the city or county agency that is opening its doors and taking the lead by inviting Best Friends or other no-kill leaders to help them retool their operations.

The significance of the gradual shift to ownership of no-kill policies and programs by municipal systems (even in settings where no-kill language still makes some in leadership break out in hives) is huge. We don’t care what they call it, as long as they are steering their ship in the direction of achieving no-kill by 2025, and that’s right where they are headed.

One of the most inspiring moments of the conference was the finale of the opening plenary session, which featured a panel of NKLA (No-Kill Los Angeles) Steering Committee members moderated by Best Friends co-founder Francis Battista.

The NKLA initiative, which was modeled on our very successful statewide coalition that has led Utah to the brink of no-kill, was launched in April 2012 with the city of Los Angeles at a 57.7 percent save rate. Now, through June of this year, the save rate for Los Angeles Animal Services is 89.8 percent.

Sharing the experience of that journey was certainly inspiring, but the “inspirometer” really began to peak when California State Assembly member Miguel Santiago was welcomed to the stage and announced the passage of a statewide no-kill resolution, ACR 153, which he authored. That makes California the second state (New Jersey was the first) to pass a no-kill resolution. Such resolutions are not binding, but they clearly lay out the legislature’s priorities and help advance no-kill conversations at the local level.

However, the meter pinned in the red when representatives from the more than 140 NKLA Coalition members were invited to take the stage, and they crowded the floor at the front of the standing-room-only 1,100-seat theater. The palpable power of that group of local leaders sent chills through the audience.

Later in the conference, I was approached by a staff member of the Burbank Animal Shelter. He confided that when he first saw the NKLA billboards that covered the city following the campaign launch in 2012, he laughed to himself that the idea of NKLA — a no-kill Los Angeles — was ridiculous, a fantasy. At the conference, he had the good grace to say, “I was wrong. You guys did the impossible.”

We knew it wasn’t impossible. Just a good strategy, great partners and a powerful cause.

The no-kill movement has matured, and it is translating local advocacy and isolated model-community achievements into coordinated national action. I truly believe that we would not be where we are today if Best Friends had not planted a stake in the ground two years ago for no-kill by 2025. Then, there were just over 300 no-kill communities that we could identify. Today, the U.S. has more than 2,000 no-kill communities, and more are lining up to qualify for that distinction every day.

Once again, I had the opportunity to deliver the conference’s closing address — this occasion being my first as CEO of Best Friends Animal Society. My experience of the conference up to that point, and the inspiring individuals and situations that I had just encountered, helped to guide my words.

I reminded the assembly of the long journey that our movement has taken since the brutal practices of organized animal control in the mid-1800s. The birth of the no-kill movement in the early 1980s has led to where we stand today — on the brink of genuine societal change with regard to how our animal companions are valued and treated in our communities and in our country.

We are on the last leg of a marathon that will require our all to complete. Remarkable achievements by remarkable individuals have carried us to within sight of the finish, but it will require each of us to be remarkable in our own way to extend that lifesaving to every state, every county and every community in the country to achieve no-kill by 2025.

I am confident that we will do it. I am confident that, together, we will Save Them All.

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society