2025: Let’s do this!

By Francis Battista

The bottom line of the 2017 Best Friends National Conference, which wrapped last Sunday with a visit to the Alley Cat Allies Boardwalk Cats Project, was a model community cat program.*

This year’s conference picked up where the 2016 national conference left off, when Julie Castle planted a stake in the ground on behalf of Best Friends and the animals to lead the entire country to no-kill status by the year 2025. “This is our moon shot,” she declared. And indeed the entire 2017 conference was focused on the empowerment of organizations, large and small, all across the country to achieve that landmark goal.

With 1,500 enthusiastic participants, plus 175 Best Friends volunteers and 70 Best Friends presenters and support staff, the Jersey shore casino at Harrah’s in Atlantic City was transformed by an army of animal people into a celebration for a cause. It was a joy to behold.

The sessions covered need-to-know topics ranging from digital strategies, legislative action, high-volume adoption promotions and brand-building to stress management for caregivers, effective community cat programs and the importance of data, data, data. The breadth and depth of these sessions are powerful and compelling. Knowledge is freely shared and networking is encouraged and facilitated throughout the event.

The three general sessions that brought the crowd together in the concert venue provided the tent poles for the conference.

At Thursday’s opening session, Gregory Castle, Best Friends co-founder and CEO, highlighted the no-kill movement’s accomplishments to date with a focus on the amazing work of the Mayor’s Alliance for New York City’s Animals, which has led the Big Apple to five straight months of a 90 percent or above shelter save rate. Best Friends’ Northeast region director, Elizabeth Jensen, interviewed Jane Hoffman, the Mayor’s Alliance founder, president and driving force, on her groundbreaking work and introduced some of the leading coalition partner organizations that are making New York a safer place for homeless pets every day.

Gregory also interviewed no-kill leaders Makena Yarbrough of Lynchburg Humane Society, LifeLine Animal Project’s Rebecca Guinn, Mary Ippoliti Smith of Maddie’s Fund and Sara Pizano of Target Zero. Each of these leaders has challenged convention and demonstrated the viability of no-kill, open-admission sheltering in communities large and small around the country.

Friday’s general session featured Best Friends’ Jon Dunn as game show host and interviewer. Jon hosted a no-kill version of Family Feud, pitting East Coast experts against their West Coast colleagues. “Survey says …” the East coasters won but we’ll give the West a pass on the grounds of jet lag.

Then Jon got serious with a layout of Best Friends’ plan to mobilize the nation, with the help of a panel comprising the directors of Best Friends’ eight geographic regions of no-kill action for the country: Judah Battista, chief regional programs officer; José Ocaño, Pacific region director; Arlyn Bradshaw, mountain west region director; Tawny Hammond, Midwest region director; Brent Toellner, Great Plains and south central regions director; Elizabeth Jensen, Northeast region director; and Marc Peralta, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions director.

Jon and the panel outlined the no-kill accomplishments and challenges region by region. Best Friends’ strategy and commitment is to provide resources and mentoring at the local level across the country in support of local coalition-building to work with local shelters in moving the entire country to no-kill by 2025. It was an inspiring and eye-opening discussion. Anyone who wants information about how to access this team’s support for local efforts can email 2025@BestFriends.org.

The closing general session was led off by surprise guest Gloria Gaynor singing her worldwide hit “I Will Survive” to a standing crowd of all ages lip synching and dancing to her famous anthem.

It was a hard act to follow, but Julie Castle, Best Friends chief communications, development and marketing officer, picked the crowd up right where Gloria left off. In the closing address, Julie tracked her journey in the no-kill movement from her first experience of a municipal shelter in rural Utah through her discovery of Best Friends in the mid-1990s and her mentorship over the years by the founders. She pulled back the curtain on the sad history of animal control in this country and the radical change that was introduced by people like Rich Avanzino in San Francisco and the Best Friends founders. She talked about how change has been driven all along the way by regular folks who refused to accept the status quo and who each planted a stake for no-kill in their own communities.

The call to action during Julie’s keynote address was simple and clear: Our movement is the quintessential grassroots movement because every shelter in which animals are dying is answerable to a local city council or county commission, and change must happen at a local level and be driven by local residents and organizations. Change comes down to local action by local groups led by regular folks who stand up and say, “It stops here. I am planting a stake in the ground to make this a no-kill community.”

* With the help of more than 20 volunteers, Alley Cat Allies currently cares for 16 community cat colonies along the Atlantic City boardwalk. Since the project’s inception in 2000, the overall population of cats there has declined 77 percent, and no kittens have been born since 2004.

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society