24,000+ animals saved, a tearful reunion with a dog and a “holy s#$%” moment for an animal control officer

By Julie Castle

What’s better than saving more than 9,000 cats and dogs in Texas and Florida, you might ask? How about saving more than 24,000? When the Maddie’s® Shelter Embed Project launched at Best Friends, we projected that we would be able to save around 8,000 dogs and cats in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and around 1,000 in Santa Rosa County in Florida by June 2021 when the grant period ended. But we were wrong.

So far, this strategic program has saved more than 24,000 pets across just three shelters: Santa Rosa County Animal Services in the Florida Panhandle and Humane Society of Harlingen and Palm Valley Animal Society in Texas, and we’ve still got eight months to go in the two-year grant period. Additionally, all three shelters (once some of the most overwhelmed and under-resourced in the country) have been meeting or exceeding the no-kill benchmark of a 90% save rate for much of the year. Of course, while big jaw-dropping numbers like these help us measure our progress toward achieving no-kill nationwide by 2025, it’s the smaller, specific moments along the way that tell the real lifesaving story.

For Santa Rosa County Animal Services, progress came in the form of turning potential conflict and crisis into genuine care for and connection with community members.

Can you say “community cat conflict mitigation” three times fast?

One essential piece of the no-kill puzzle for most shelters is providing animal control officers with expert training on how to de-escalate conflict and concern among residents about issues related to outdoor cats, and creating community buy-in for altering and returning cats to where they were found. For many officers, the real challenge to saving cats and fully embracing trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs is, understandably, believing that even the most vocal, angry opponents of these cat programs can be won over.

Earlier this year, Best Friends’ Scott Giacoppo and Nick Walton, both experienced animal protection officers themselves, spent some time training the animal control officers at Santa Rosa County Animal Services on how to negotiate even the toughest complaints about cats from people in the community. While there, they were met with the same skepticism that so many other officers around the country convey: The people in our community are different. It’ll never work here. You can’t convince people who are yelling and screaming about the cats to support fixing and returning them.

So, Scott drove out to a residence with one of Santa Rosa’s officers to model what he showed them in training. The house they visited was owned by an older woman who was having trouble with cats getting into her garden beds. And the woman’s son, who had been routinely driving out to his mom’s property to catch and remove the cats, was furious at the idea of their local shelter trapping and spaying or neutering the cats only to return them back near the house. After the shelter received multiple angry phone calls and in-person visits, every officer there was convinced that there was no way to change the son’s mind.

But after 15 to 20 minutes of Scott empathizing with the man’s frustration, listening to his concerns and then chatting with him about how the shelter’s program was going to help him solve the problem, this gentleman was no longer opposed to the idea of the cats being fixed and returned. He even walked around the property with Scott and helped him set up some humane cat deterrents around the garden. The positive result of Scott’s training was so stunning and profound that upon returning from the visit, the officer who rode along walked back into the training room and exclaimed, “Holy s#$%, it works!”

Those big “light bulb moments,” as colorful as they often are, are what make the Maddie’s® Shelter Embed Project so unique and so effective. Those moments when you can simultaneously change things for the better for the animals, for the community members and for the dedicated staff at the shelter are what define the no-kill movement.

15,000 Facebook likes later

The incredible staff at Santa Rosa welcomed a similar learning experience just a few weeks ago when they witnessed firsthand the power of choosing progressive animal sheltering practices over outdated punitive approaches. Inflexible, old-school models of sheltering rely on policies like charging “redemption fees” for people to reclaim lost or stray pets from the shelter; the fees are mistakenly believed to encourage more responsible pet ownership. In practice, however, those policies often keep pets and their people apart, punish community members who have fallen on hard times and prevent shelters from saving as many lives as possible.

Just last month, a woman came into the Santa Rosa shelter crying, desperate to get her dog back, worried she wouldn’t have the money to pay for it. Rather than keep a beloved pet in the shelter unnecessarily, Santa Rosa’s savvy team reunited the woman and her dog, provided them with some dog food and a neuter surgery voucher, and gave her an additional set of surgery vouchers to spay or neuter the kittens she was caring for at home. That’s how community-based lifesaving is done.

Jessica Gutmann, the Best Friends manager embedded in Santa Rosa County, posted the story on Facebook, and it resulted in an outpouring of support for both the shelter and the pet family involved, along with a mention on People.com.

There is so much to celebrate about these programs and so many different things that contribute to their cumulative lifesaving impact on individual communities and states. Additional organizations are benefiting from newly established embed programs, including shelters located in Abilene, Texas, and on the Big Island of Hawaii. But we’ll have more to say about those a little later.

For now, let’s give it up for the amazing team at Santa Rosa County Animal Services and their counterparts at Palm Valley Animal Society and Humane Society of Harlingen in Texas. They are the face of powerful, progressive lifesaving.

Thanks to Maddie for making this kind of major impact and support for animal shelters possible. #ThanksToMaddie

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society