Animal nonprofits like Gateway Pet Guardians exemplify why moving beyond rescue to comprehensive, community-based sheltering saves more pets

By Julie Castle

Those of us focused on solving the specific problem of dogs and cats being killed in shelters rarely characterize our work using the word “rescue” because it’s not all that relevant to most of what we do. Our work is about saving lives, supporting communities and reframing the role of animal shelters in that space.

Yet for many animal lovers around the country, the familiar notion of “rescuing” cats and dogs persists, and I can certainly understand why. It’s steeped in altruism and compassion, often attached to catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina, and directly tied to all things heroic. But the work that Best Friends and thousands of incredible lifesaving partners around the country engage in today isn’t anchored by the idea of rescue, but rather by something far more complex.

The no-kill movement understands that the key to saving lives and helping pets is setting up shelters to be facilitators and hubs for providing essential resources and support networks for pets that aren’t dependent on simply taking an animal to the shelter to find a new home. Many things can help ensure pets’ quality of life and keep them from entering shelters for rehoming. Examples include community pet food pantries, accessible and affordable spay/neuter and veterinary support, behavior and training help, neonatal kitten diversion programs, more comprehensive counseling for people with pets and even simple things like fencing repairs.

Focusing on this community-minded lifesaving model is what led to plans for the Best Friends Pet Resource Center in Northwest Arkansas. The emphasis is on creating a place defined by providing services and support for pets and their families over the course of their lives together. Ensuring that people have everything they need to provide a happy, healthy future for the animals in their lives — whether they are dogs and cats in homes or neighborhood community cats — is the name of the game, not “rescue.”

In this country, countless amazing nonprofit animal organizations, many of which might even self-identify as “rescue groups,” have built their lifesaving models on providing critical support and resources to people with pets in the communities they serve. One exquisite example is the work of Gateway Pet Guardians in East St. Louis, an area where essential resources like veterinary clinics, groomers, grocery stores and pet supply stores are lacking.

The group’s new pet resource center (opening soon) is designed to serve and be accessible to the nearly 65,000 residents living there. It represents the community-centered, community-driven model of lifesaving needed to keep pets with their families and achieve no-kill nationwide by 2025.

Current discussions emphasizing the social services model of sheltering are also a critical part of this focus on community-based lifesaving, as are advocacy and legislative efforts focused on issues like puppy mills, breed-discriminatory housing policies and counterproductive cat ordinances that could prevent the need for “rescuing” animals in the first place.

While they might not have that same romantic ring that “rescue” does, pet resource centers and community-based lifesaving will be the trending topics in our animal-loving movement this year, next year and for the foreseeable future. No-kill nationwide by 2025, here we come!

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society