Best Friends live from Coachella!


Yes! The Best Friends community cat program at Coachella Valley Animal Campus has been rocking California’s Inland Empire for two years now and the results are nothing short of spectacular.

It all started when Friends of Palm Springs Animal Shelter reached out to Liz Finch, Best Friends’ national director of community cat programs (CCPs), about bringing that operation to their shelter. As it turned out, they already had such an advanced trap-neuter-return (TNR) program going that they didn’t meet the needs gap to qualify for our three-year Best Friends–run CCP, so the Palm Springs folks kindly connected us with Riverside County Department of Animal Services (RCDAS), since their Coachella Valley Animal Campus (CVAC) was only a few miles away. 

Like many municipal agencies, RCDAS was skeptical of CCPs and TNR just generally. But, hey, how can you turn down a fully funded multi-year community cat spay/neuter operation, including staff, marketing, vehicles and medical care, all compliments of Best Friends and a year one supporting grant from Maddie’s Fund? 

And how could we pass up an opportunity to make an impact in a region of the country with the second highest number of animals killed in shelters every year?

Rob Miller, the director of RCDAS, is very data-driven (love that!) and he felt that CVAC would be a good testing ground for a CCP since the service area is an island in the middle of the Mohave Desert. That means cats are less likely to move in from outside areas and therefore they could get some “good data.” Rob and his team knew that they needed to do something for their community cat population, but they weren’t sure what.

Some facts about cats in shelters: In California, 75 percent of the animals killed in shelters are cats and a 2013 study revealed that only 2 percent of stray cats entering shelters are reclaimed by their people. California is not unique in this regard.

Best Friends’ CCPs are modeled on the first-ever program of this type, created by our chief mission officer, Holly Sizemore, for West Valley City, Utah, in 2004 as part of the No More Homeless Pets in Utah campaign. CCPs work like this: Our staff is based in the target shelter and they manage what amounts to a shelter-based TNR program. 

There are two primary ways cats get into our program and avoid the dismal prospects of shelter cats. The first is when a stray cat is brought into the shelter by a member of the public or by an animal control officer and the second is when the shelter receives a nuisance call about community cats. Strays are spayed or neutered, fully vaccinated, treated for any minor health problems, ear-tipped for identification and returned to the locations where they were found.

For nuisance calls, our team is dispatched to the caller’s address and informs the resident about the plan to fix and vaccinate the offending cats and return them to their niche in the community. In both cases, the Best Friends team sets traps for other community cats who may be in the area, and they get the same “medi-spa” treatment and are returned to their outdoor homes. In all cases, residents are communicated with and relevant permissions are acquired. A critical component of the CCP that makes the program unique is that the stray who comes into the shelter is considered a sentinel who can lead us back to his neighborhood, where there is a high probability that additional cats are living who need to be fixed. This allows us to make an immediate impact on the colony size and shows how important it is to the shelter to proactively address public concerns.

Destiny Haney, our community cat program manager, hired Carol Reyes Blanco, CCP coordinator, and Samantha Rhodes, CCP assistant, to be embedded within the shelter and run the program, as well as train staff and volunteers. Armed with two vans and about 250 humane cat traps, this dynamic duo and their team of volunteers served the needs of more than 7,600 community cats from March 2017 through the end of 2018. And they are targeting another 3,500 cats before the program is handed over to RCDAS in March 2020. The capper here is this eye-popping statistic: The save rate for cats went from 35.2 percent in 2016 to 69.7 percent for 2018, while shelter intake for cats dropped 43 percent compared to 2016.*

What’s really cool is that in communities across the country where Best Friends staff have been embedded in animal control shelters (San Antonio, Albuquerque, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Columbus, Georgia, and Pima County, Arizona), the good results have continued in the year following the three-year Best Friends CCP, when the program is turned over to the local agency. In that fourth year, save rates for those shelters have been near or above save rates achieved in the highest year of the Best Friends–sponsored program. These programs have saved tens of thousands of lives over the years.

As elsewhere, hardened and previously skeptical animal control officers in these communities have been transformed into believers and are so happy not to have killing animals as the top line of their job description.

Frank Corvino, our primary operational contact in Riverside County, recently sent this note to Destiny: “We’ve run into a problem we never had before because of the CCP and other programs. Our CVAC shelter has 49 full bottles of Fatal Plus (a lethal injection chemical), which haven’t been used and are at the end of their expiration date. How great is that problem to have?!”

Just an FYI here: Each bottle of Fatal Plus is enough to kill a few hundred cats. The supply of Fatal Plus was purchased about two years ago in anticipation of a lethal use that was avoided, thanks to the Best Friends CCP and other progressive programs. Not surprisingly, Riverside County wants to extend the program to other shelters in their system.

Best Friends is committed to leading the country to no-kill by 2025. Our CCPs like the one in Riverside County are a critical piece of our strategy.

Together, we will Save Them All.

*We updated this stat from the original that was posted due to the organizational decision to calculate owner requested euthanasia in the save rate.

Julie Castle with Sunny the dog
Julie Castle
Best Friends Animal Society