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Brenda Barnette to retire as general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services

By Julie Castle

When Brenda Barnette was hired in 2010 as general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services (LAAS) by Antonio Villaraigosa, who was then the mayor of L.A., I was leading Best Friends’ community programs and services division. Animal welfare in the city had been a rolling food fight for 10 years, and Brenda was the seventh person to sit in that chair since 2001. 

The revolving door at LAAS, driven more by fighting among factions within the passionate animal community than by actual performance, meant that no department policies could get traction and the general manager, whoever that happened to be, had to spend more time dodging bullets than saving animals. One had a nervous breakdown and learned of dismissal from the job from a hospital bed, another’s apartment building had smoke bombs set off in it, one was a time-serving fill-in from some other city department, one was pilloried by staff and eventually fired. Every one of them was protested aggressively. Masked marchers picketed the mayor’s home and spray-painted the front fence in red paint. To say the situation was volatile is an understatement.

It was probably the least appealing shelter leadership position in the country. It was offered to several big names in the movement with very influential voices, but the job had a ridiculously high potential to be a total career and reputation killer. Those notable voices blinked and backed away. But Brenda stepped up to the plate when others turned tail and I, for one, will be forever grateful.

At the time, I had relocated to Los Angeles to undergo treatment for cancer at UCLA, so I was spending a lot of time in the city. Despite the dysfunction, or maybe because of it, I knew in my gut that Los Angeles, with all of its resources and passion for the animals, could be a game changer for the no-kill movement. We had a plan that we had executed in Utah, but we lacked a partner at the center of things in L.A. city government.

As it happened, when Brenda stepped into the general manager role, her former boss and one of my most esteemed mentors, Rich Avanzino, a founding father of the no-kill movement, had counseled Brenda to get in touch with Best Friends when she asked his advice on fulfilling L.A.’s official no-kill aspirations.

Years earlier, Brenda had served under Rich Avanzino at the San Francisco SPCA, when San Francisco was the first and only no-kill city in the country. She knew what “good” looked like and she knew, as I did, that getting LAAS from a save rate of below 60% to one that was over the no-kill benchmark of 90% was not going to be accomplished with a declaration of good intentions or a wave of the hand. 

We set to work almost immediately, and it wasn’t long before we began collaborating with other leaders in the local animal community to get Los Angeles on track to being a no-kill city. Within a couple of months, we held the first planning session for what would become the NKLA Coalition — and the rest is history.

Of all Brenda’s many talents, perhaps her greatest is political savvy, a critical skill to have in the highly political environment of L.A. city government. This ability enabled her to actually keep her job, so that the lifesaving programs and partnerships needed to transform the city could function and be built upon year over year. It’s how the city could arrive at a save rate of 90% in 2020.

Brenda is tough and super smart. She had to be in order to survive when so many others had failed. It has been an honor to work with her and get to know her. I can’t imagine anyone else jumping into the maelstrom that was LAAS and emerging a winner 10 years later. 

Of course, she didn’t do it alone and she couldn’t have done it without the NKLA steering committee, the NKLA Coalition and the partnership with Best Friends. The NKLA Coalition now includes more than 150 animal welfare groups, but had Brenda not held the center from a position inside the administration, first under Mayor Villaraigosa and then under Mayor Garcetti, the whole lifesaving framework of NKLA could easily have crumbled.

Thank you, Brenda, for a career in service to the animals and for your pivotal role in transforming L.A. into NKLA. I believe we have not seen or heard the last from this remarkable woman.

Together, we will Save Them All.

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Julie Castle with dog
Julie Castle
CEO
Best Friends Animal Society
Tags: Los Angeles, Nkla