Eyes on 2025: Changes coming to Best Friends

By Julie Castle

The only constant is change. A Greek philosopher said this however many moons ago, and today, especially for those of us in animal welfare, we’re still saying it to ourselves and one another. And rightly so. Change is growth. Change is progress. Without change, life can’t be sustained. So, it’s no surprise that this is a tenet for our lifesaving work and field. We live and breathe by it, and so do the animals we’re working to save.

Through our incredible growth and successes over the past 35 years, we’ve had the opportunity to see, in depth, when lifesaving modalities work and when they don’t work, and when new perspectives may lead to new opportunities. We’ve seen this play out through the normal operation of “brick and mortar” shelters, through many different forms of programming and partnerships, and through coalitions with both private and municipal partners. We’ve seen lifesaving through disaster relief operations, economic booms and busts, and now through a global pandemic. And over the past few years, we’ve been looking at this through the lens of ending the killing of dogs and cats in our nation’s shelters by 2025. As a national organization working with more than 3,100 local network partners, we understand the power of combining national best practices with local needs.

We are making changes not because many of the programs and protocols currently in place aren’t working. Just the opposite. The clear message has been that some programs work in some areas and others in other areas, and we need to find the best infrastructure to get the right programming in the right places, and to have that programming supported as broadly as possible.

In looking toward the future, we know that lifesaving is bigger than any one building, or at least it needs to be if we’re going to save more animals. Lifesaving belongs in the community, in the hands of community members like you who love animals and care about what happens to them.  

Transports, community cat programs, fostering and shelter diversion programs all take place in, and require the support of, local communities to be effective. And programs like these will become all the more effective when more of the community becomes involved.

Our most impactful programs, along with those of many of our lifesaving partners around the country, are the ones that reach beyond the shelter walls and into the communities they serve. And we mean all communities. Not just the ones our field has felt more comfortable speaking and catering to over the years, but all communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic, interestingly, has offered us a proof-of-concept for the community-supported sheltering model that we have been moving toward. While all communities need and deserve a centralized hub for essential services and programs for pets and people, they don’t really need that centralized hub to be made up of endless rows of kennels and cages just begging to be filled.

In that spirit, Best Friends is excited to be embracing big change yet again and transitioning our physical lifesaving locations to more flexible, powerful hubs anchored by community members, local infrastructure, and regional and state coalitions. Here are some of the ways we’re pivoting to meet needs and maximize lifesaving.

We’re blowing the figurative doors off NKLA and taking the coalition model beyond the city’s borders.

Los Angeles, like most populous areas, has a great lifesaving infrastructure — in the form of many people and groups wanting to step up for the animals — so bringing them all together in 2011 as a coalition with a shared no-kill goal and focus has proven to be incredibly effective. Our NKLA Coalition has increased the save rate for animals in Los Angeles from 57.7% to 87.9% to close the end of 2019, and Los Angeles has been no-kill for dogs for about three years. The NKLA Coalition remains and we are committed to Los Angeles.

We are expanding on that success to support other communities as well and to go even bigger with innovative cat programming. To help us do that, the Best Friends Lifesaving Center in Mission Hills (which currently operates as a large combination pet adoption center, spay/neuter clinic and kitten care facility) will be transformed into a major support hub for people fostering pets and a pet resource center for all community members and any shelter and rescue group partners. The NKLA Pet Adoption Center in West L.A. will become a Best Friends Lifesaving Center, too. The pet care and adoption support currently provided there in partnership with NKLA Coalition members will be broadened beyond the city of L.A.

In Texas, we’re scaling up proven programs rather than sketching more shelter blueprints.

In the months and years following our emergency response to Hurricane Harvey, a vibrant partnership blossomed between Best Friends and the incredible network of lifesaving organizations in Harris County, Texas. Texas is second only to California in lifesaving need for pets. But when we started teaming up with likeminded folks down there, the state was first on that list, and making plans to build a state-of-the-art lifesaving center in Houston made sense.

However, while we were making those plans, we rolled out a series of strategic programs, such as embedding staff at key shelters and implementing large-scale foster, transport and community cat programs in critical areas of the state, and again we realized something. It was the communities in those areas and the incredible shelters and organizations serving them  that were driving the lifesaving. We’re taking that lesson to heart and, instead of moving forward with erecting our own big, expensive center, we’re going all-in on the community-supported lifesaving infrastructure that already exists there and that has already led to major progress in this populous state.

We’re combining forces in New York and Atlanta to create a lifesaving corridor along the East Coast.

Foster and transport programs have been the name of the game at Best Friends’ lifesaving centers in New York City and Atlanta since their inception. Atlanta has proven to be the ideal hub for shuttling homeless pets from four of the states most in need of lifesaving help (Georgia, Louisiana, Florida and North Carolina) to rescue partners in the Northeast, where those pets can find homes more easily. So, we’re taking what has made this coastal corridor such a dynamic, collaborative pathway and scaling it up.

Best Friends’ work in Atlanta will transition out of the physical building it occupied before COVID-19, and officially go all virtual. Lifesaving staff there will pivot permanently to a nimble, remote workforce supporting work in lifesaving hot spots throughout the East Coast. Meanwhile, our tiny but mighty lifesaving center in SoHo will continue to support shelter and rescue partners throughout New York and the tri-state area while scaling up its role as our Northeast foster and transport hub.

We’re reimagining lifesaving design in Northwest Arkansas.

The unique opportunity to build a true pet resource center in an area lacking even an old-school shelter was a no-brainer before the pandemic. Now, it’s even more critical. The design of our center planned for Northwest Arkansas is revolutionary in that it doesn’t include tons of kennels or cages intended to hold pets long-term. Instead, it’s designed entirely with community needs and local program support in mind. Think rich, lifetime resource for pets and their people, not a shelter for pets who lost their homes because that resource wasn’t there in the first place. Think support and networking hub for a collective of local lifesaving groups, not an isolated building or shelter working on its own. This center will be the first of its kind and a model for other communities nationwide.

In Utah, we’re going to keep doing what we’ve always done: continue to support a flexible, collaborative proving grounds for no-kill.

We expect to see Utah achieve no-kill statewide by the end of this year. So, we’re making sure we continue to maintain the work that got us this far. Similar to our center in New York, Best Friends’ lifesaving center in Salt Lake City has always been a small but mighty force supporting the communities and shelter partners around it. Meanwhile, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary will continue to serve as the heart of our organization, a model for compassionate care for animals, particularly those with special needs, and a proving ground for innovation in lifesaving where we can provide more customized support for dogs with behavioral challenges.

Flexible. Scalable. Sustainable. Community-supported. Programs and practices driven by lifesaving activity and networks — not rigid, permanent buildings. Grassroots advocates and regional coalitions working together — not strapped, overwhelmed shelters going it alone. A powerful community-minded presence — not a brick-and-mortar footprint. These are our goals. This is how we help both pets and people. This is our road map to achieving no-kill for cats and dogs nationwide by 2025, and then continuing to support and save lives well beyond.

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society