The Game of Thrones, animal welfare style


The mayor of L.A. was desperate to clean up animal services. He couldn't keep a general manager for more than 18 months. It was the source of intense constituent outcry and nationally it was considered the absolute worst, most dysfunctional system for animals in America. Wait, no, the politics of animal welfare in L.A. was considered worse than the worst of the worst. It was the nuttiest, craziest, most toxic community in America. It had turned into a ridiculous circus show on public display. It was a bit like the animal welfare version of Game of Thrones.

Death threats, throngs of people picketing outside of personal general managers’ homes, slashed tires, public vilification: These were all things that happened to the turnstile of six general managers leading Los Angeles Animal Services in just 10 years. The mayor's office was on a recruiting tour and his aide told us they tried to recruit the most prominent personalities in animal welfare and the no-kill movement at the time. No way. This was too big of a challenge. It was too big of a risk. This was a career killer. No one wanted to touch it with a 10-foot pole.

In the midst of despair, the improbable and the ridiculous, we put it all on the line. We saw beyond all of that to “the possible.” This was a golden opportunity to go big or go home. It was the opportunity to show the world that if no-kill could be achieved in L.A., it absolutely could happen anywhere.

Enter Best Friends putting our stake in the ground for NKLA.

NKLA van with a German shepherd graphic on its side

We set out on this remarkable journey with our primary partner — Brenda Barnette, the newly minted general manager of Los Angeles Animal Services — and a group of local organizations that would become the backbone of the NKLA initiative: Downtown Dog Rescue, Karma Rescue, Stray Cat Alliance, Found Animals Foundation, Kitten Rescue and FixNation.

But skepticism was high, and critics were abundant. Los Angeles is too big, too contentious, too many poor, too … well, you fill in the blank! I remember those first coalition meetings with some amusement and considerable affection. The animal welfare community in Los Angeles had a long history of inter-organizational quarrels and a bad habit of gnawing on its own leg.

Gathering a group of seasoned skeptics around a table with a plan to all work and play well together as we ascended to the heights of no-kill was, umm, interesting. It was like we were suddenly in the middle of the “Show Me” state convention! In fairness, there had been a number of false starts on no-kill plans floated by other individuals and organizations. So, with some folks looking at their watches, others looking at their shoes and others doing their best not to scowl, we proceeded to lay out a plan based on our prior success in Utah.

It was not an easy sell, but we closed the deal and the folks sitting around that table became unlikely friends and allies.

Here's our track record so far. Let’s start with some numbers: 

  • In terms of pure lifesaving since launching NKLA, Best Friends (not including the coalition numbers) has saved 37,013 Los Angeles animals.
  • In 2011, the year before the launch of NKLA, the combined save rate for dogs and cats entering Los Angeles city shelters was 57 percent. As of December 31, 2018 (our finish line to achieve NKLA), it was 89.7 percent. 
  • In 2011, the save rate for dogs entering those shelters was 71 percent. For the second year in a row, dogs are above the 90 percent no-kill threshold, finishing 2018 at 93.4 percent. 
  • In 2011, the save rate for cats entering L.A. city shelters was a painful 36 percent. Today, the kitten save rate is 88.24 percent, up from 82.27 percent in 2017. Adult cats saw a save rate increase to 83.6 percent, up from 77.99 percent in 2017.

I hope you’ll take a moment to pause and reflect on these numbers, because they’re both exciting and frustrating. Frustrating because we are so close we can taste it! The campaign is falling just shy of achieving the combined goal for cats and dogs of saving at least 90 percent of all animals that enter the six L.A. city shelters. While we are just shy of the finish line by .3 percent, I am also very excited about how our passionate, tenacious, heroic Los Angeles staff and the NKLA Coalition have changed the plight of shelter animals FOREVER.

Cat face graphic on back of NKLA van

Our biggest hurdle continues to be the injunction prohibiting the city of Los Angeles from using the Spay/Neuter Trust Fund to alter neighborhood cats and from supporting trap-neuter-return (TNR) programs for community cats, while blocking any type of third-party return-to-field program for community cats. Such programs have been among the primary strategies implemented to reduce shelter killing and have proven to be a critical component for achieving no-kill in other cities. Los Angeles is the only community in the country that is so close to no-kill without having the ability to run TNR or community cat programs. It's like we've been executing our strategy with one arm tied behind our back, which gives me even greater pride in our tremendous staff.

Today, we will be rolling out our communication strategy and informing the media, but I wanted you all to have a heads-up first. On behalf of the animals of Los Angeles, from the bottom of my heart, I am thrilled to be working with each and every one of you and have all the confidence in the world that we will achieve our goal in the coming year.

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