Girl power: Women’s historic role in animal welfare


If you have ever attended a Best Friends National Conference, or any national animal welfare conference, you can’t miss the fact that they are dominated by women and if you’ve had the good fortune to address one of these gatherings from the main stage, as I have, you know that you are looking out at a sea of mostly female faces. The downside, of course, is that the lines for the women’s restrooms are just plain cruel!

Seriously, though, women power our movement and what better day than today, International Women’s Day, to acknowledge the role that women have played throughout the history of animal welfare. 

Not surprisingly, the majority of Best Friends’ staff are women, working in areas that include maintenance, IT, data science, construction management, digital design and outreach, legislative advocacy and all parts of animal care. They are designing lifesaving apps and doing some of the most advanced data-mapping work in any sector, business or nonprofit, bar none. All of this on behalf of the cause to end the killing in shelters in this country.

From the earliest days of the humane movement in England, women were at the forefront. In 1860, the world-famous Battersea Home for Dogs was founded by Mary Tealby, while the first organizations to oppose the abuse of animals in experiments were also begun by English women.

A year after the ASPCA was created by Henry Bergh in 1866, a group of determined women, led by Caroline Earle White, was the driving force behind the founding of the Pennsylvania SPCA. But neither Caroline nor her female colleagues were allowed to have any official position within that organization or on its board — because they were women. That was the norm: Despite establishing, funding and volunteering for animal organizations, women were barred from leadership roles. 

Forget the glass ceiling — in those days, it was a very unsubtle brick wall!

Caroline wasted no time bypassing the old-boys club of the day by leading her team in founding the Women’s Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, also known as the Women’s Humane Society. While the ASPCA in New York would continue to focus on the abuses of the carriage horse trade for another 30 years, the WSPCA extended their compassionate concern to other species and opened the first animal shelter in the country that included care for stray household dogs. She was a pioneer in advocating against dogfighting and cockfighting, as well as other blood sports such as animal baiting. Oh, and she went on to found the American Anti-Vivisection Society.

In 1954, two of the four founders of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) were women, and in 1980 Ingrid Newkirk was one of two founders of the animal rights organization PETA. In January of this year, Kitty Block was named president and CEO of HSUS.

Best Friends has always had a strong women’s presence within our leadership. Many of our co-founders were women and our first president, co-founder Faith Maloney, is still a recognized leader and mentor in our movement. Likewise, our board of directors is an even 50/50 female/male split.

I am proud and honored to be a part of this awesome heritage in my role as CEO of Best Friends Animal Society, which is committed to leading the way to ending the killing in shelters nationwide by 2025. It is a position for which the Best Friends board began prepping me more than three years before I took office in April 2018. I am also proud of the fact that my senior leadership team consists of seven women, myself included, and two men.

Best Friends is not alone in this trend: Susanne Kogut leads Petco Foundation, the team of mostly women leaders at Maddie’s Fund is lead by Mary Smith, and the interim CEO at PetSmart Charities is Deborah Turcott. Strong women all.

So, on this International Women’s Day, I want to give a nod of respect to the women pioneers of our movement and a shout-out to all the women who continue to push the envelope on how animals should be treated in our society. As we continue to strive to create a better world through kindness to animals, women will continue to lead, as we have done since the inception, alongside the compassionate men who share this vision.

Together, we will Save Them All.

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