Leadership plays pivotal role for Abilene Animal Services and other communities working to change the status quo for pets


Early last Friday morning, as the sunrise lit up the sky with pink and blue hues, a small transport plane took off from Abilene, Texas, carrying 77 homeless dogs and cats in search of loving homes of their own.

Thanks to an incredible collaboration among Abilene Animal Services, Dog Is My Co-Pilot, Petco Foundation, American Pets Alive!, several animal rescue groups, shelter staff members and volunteers, pets whose lives were once at risk as they sat in an overcrowded shelter are now on their way to places where the demand is high for adoptable animals just like them. It was a beautiful morning marked by compassion and teamwork. But as inspirational as mornings like that are, the long-term goal for the city of Abilene, and so many other Texas communities, is to make pet transport flights like this less and less necessary.

As one of the states most in need of lifesaving help for pets in shelters, Texas is a common site for similar transport operations, which move homeless pets out of overcrowded shelters where they are dying unnecessarily to northern states where they’re in high demand. Best Friends has coordinated dozens of similar transports in Texas over the last several years. I’ve often been one of those people carefully loading cats and dogs into carriers in the wee hours of the morning. But the fact is that these transports can often feel like putting a Band-Aid on a much bigger issue. Why are large, populous states like Texas and California facing an endless tide of dogs and cats pouring into their shelters? And how can we fix that?

In 2018, Abilene Animal Services was saving only 55% of the dogs and cats coming through its doors and ranked 27th on the list of shelters nationwide most in need of help. But the shelter staff and city manager wanted something better for pets and people in their community, and they were committed to turning things around. Last month, they ushered in a big change through a new city contract to partner with Best Friends and get the leadership support they need. And let me tell you, city council meetings might make for seemingly dry entertainment compared to Apple TV or Netflix, but meetings like this one are where the most profound moments of change take place in cities just like the one you live in.

Through the recently approved contract, Best Friends’ Mike Bricker will exit his role as interim director at Palm Valley Animal Society in Edinburg, Texas, and head 470 miles north to take the helm temporarily at Abilene Animal Services. For animal shelters where pets are entering in the greatest numbers, expert leadership is typically the biggest need. Most of these shelters, while often fortunate to have an amazing and devoted operations and animal care team, are usually looking to hire an executive director to help better support and empower those staff members and chart a new course. However, because so much of that burden to change things from the ground up falls on that one person, shelters usually end up with a “revolving door” leadership model rather than the long-term, consistent one they need.

This is why I love Best Friends’ shelter embed program. We start with leadership. By embedding an experienced leader in the executive director role temporarily, we’re able to help lay the foundation for a more permanent leader to transition in and be already set up to succeed.

Over the last few years, thanks to a grant from Maddie’s Fund®, our shelter embed program has done that at two other Texas shelters in need of help: Palm Valley Animal Society and Harlingen Humane Society. Today, those shelters are setting monthly lifesaving records once thought unattainable; developing rich, productive relationships with the communities they serve; and setting the bar for what animal sheltering in Texas can and should be. Mike Bricker just left Palm Valley Animal Society, and Donna Casamento has already hit the ground running as the organization’s new executive director.

Ultimately, we need to find ways to empower our communities to work with local shelters to hire effective leaders and save more pets on a much larger scale. Thanks to a passionate and determined staff and a committed city manager and deputy city manager in Robert Hanna and Mindy Patterson respectively, the city of Abilene has made caring for at-risk pets a priority.

In 2018, when Brent Toellner, Best Friends’ senior director of national programs, first visited Abilene Animal Services, one glaring need was to reduce dramatically the massive number of animals coming into the shelter. Abilene, a city of around 150,000 people, was bringing in upwards of 9,000 animals a year, which is wildly disproportionate compared to cities with similar population size. Anybody within driving distance of the shelter, whether they lived in Abilene or not, was permitted to surrender their pet for a $10 fee. Abilene has probably been unknowingly covering the costs for rehoming and, in many cases, killing other cities’ unwanted pets. Shelter staff and community members are looking forward to changing that situation.

During the initial weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Abilene Animal Services, like so many other shelters around the country, was given the opportunity to put limitations on when and why animals are surrendered to the shelter. It was a trial run with managing shelter admissions, which has become a proven lifesaving approach nationwide, and one they’ll continue with as they move forward.

Like so many other public agencies, animal shelters provide services to the community. Implementing policies like effective guidelines for managing animal admissions and providing support and resources that help keep pets with their families are at the heart of that community service.

Before that plane full of 77 of our four-legged friends took off last week, Mike Bricker and Jacqueline Hernandez, Abilene Animal Services’ director of operations, were among the helping hands who loaded the plane and waved goodbye. Knowing the two of them, my guess is, as they watched the plane take off, their own wheels were already turning, working on answering the question: What can we do to change things for the better right here in this community so that loading planes with pets and sending them to other states to find homes is no longer necessary?

Now, let me toss that same question to you: What can you do in your community to change things for the better for pets and the people who love them?

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society