In My Own Words – A Vision For The Future


Eight weeks ago, I was accorded the extraordinary privilege and honor of being appointed to the position of CEO by the Best Friends Animal Society Board of Directors. It was the culmination of four years of preparation following the board’s decision to select me in their succession planning.

A previous blog by our board chair, Francis Battista, gives some background on my 22-year career with Best Friends up to this point, but this entry is about the future.

These past weeks have been something of a fantastic whirlwind. I’ve been traveling and speaking to universities, members, media, vet school students and national animal welfare conference goers. I also addressed our All-Staff Week gathering at the Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, which brings together Best Friends staff from around the country for an annual face-to-face recalibration and celebration of our shared passion for Best Friends’ mission.

My big takeaway from these first weeks on the job is that we have insanely talented and impassioned staff, volunteers, members and supporters, which leaves us poised to bring about true societal change for the benefit of homeless pets.

The question most frequently asked of me is what is my vision for the future of Best Friends and for the no-kill movement that we lead, so I’d like to take this opportunity to share that broader vision with you. Before I get to that vision, I think it’s important to frame up some of the distinguishing attributes of Best Friends Animal Society, ones that uniquely position us to create lasting societal change.

The first is our culture, which is really all of you — an army of completely dedicated members, supporters, volunteers and, of course, our staff, who are all 100 percent aligned and committed to achieving the same goal. It’s truly a force of nature and I’m totally blown away by all of you every single day.

The second is that many of the founders of the organization, whose vision we are pursuing, are still active within Best Friends and are still as creative, inspirational, risk-taking and generous with their wisdom as they have always been. They are true pioneers and geniuses, and it’s a tremendous honor to still have them around.

The third is the fact that our Best Friends headquarters is not in some office building in a big metropolitan area, but instead exists within the sheer red-rock canyon walls located at Angel Canyon in the national park country of southern Utah. Our sanctuary is the inspirational heart of Best Friends and the living, breathing example of a vision for the future of animal welfare in which every life has intrinsic value.

The fourth is a mission that is achievable within our lifetime. There are many, many charities out there, but few have the solution or the answer to their cause. We are not awaiting the discovery of a cure to end the killing in shelters. We have all the tools in hand to save lives and get to no-kill. It’s simply a matter of mustering the resources and the public will, and executing a well-thought-out strategy.

When all of these elements collide, it’s clear that we have the extremely rare opportunity to bring about true social change. We have the opportunity to right 150 years of so many wrongs — the killing of millions and millions of pets in America’s shelters over that time frame. We have the golden opportunity to solve the problem and be witness to the end of the travesty of killing our family pets in publicly funded “shelters” as a matter of public policy.

In order to appreciate my vision for Best Friends, which not surprisingly is the fulfillment of the founders’ vision, it is important to understand the historic arc of animal control and animal welfare in this country.

Over 150 years ago, as American cities became more crowded, disease outbreaks were inevitable, including rabies. The panic response was to kill stray dogs, who were feared to be disease carriers, in the streets. This effort became more organized and cities across the country began to pay a bounty to round up stray dogs for disposal by a variety of cruel means. Those who fell into this line of work were essentially thugs. In New York, dogs were lowered in steel crates in groups of about 50 into the East River and drowned — sometimes as many as 700 a day. In St. Louis, they were clubbed to death. Pick your poison.

Public opposition to this blatant cruelty, and the fact that “dogcatchers” in pursuit of a bounty payment were known to snatch dogs from the arms of matrons out for a stroll, resulted in a gentrification of this grisly work.

Enter animal welfare.

The first such group was the Women’s Pennsylvania SPCA, founded in 1869. They at least treated the animals with respect and made some effort to return strays to owners, but killing was very much a part of the program, except that now it was done behind closed doors rather than via public executions, and they used gas rather than drowning or clubbing. Shelter after shelter began to pop up across the country, and gassing was followed by decompression chambers, which were followed in the 1960s and 1970s by lethal injection.

Killing was still the norm, but at some point it came to be called euthanasia, maybe because it was now being done reluctantly by nice people with good intentions. It was still killing.

Since the practice began in the 1800s, no one involved in animal control or in traditional animal welfare questioned the assumption that homeless pets had to be killed. Advances in the field were limited to kinder, gentler ways to perform the task — from drowning to gas, gas to decompression, decompression to lethal injection. No one apparently asked the now obvious questions: Why are we doing this? How can we satisfy public health and safety concerns without killing helpless creatures?

That changed in the early 1980s when new voices emerged — led by, among a few others, the founders of Best Friends Animal Society. Suddenly, the status quo was being challenged and no-kill, as a movement, was born. The founders and others, such as San Francisco SPCA CEO Rich Avanzino and writer and philosopher Ed Duvin, promoted their belief that the lives of homeless pets have intrinsic value and that killing healthy or treatable animals is, quite simply, wrong.

At that time, more than 17 million dogs and cats were being killed per year in our nation’s shelters, but a challenge to the lethal status quo had been launched.

Today, thanks to the efforts of the no-kill movement, that number is down to about 1.5 million healthy and treatable homeless pets, which is an amazing accomplishment. However, we are still facing the fact that more than 4,100 beautiful dogs and cats are still dying every day. We cannot declare victory until that number is effectively zero.

In 2016, I was honored to put a stake in the ground on behalf of Best Friends Animal Society to end this pointless waste of life by 2025. Together, with like-minded leaders from organizations large and small across every corner of the United States, we launched a campaign to join forces and mobilize together to put an end to the systemic killing that is rooted in barbaric rabies control programs from the 1800s.

My overarching vision and agenda for Best Friends Animal Society is to end the killing of dogs and cats in America’s shelters by 2025. This includes changing the way we regard the lives of our animal companions through kindness, compassion and respect, but also ushering in a reimagined sheltering system of community care for homeless pets that is based on doing whatever it takes to save a life.

Together, we will Save Them All.

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