No-kill 2025: Small town, big challenges


OK everyone, show of hands if you can point to Edinburg, Texas, on a blank map of the state. Yeah, I know Texas is a really big place and Edinburg is rather small, but don’t feel bad if you are not familiar with it. A lot of folks from Texas whom I’ve spoken with don’t know much about the town, if they’ve heard of it at all.

Edinburg is right next to McAllen, Texas, and it’s the county seat of Hidalgo County, which sits on the Rio Grande and the border with Mexico right down at the bottom of the map. OK, the geography quiz is over, and you can close Google Maps!

What makes Edinburg, a small city in south Texas, a vitally important community to Best Friends and the push to make the U.S. no-kill by 2025 is that it is home to the Palm Valley Animal Center (PVAC), a nonprofit that provides animal control services for most of Hidalgo County and 720,000 of its 860,000 residents. A shelter service area with approximately 720,000 people: How bad can that be?

Here’s some perspective. Compared to Los Angeles, which has a population of four million people and took in 44,800 animals in 2017, little PVAC took in 29,785 dogs and cats last year. If Los Angeles was dealing with the same per-capita shelter numbers as PVAC, they would have taken in more than 165,000 in 2017! L.A. has six city shelters to handle those 44,800 animals, while Palm Valley has one shelter. The 2017 save rate for PVAC was 33.7 percent, while L.A.’s save rate was about 88 percent last year. Sadly, PVAC accounts for more than 10 percent of the total number of shelter animals killed in all of Texas — the state with the highest number of animals killed in the entire country.

On the funding side of things, using L.A. again as a comparison, Palm Valley has a budget of $3 million compared to Los Angeles’ $23 million.

Hidalgo County is by no means a lost cause (quite the contrary, as you will see), but the situation there does highlight one of the facts of the no-kill 2025 campaign: Significant numbers of animals are being killed in shelters that are so dramatically under-resourced and over-burdened that they may as well be operating in the 1970s. A lot of targeted work needs to be done in places like Edinburg, and what’s required is more than online tutorials and good advice. They need makeovers from the ground up, on-site leadership and resources.

Last week, I visited PVAC to spend some time with our staff on the ground there and the amazing PVAC staff. The experience was eye-opening and inspiring. Here is what Best Friends is doing in south Texas: In spring 2017, while attending a conference, one of our regional directors, Brent Toellner, was introduced to the director of PVAC by Sue Cosby of the Petco Foundation. The director had started attending conferences because he knew that his shelter was going to need expertise and help from national no-kill organizations in order to improve.

In July 2017, Brent followed up on that initial handshake and visited PVAC to provide an assessment and, as expected, the shelter had many challenges. Filling in the “thumbnail” I gave above, PVAC provides sheltering services for 14 communities in Hidalgo County, and 33 percent of residents live below the poverty line. As noted, shelter intake is among the highest per capita in the U.S.

After the initial assessment, the shelter began making improvements — but at a fairly slow pace. PVAC finished 2017 with a 33.7 percent save rate (up from 23 percent the year before). It was clear that more help was needed, so the pace of support, engagement and collaboration with other agencies was accelerated. Here’s the timeline from there in brief:

February 2018

  • Brent Toellner leads the PVAC board of directors in a strategic planning session.
  • A team from Austin Pets Alive and the Austin-based Maddie’s Lifesaving Academy arrive to help create better sanitation protocols and better animal flow-through, to help keep animals healthy while they are at the shelter.

April 2018

  • Best Friends provides funding for an Austin Pets Alive staff member to serve as the shelter manager in a three-month bridge role.
  • Best Friends sends two of our staff members from our Los Angeles programs to Palm Valley as a part of our mentorship program, to help the adoption staff convert a larger percentage of their adoption traffic into actual adoptions.

May 2018

  • The board of PVAC votes to pursue a no-kill goal, which would have been unimaginable 12 months before. Since that change, the board has also reviewed other policies (such as an internal prohibition on community cat programs and a policy against adopting out pit bulls) and has updated those policies to reflect their new goal.

June 2018

  • Best Friends deploys a staff member, Mike Bricker, to serve as the director of lifesaving operations at PVAC for the next year. Michael previously served as director of operations for Camden County Animal Shelter in New Jersey.

July 2018

  • Best Friends deploys an additional staff member, Jay Garrett, to support Mike Bricker as shelter manager.

August 2018

  • PVAC and their Laura P. Andrews PAWS adoption center host their annual Clear the Shelters event on August 18. Best Friends sends nine additional staff to Palm Valley to support the event, help the PVAC staff streamline their adoption processes and help with animal handling and adoptions during the event. A total of 406 animals are adopted from the two facilities that day.

It’s hard to overemphasize the impact and importance of Best Friends deploying Mike and Jay to provide leadership for PVAC operations for a full year. They are both “get it done” kinds of people, inspiring leaders who have lifted the energy and aspirations of the entire Palm Valley team. Meeting them and their crew on their home turf was truly inspiring.

From January to June 2018, the live release rate at PVAC was 56 percent, and July’s results continued the trend of increased lifesaving — a trend that we anticipate will be sustained. Adoptions have more than doubled compared to last year’s numbers and transfers to other agencies (a mark of engagement and collaboration) are up by more than 50 percent over 2017.

In addition to the milestones outlined above, the Petco Foundation has been a huge asset to this success. Knowing Best Friends’ commitment to helping PVAC and knowing the budget challenges faced by the PVAC team, the Petco Foundation has pledged significant support to the shelter to help them implement some of the lifesaving programs that have been identified by Best Friends and our partners.

And enough cannot be said about the PVAC staff. They have been welcoming and eager for change, embracing new ideas and approaches with a spirit and enthusiasm that can’t be bought, arising only from their passion for the animals.

As we celebrate the success of the no-kill movement and the rapid increase in the number of no-kill communities around the nation, we can’t forget what got us here — an unwavering commitment to no-kill policies, practices and messaging — and we can’t overlook the Edinburgs of this country.

Best Friends cannot achieve no-kill by 2025 on our own. The work being undertaken in Edinburg in support of PVAC is a model for us and others to replicate elsewhere, but we need partners and supporters at every level and in every region of the country. We are at a critical juncture in the history of animal welfare and on the cusp of social change that will see the end of the pointless killing of homeless pets in our nation’s shelters.

Be a part of history. Together, we will Save Them All.

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society