Petunias in the desert

In the mid-1990s, I was enjoying one last run of relaxation before heading off to law school at the University of Virginia. Everything in my life to date seemed to be a prologue to enrolling in this prestigious law school. I had interned for the U.S. Senate and laid the groundwork for exchange programs for my university with various Eastern European universities in the former Soviet Union. I was the youngest child in a large family that was very well connected in the Mormon-dominated business and political world of Utah. I had aced the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and was counting down my last few weeks before heading east to begin classes. What could possibly go wrong?

That’s what my poor dad was trying to figure out when, two weeks from departure day, I decided that rather than attend one of the premier law schools in the country, I would become employee number 17 at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. It was difficult, at the time, to explain to family and friends that my preferred career path now involved assignments that ranged from taking visitors on tours in an old, donated Toyota sedan and answering the phones to trying to get petunias to grow in the planters around the animal care facilities, despite nightly attacks from the highly protected local rodent population that loved eating any new planting to a nub.

What drew me then and has kept me inspired for the last 18 years is the vision, commitment and dedication of the founders of Best Friends in staking out an unflinching moral and ethical position on no-kill. They were and remain an unlikely collection of mad geniuses, dreamers and visionaries with a figure-it-out, get-it-done approach to life and work. I guess I was impressed as I ended up marrying one of them, although Gregory and I had not yet met when I made my decision to ditch law school in favor of this amazing adventure in principles that was unfolding in the middle of nowhere. FYI, the southern desert of the state is regarded as the middle of nowhere even by native-born Utahans like me.

I was reminded of all this over the weekend as I watched a founder panel discussion that was part of a special weekend of events here at the Sanctuary called Discovery Weekend. This being the 30th anniversary of Best Friends Animal Society, the founders, their unique story and wide-ranging achievements, are front and center in our celebration of the milestone. Likewise, if you read Best Friends magazine, you may have noticed that we are featuring Q&A updates with some of the founders in each issue.

Creating Best Friends Animal Society from scratch and taking it from the sand-shoveling days 30 years ago to one of the largest animal welfare organizations in the world was a group effort and one that undergirds the message of collaboration and cooperation that has characterized the organization’s approach to the mission of ending shelter killing. The founders, for the most part, are happy to stay in the background, and with the few notable exceptions who have been out front in leadership roles, you probably haven’t heard of most of them. However, each played a vital role in realizing their shared vision. The animals have always been their preferred featured celebrities.

This year, to commemorate the 30th anniversary and to capture the stories and recollections of this remarkable group of animal welfare pioneers, we are pushing a few of the founders into the spotlight with speaking engagements and a founders’ panel tour, like the conversation that included 10 of them this past weekend. Their stories of defying the odds and standing up for the lives of homeless pets are a genuine inspiration.

Later this week, Francis Battista will deliver a TED talk, so stay tuned. We’ll be sure to post a link to that.

The founders’ vision to end shelter killing and to Save Them All is why I made that decision 18 years ago to give law school a pass in favor of answering the phones and trying to grow petunias in the desert. So, Dad, if you are reading this, there’s your answer.

Julie Castle with Sunny the dog
Julie Castle
Best Friends Animal Society
No-Kill 2025