What do Best Friends and a reality TV show like Bar Rescue have in common?

By Julie Castle

Recently, I found myself trying to explain to someone what makes Best Friends’ shelter outreach and embed programs effective and unique. In these programs, Best Friends’ expert team members visit shelters in person — in some cases, relocating there for several months or a year — and work alongside shelter staff to assess their current operations, retool what’s not working and establish a sustainable lifesaving model for pets in their communities. And after thinking about it for a moment, I said, “Well, it’s kind of like that show Bar Rescue, but for animal shelters.”

Over the last couple of decades, Best Friends has rolled out a wide array of learning experiences and resources to help support our shelter and rescue partners around the country: the Best Friends National Conference, the Best Friends Executive Leadership Certification program, national training academies, webinars, no-kill playbooks and more.  With all that help and all those expert resources, though, one fact remains for the lifesaving teams they’re intended to support. At the end of the day, you still have to go back to your shelter alone (if you even had the time to step away to begin with) and figure out how to apply what you’ve learned and increase lifesaving for pets in your community on your own. For large shelters serving multiple municipalities with huge populations, this can feel like being taught to do the backstroke while you’re already drowning.

With Best Friends’ shelter outreach and embed programs, the helping hands and lifesaving expertise come to you. Sometimes it’s in the form of an expert in field services doing ride-alongs with animal control officers and modeling how to negotiate tense conversations with residents. Other times, it’s a cat expert helping to establish a sustainable community cat program over the course of a couple years. And on the grandest scale, it might be someone with extensive experience in shelter leadership stepping in as interim executive director to help chart a new organizational course and revamp things from top to bottom.

In shows like Bar Rescue, Kitchen Nightmares and The Profit, an industry expert pays a visit to a struggling business like a local sports bar or a family restaurant and helps the staff turn things around to prevent them from going out of business. Naturally, these experts are armed with loads of cash, the best vendor contacts, a TV-ready support staff and a fancy production team — and they help that business go from disaster to dynamite in just a few days. (Because that’s how easy it is in the real world, right?) There’s usually a lot of yelling, breaking of dishes and wasting of food (none of which you can get away with when your customers are dogs, of course).

However, all the embellished drama and scripted mayhem aside, the basic premise of these shows is an important one. Sometimes, when you’re really struggling and the deck is stacked against you, the best option is to have somebody who knows what they’re doing come in, work alongside you, help you catch your breath and show you the way out. In shelters where Best Friends has embedded staff — such as Palm Valley Animal Society, Humane Society of Harlingen and Santa Rosa County Animal Services, all of which are now supported through the Maddie’s® Shelter Embed Program — that hands-on, sustained support has allowed some of the most down-and-out organizations in the country to become lifesaving powerhouses in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every single one of these organizations already had the heart, desire, commitment and dedicated teams to make it happen. They just needed an infusion of focused, expert support to get things moving in the right direction. (#ThanksToMaddie)

In April, during the height of the pandemic, Palm Valley Animal Society saved 93% of the dogs and cats entering the shelter and firmly established itself as a major player in the no-kill movement. Similarly, Humane Society of Harlingen saved 92% and Santa Rosa County Animal Services in Florida, the newest recipient of the embed program, saved 82%.

In Santa Rosa’s case, the team there had done a good deal of research and work on their own when it came to exploring new lifesaving ideas and programs, but they still needed that in-person guidance to help them connect theory with practice in the context of their own community. And because of the pandemic, the shelter ended up implementing multiple major programs over the course of just one month, something that normally would have taken nearly a year to accomplish.

Which brings me to a critical difference between animal shelters and the small businesses featured in reality shows like Bar Rescue. At some point in all these shows, the business being helped gets to hit pause on its daily operations and close its doors for one or several days to regroup, retrain and restructure without the burden of serving customers.

Animal shelters do not get this luxury. Because their business is saving lives, hitting pause on operations — even for a day — would mean that real dogs and cats lose their lives, which is unacceptable and unbearable for the shelter staff working so hard to save them.

I love how Michelle Logan, Best Friends’ director of national shelter embed programming, describes what so many shelters are facing. She likens it to a giant corn maze in which shelters are stuck navigating barriers like outdated animal ordinances, lack of supplies and community support, and counterproductive programming — retracing their steps when they hit a dead end. Yeah, shelters might eventually find their way through and out of the maze, but while they’re doing that, pets are dying and shelter staff are struggling hopelessly to save them.

With the embed programs, Best Friends comes in and plows straight through that maze so that the staff at that shelter don’t have to navigate all those barriers by themselves and can instead just get busy saving lives.

Sure, disgruntled kitchen staff yelling at lazy chefs and expert mixologists schooling us on how to concoct the perfect Sazerac cocktail make for good television. But if there’s one show I could binge every day for the rest of my life, it’s the one in which communities rally around their shelters, shelter staff smile as they walk into work, and every dog and cat has a safe place to call home, all because that shelter got the kind of help it needed and deserved.

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society