What a wild ride so far

By Julie Castle

Looking back, it seems crazy to think three years have passed since I became CEO. Beyond the normal and expected “drinking from a firehose” stage of acclimation to the real-time demands of the position (which I fully expected), I jumped into a whirlwind of growth and change, some of it planned but most of it unanticipated and not at all planned for. The expression “flying by the seat of the pants” has taken on a whole new meaning for me. I never could have dreamed of the huge obstacles we would have to face or the need to adapt to an ever-changing pandemic, but we’ve made it through stronger and better.

Much of our impact has been fueled by innovation. It’s part of our DNA and one of the ingredients of Best Friends’ secret sauce. This was never more evident than when we began to grapple with our goal to achieve no-kill nationwide by 2025. We quickly learned that no one in the country inside or outside of animal welfare even knew how many animal shelters there are in the U.S., let alone how many dogs and cats were being killed, and where and for what reasons. You can’t solve a problem if you can’t define and quantify it.

We needed data and information and we needed it fast. In a matter of months, our data team created the pet lifesaving dashboard, the only data visualization tool of its type created by any nonprofit, animal-related or otherwise. This project was no easy feat, with our business intelligence, enterprise data, digital, web, programs and communications teams all taking on the monstrous task of collecting, analyzing, presenting and sharing the information in the dashboard with everyday individuals so that they can help their local shelters save more pets.

Thanks to their efforts, we now have the data to guide and target our work and enable animal lovers everywhere to engage with and support their local shelters. Because of our team’s work, Best Friends was named on Fast Company’s top 10 list of most innovative companies in the world in the data science category, a crowning achievement in which I take enormous pride. It is clear that our pet lifesaving dashboard is changing the game when it comes to saving animals’ lives. Best Friends has prioritized data-driven work; we have proven to be a powerhouse in data and the world is taking notice.

Another big highlight of these past three years has been seeing Los Angeles enter the ranks of our nation’s no-kill communities! After many challenging, inspiring, grueling, heartwarming, tear-jerking, life-changing years of working, we have taken Los Angeles from a place where less than 60% of dogs and cats were making it out of shelters alive to the biggest no-kill city in America. The NKLA (No-Kill Los Angeles) Coalition and animal lovers throughout the city have achieved a save rate of 90.49%.

Our mission-focused accomplishments have fueled tremendous growth, thanks to the work of our dedicated staff, volunteers and supporters. Today, we are saving more lives and reaching more people and communities than ever before, which is in keeping with our lofty goal of leading the country — every community, every shelter — to no-kill by 2025.

Along with these triumphs, we have also faced great challenges. Soon after taking over as CEO, I learned that a frac sand mining operation had staked claims on 12,000 acres of public land adjacent to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the heart and soul of our organization. They had also struck a deal with local city and county officials to access the aquifer that nurtures the Sanctuary. This would have turned our beautiful and verdant Angel Canyon into a parched wasteland and the surrounding land into a pit mine.

I never anticipated having to go toe-to-toe with the oil and gas interests and some of the most powerful interests in the state, but I had no choice if we were to fend off this existential threat to Best Friends. The proposed mine would also have created a toxic silica-contaminated environment, endangering the health of our staff and our animals. It was the fight of my life, and it took over a year of incredibly hard work to resolve. Ultimately, we prevailed and protected the land, the water and our organization while still driving our mission forward, thanks to our amazing team.

Little did I know, a sand mine threatening to swallow up the Sanctuary would only be the beginning of obstacles to come.

No one could have imagined the way that COVID-19 would flip the world upside down. With quarantining and working from home, we, like everyone else, struggled to move forward. Our work at its core is based on in-person interactions. Adoptions, events and volunteer engagement had all been based on face-to-face relationships. But COVID-19 dictated new terms, and as a team we had no choice but to adapt and use that innovative spirit to change course and change the way we worked while keeping our focus on saving animals’ lives.

Early on, it appeared that the pandemic would doom 2020 to being a lost year in terms of lifesaving, but we have seen tremendous strides in increased save rates, more foster homes and more community engagement than ever before. For years now, Best Friends has been championing the belief that the best shelter is a compassionate community. When the call went out to take up the slack created by pandemic-related shelter closings, the public responded. We got a glimpse of the kind of community-supported sheltering we have been promoting for years. It’s nothing short of amazing, and it’s work we intend to build on.

In addition, during the height of the pandemic, racial inequity and a need for greater diversity came to the forefront of our national conversation. It has given us the opportunity to reflect on our own organization and the impact of diversity, equality and inclusion on the work we have set out to do. If we are going to engage every community in every city, we clearly need more staff and volunteers who reflect those communities. There is still much to be done, but I’m proud of the steps we are taking to ensure a more diverse and equitable organization to enhance our lifesaving work.

Our ability to push through this tough time and continue to work toward achieving our mission is the reason we have seen such fantastic success both externally and internally. There are many lessons we will take away from the pandemic, and all of the challenges of the past three years, and what we have learned will only make us better.

We are less than four years away from 2025, and I am excited by the progress we have made in all areas of animal welfare and lifesaving. With the end of pandemic-related restrictions in sight, I look forward to capturing the best of the past three years and taking this organization and the work we do to the next level of lifesaving.

Finally, I want to thank everyone who has helped me navigate the challenges and what it means to be a CEO. I never could have done it without guidance from those who came before me and the incredible staff who are helping us achieve our mission. Let’s get to work for another great year ahead!

Together, we can Save Them All.

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society