Proven Strategies

Black and white cat lying on gray floor next to person's blue sneakers

Looking Back on a Tumultuous Year

2020’s Chaos Paves the Way for Big Changes in Animal Sheltering 

Between the ongoing pandemic, political division and social tension around systemic racism, this has been a challenging year, to say the least. But not everything about 2020 has been bad. 

In the field of animal welfare, navigating the chaos has paved the way for fundamental changes to the way we conduct our work. Shelter directors and city leaders who were wary of ditching lengthy adoption applications or accepting admissions on an appointment-only basis have embraced those approaches. And as an industry, we are looking seriously at the evolution of a community-based sheltering model to replace an often-outdated structure that doesn’t always see the community as an ally. 

Here at the Network, the tribulations presented by 2020 served to be a kick in the pants to cross several things off our “to do” list. That included adding more staffing to the Network team, reorganizing our online partner resources in a more user-friendly way and redesigning the website. We have also long wanted to have an online forum where we could provide commentary, analysis and timely dialogue regarding topical issues. It’s hard to get more topical and urgent than what we’ve experienced this year, and that accelerated our pace on developing our weekly editorials.  

And because we know that reading long-form content isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, we also developed the Best Friends podcasts, town halls and Saving America’s Pets vlogs, all of which welcome thought leaders from Best Friends and across the industry talking about the future of and present challenges facing animal welfare. 

The range of topics covered in these formats is broad, but here are some highlights: 

  • We jumped right into the challenges facing the industry in our very first editorial and town hall. These pieces offered insight on how to keep shelters running while being closed to the public. They also opened the door to future conversations about embracing open adoptions and getting rid of outdated practices like having night drop boxes. Episode 3 of the podcast talked about how COVID-19 was impacting the work of animal control officers in particular. 
  • With veterinary clinics being forced to dramatically curtail their services, the earliest days of 2020 were fraught with worry about keeping up with spay/neuter surgeries. Senior director of lifesaving centers Sue Cosby and medical director Dr. Erin Katribe collaborated on an editorial about why putting human health concerns first was the right thing to do; director of national veterinary outreach Aimee St. Arnaud discussed whether spay/neuter should be considered an essential service; and the Let’s Spay Together podcast talked with leaders in three states about how they managed their clinic work during the shutdown. 
  • Covering the costs of running a shelter or a nonprofit dedicated to lifesaving is always top of mind, but it was a source of much stress for groups this year. Most (if not all) were forced to cancel in-person fundraising events, so we brought in experts to talk about how to stay solvent during the crisis and share stories of their own successful efforts. Trish Tolbert, development strategist for the national embed/mentoring team, introduced our Fundraising Fundamentals e-course during the Rock Solid Fundraising town hall; while Ed Jamison, director of Dallas Animal Services, spoke on a podcast about how he is leading his team through these times of economic uncertainty. 
  • Engaging the community in the work of animal welfare is a necessity, something that took on stark significance this year. We shared some ways to help people care for their pets and rolled out tools like the Pet Preparedness Plan Kit to make it even easier. In November, director of national municipal and shelter support Scott Giacoppo and director of grassroots advocacy Kenny Lamberti discussed how animal control and community organizing can build sustainable change. 
  • Finally, after two years of hard work, we have empirical data to focus our efforts on making the country no-kill by 2025. For example, we now know that more than two cats are being killed for every dog in the shelter. We also know that community cat programs save lives, so we’ve put together a lot of quality content this year to help overcome the hurdles that sometimes stand in the way of implementing such programs. That included editorials about the pushback that occurs when friendly cats are returned to their outdoor homes, a town hall featuring speakers from four municipal shelters who have managed to drastically reduce the killing of cats thanks to return-to-field programming, and a podcast on redefining the idea of “home” with leaders across the country who have reexamined their approach to managing community cats.  

I know I won’t be the only one happy to kiss this year goodbye on December 31st. But I’m also under no illusions that the challenges stemming from COVID-19 will stop the second the clock strikes midnight. Many Network partners will continue to struggle financially as municipal budgets take the hit, there is increased demand for limited private funding and the need for finding efficiencies grows more critical. I foresee us diving deeper into how to provide essential services without cutting corners on the level of care given to pets or the people who care about them.  

What else will pop up on these pages? Well, although we’ve started taking steps toward a sheltering model that embraces change and a focus on community and social services, there are still many roadblocks in the way (as we covered in a two-part editorial on August 14th and August 21st). Shelters and rescues that want to change—or that might not think they do yet—will need help figuring out how to do so. 

And we have no idea what other hurdles lie in store for us once the immediacy of the COVID crisis has dissipated. For example, shelter intake numbers are currently down about 20% for the year; will that remain the case or will intake numbers go back up to pre-pandemic times? If people can’t afford their mortgages or rents, how many families will be forced to relinquish their pets, and how will our industry handle that influx? 

Our partners will also hear a lot about the road map to 2025, not just what Best Friends is doing to help the country get to no-kill, but how you can get involved as well.  

Of course, the whole purpose of the Network website is to provide what our partners need from us and we’d love to hear from you. You can let us know about topics that you think deserve greater coverage by commenting on this editorial, emailing us at or sending us a message on the Best Friends Network Facebook page.  

We know that things are changing a lot and that change is always uncomfortable, but in 2020 we’ve all shown the animal welfare movement’s amazing ability to adapt to change quickly. Animal welfare organizations proved they could handle the challenges and drive even greater lifesaving to boot. Let’s take a minute to congratulate ourselves and each other on weathering the storm.  Now let’s say goodbye to this exhausting year, roll up our sleeves and get ready to hit the home stretch on our journey to being a no-kill United States once and for all. 

Brent Toellner  
Senior Director, National Programs 
Best Friends Animal Society

If you enjoyed this program spotlight, you can find our complete catalog of spotlights here