Removing Rescue Roadblocks
How pushing past discomfort can lead to evolutionary change
We ended last week’s editorial with the Best Friends staff explaining how we’ve removed previous roadblocks to rescue and thinking about how we can set ourselves up for success in overcoming the roadblocks that lie ahead. While it takes a lot of introspection and honesty to recognize where we have been complicit in setting up barriers, breaking them down involves a level of discomfort, courage and willingness to take unpopular stances.
Modeling change with courage
Perhaps the most controversial position Best Friends has taken was to fight for the lives of the 47 dogs seized from Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring in 2007.
“Back then, 14 states deemed fight bust dogs as vicious or dangerous, and it was not uncommon for even some of the most influential humane organizations to support the killing of all fight bust dogs,” says Ledy VanKavage, senior legislative attorney for Best Friends. “Such dogs were seen as irredeemable ‘kennel trash.’ Other animal welfare agencies actually fought us over the fate of the Vick dogs.”
Luckily, the message that all dogs are individuals prevailed and the Vicktory dogs not only proved that they didn’t deserve to be killed, many of them became beloved family members, sharing homes with small children, other dogs and even a cat or two. Even though we are still fighting to change dogfighting statues in seven states, the Vicktory dogs changed the way people think about the victims of a repulsive industry.
“Our position and fight for the Vick dogs was an absolute game changer for the breed, for other organizations' positions and—most importantly—for the public,” says Elizabeth Oreck, national manager of puppy mill initiatives. “Even more directly, the work Ledy and her team have done to change the laws that cause legal or policy roadblocks, in order to get more of those dogs into homes, has saved countless lives.”
More recently, Best Friends has become outspoken on one of the more controversial cat issues within our industry: that no matter if they are friendly or feral, cats who are doing well outdoors—with resources and caregivers—should be spayed or neutered, vaccinated and allowed to stay there. Or as our CEO Julie Castle succinctly put it, the best home for a cat doesn’t always mean a house.
The same certainly holds true for the cats at the sanctuary, who have long been subject to an indoor-only adoption policy. But this year that changed when Leopold became the first official working cat to be relocated out of a cattery and to an outdoor home at the new Horse Haven headquarters.
“We’ve all known there is a great need for working cats in our food storage areas and we also have to consider the mental health of the cats in our care,” Amy says. “Leopold is a perfect example of a cat that is grateful for the free food and soft spaces at Best Friends but would prefer a more challenging life. He also has a lot of street smarts, is much happier when he can be outside, is healthy, and he has tried to live in a home multiple times and was returned. He just doesn’t like the confined kind of life.
Horse Haven manager Jen Reid is not only thrilled with having Leopold at headquarters, she values what the decision to place him there means for the organization’s growth.
“I remember so many years ago we were applying a one-size-fits-all kind of situation,” she says. “Now it’s about what the right fit is for each animal.”
Fine-tuning the mission
Chief mission officer Holly Sizemore is careful to point out that, although we may discard old ways of doing things, we should not vilify the thinking behind them.
“We need to honor the past for what it helped us accomplish in that moment in time and candidly face the fact that such ideas or processes are no longer serving us today,” she says.
Such was the case with the Best Friends Kitten Care Program in Mission Hills, which has cared for more than 18,000 neonatal kittens and nursing moms since opening its doors in February 2013. Though instrumental in increasing the cat save rate in Los Angeles shelters from 36% in 2011 to 83% in 2019, the structure of the program as an on-site nursery was not the most sustainable model.
“It was not only expensive, the intensity of caring for so many fragile kittens was rapidly burning out staff and volunteers,” says Jennifer Pimentel, executive director of Best Friends Los Angeles. “And when you tell shelters to just open a nursery that costs a million dollars, it’s not realistic. We needed to see the problem from the perspective of a shelter with fewer resources.”
Today, the Best Friends Los Angeles team operates a found kitten hotline that diverts neonates from going to a shelter or a nursery in favor of being fostered by the public.
“When we first had this idea, we weren’t sure if people would step up to save the kittens. But they did,” Jennifer says. “We’ve been doing it for a few months and have found that if you give people resources and coaching, they step up.”
Changes like this one only come about if we are brave enough to analyze our work and see where it might not be the best solution.
“There's great value in standing up for what is right and being willing to boldly try new things. And yet, it's paramount to create a rigorous ongoing analysis system, one that incorporates data and diverse points of view, so that together we can continue to evolve and improve,” Holly says.
“Letting data lead, even when it isn’t what we expected or anticipated, is the thing I’m proudest about in this organization,” says Vicki Kilmer, director of business intelligence and strategy. “We have evolved to become more data-driven and rely less on gut, intuition, anecdotes and ‘we’ve always done it like this’ thinking.”
Embracing a state of constant change
If there is one constant that I’ve experienced in my 15 years with Best Friends, it’s that things are always in flux. That’s not just because we are analyzing our approaches all the time; it’s also because we remain open to hearing other voices in the movement.
“We are always willing to share our knowledge, our tools, and our data to help others be successful,” says founder Faith Maloney. “And now with our embedded programs like the community cat programs and our work in shelters in Santa Rosa, Florida, and in Abilene, Harlingen and Palm Valley, Texas, we are willing to step into other people’s shoes and learn new ways to do things as well.”
Those practices have spilled over into the work at the sanctuary, aligning all aspects of our work with our mission to reach no-kill by 2025. Exposing sanctuary-based staff to the harsh, everyday realities of municipal shelters has helped to better translate the urgent need outside of the sanctuary and represents the next phase of our evolution. Such was certainly the case for founder Jana de Peyer.
“I’ve known that some people call the sanctuary Disneyland, but I don’t think I really understood why,” says Jana. “The way I saw it, we were always rescuing, and those animals could stay as long as they liked. I didn’t get it until I went down to Palm Valley Animal Society, where animals were dying by the tens of thousands just a few years ago. I thought, ‘Oh my God, now I see what they are talking about.’
“Intellectually, I’ve always known about the need to help animals in shelters, but I didn’t think about how it related to our wonderful sanctuary,” she adds. “Working with shelters like we have been is a big change for us. We’d been complacent about the realities out there, but since it came home, we had to take action and not be happy staying as we are.”
Senior Writer, Best Friends Network
Best Friends Animal Society