Aiming to Bring the Animal Welfare Profession Out of the Shadows
When I left the field of parks and recreation to get into the field of animal services in 2011, I quickly realized that something was wrong. There was little ambiguity in municipal services, but I found that this profession lacked transparency, consistency and accuracy. It was weird to me that we were using euphemisms like “put to sleep” for killing. The icing on the cake was the disagreement about what success looked like, where some people thought it was OK for 50% of the animals to make it out alive and others were striving to be nothing short of no-kill.
As someone with an extensive background in training and development for the parks system, I could see that this was an immensely complex field that was suffering not from a lack of talent or smarts or passion. It was suffering from a lack of leadership development. People who loved animals would just be dropped into careers managing shelters without the slightest bit of professional-level training about how to do one of the hardest jobs I think there is. That just didn’t make sense to me.
Fast forward to the present. After working closely for almost a year with Aimee Charlton, senior manager of educational programs, and instructional designer Tina Overgaard, and consulting with subject matter experts from inside and outside of Best Friends, the Executive Leadership Program (ELC) program was born. Today, it is the only intensive, dynamic training program with a focus on the top-level leadership skills needed to end the killing of pets in our nation’s shelters.
Once we were able to do an initial trial run of the course last summer with some Best Friends staff members and a handful of outside leaders in animal welfare, we knew that we were onto something. We also knew that we needed to have a broader reach with the information contained in it. There are so many future (and current) leaders out there who would benefit from it, and we are limited by our bandwidth to have it be an invitation-only program offered three times a year right now.
Knowing that what we had built was truly a masters-level course, we connected with Southern Utah University (SUU), which is located “up the road” from the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Cedar City, Utah and happens to be Best Friends CEO Julie Castle’s alma mater. They agreed that what we had to offer was worthy of academic credit.
Not only did it make it possible for graduates of the ELC to apply academic credits toward a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies at SUU, Best Friends partnered with the school to create a six-week, 29-hour program for an Institutional Certificate in Principles of Contemporary Animal Services. The certificate is worth three credits toward a degree and gives people at all levels of experience the opportunity to study contemporary animal services rooted in data, science, proven practices and the needs of the community.
Taking the ELC on the road – so to speak
After building an innovative partnership with SUU and seeing the inaugural cohort graduate in January, we were ready to launch into the first “official” ELC, comprised of 25 shelter leaders from across the country. The format of the ELC at that time was to have six months of study with a weekly video call and three in-person sessions in different locations around the country.
We had just completed the first in-person segment of the cohort in New Orleans when COVID changed everything.
Initially we thought that would mean postponing the ELC, but when we talked to the students on an emergency Saturday call in March, not one of them wanted to stop. They were fully on-board with pivoting to a completely online experience, which subsequently worked so well that the course is now officially online for the time being.
COVID not only proved to us that the ELC could be done via a more cost-efficient, accessible virtual format, it showed me that one of its most critical components was the camaraderie between the students. The content helped people keep their budgets intact in the early days of the pandemic, and for one student dealing with pressure from her superiors and elected officials about some of the lifesaving practices she put in place, it helped explain the rationale for her choices. (In fact, her supervisors pointed to her participation in the ELC as a contributor to her stellar performance.)
The first thing the students say about the program is how great it has been to have one another to lean on.
Renée Gutierrez, manager of the Solano County Animal Care Division in Fairfield, California, says she could have never gotten through her first year in a leadership position without her cohort of amazing, intelligent people. Meaghan Colville, director of lifesaving programs for Clermont Animal CARE Humane Society in Ohio and Paula Powell, El Paso Animal Services director, tell me that their biggest takeaway from the course was realizing that we are not alone in our struggles as leaders.
“All the issues and problems we face in this field are being experienced by colleagues all around the country,” Meaghan says. “Knowing that support is only a phone call, text, email or Facebook message away is such a relief.”
“The amazing people at Best Friends and in the ELC will always be lifelines,” Paula says. “I know it will be OK to stumble as I navigate because they will be there to keep me from falling.”
Readying new leaders for tomorrow
For new leaders in the field, the ELC was a chance to connect and learn from the most elite level of animal professionals in the country and for Luis Quintanilla, part of the first ELC, the course came at a perfect time. One month after he graduated from the ELC in January of this year, Luis became the executive director at the Humane Society of Harlingen.
“When we began the course, I had only been in a leadership position at Palm Valley Animal Society a couple of months,” Luis says. “The learning curve at PVAS was steep, so I needed all the mentorship and development I could get. Having the ELC experience and credentials opened the door to opportunities that may have remained closed otherwise. If the ELC did not change the trajectory of my career, it definitely increased the speed at which I was traveling.”
Paula, who was assigned to animal services after a long career in parks and recreation and was not sure the move was right for her, found the ELC helped her embrace the new field in a way she had not imagined she would.
“I now know that this is what I am meant to do and feel renewed in not only my job but in my mission in life. Getting this inspiration and power back has been instrumental in my success and our community’s success,” she says.
And true to their roles as leaders, the ELC students say what they have learned is making it possible for them to build better relationships with stakeholders—and to take better care of the staff that looks up to them for guidance.
“I wanted a better quality of life for the animals and my employees,” Renée says. “My employees deserve to be respected for the work they do, and they deserve to work in a culture that is caring and compassionate on all levels.”
“My executive director Carolyn Evans and I are the only shelter in the country with two graduates of the ELC, and we have used what we learned to develop our organization's identity on the national stage,” says Meaghan. “This has especially become important in our new shelter, Cincinnati Animal CARE, because a lot of our inherited staff has never had national exposure. Our role within a larger movement has been important to communicate with our staff so they can have even greater pride in what they do.”
Mapping the future of the ELC
The third ELC cohort, which starts meeting next week, is populated primarily by leaders from California—the state where the most animals are still losing their lives in the sheltering system—with another nationally focused cohort starting in December. As we plan out future ELC cohorts, we will likewise be looking at strategic areas of the country with the greatest lifesaving need—and the greatest lifesaving potential.
Because there is a need for education at levels other than top-level directors, we are working on certificates for managers, coordinators and supervisors as well as putting together a cat lifesaving certification.
There’s still a lot of work to be done to bring our industry up in the eyes of the public, but I feel up to the challenge—especially when I hear the ELC students say they now see themselves as legitimate animal professionals on par with other top leaders around the country. This is a real profession, and people who are committed to working in animal welfare should be able to go to school and get a masters if they want to.
The ultimate benchmark for me, though, is to hear people of the next generation aspire to go into animal sheltering. When you ask kids what they want to be, if they want to work with animals, they always say they want to be a veterinarian. No one says they want to be a field services officer or a shelter director.
You don’t hear that from kids because those jobs don’t have the same cachet. Veterinarians are super important to the profession, especially veterinarians that understand the importance of a lifesaving shelter system. But here’s my point: field services officers and shelter directors are also important. Those of us who work in the industry know that. And I can say after this past year of tremendous professional growth, I think we are on the way to making sure other people know it, too.
If you are a top-level decision-maker in your shelter and wish to be nominated to participate in the ELC, contact your regional team.
National Director of Learning Advancement
Best Friends Animal Society