The energy in the hotel ballroom was electric as 1500 animal lovers from all over the country gathered in Las Vegas last week for the Best Friends’ 2012 conference, NO MORE HOMELESS PETS. Social media, fundraising, increasing shelter adoptions, non-surgical spay and neuter, dog behavior 101, trap/neuter/return for cats, writing winning grant proposals… became a challenge to know which of seven workshops to attend at any given time. Surrounded by these dedicated and talented folks, it is easy to believe Julie Castle when she declared to the audience, “Animal welfare and the no-kill movement is the cause of this decade!”
It all began in 1982 when 20 young men and women pooled their dreams, their funds, and their talents and purchased three thousand acres of high desert property in the wilds of southern Utah. United in their devotion to animals, they created the largest and most beloved animal sanctuary in the world – – Best Friends. Nestled in one of the loveliest spots in the country, just north of the Grand Canyon in Kanub, Utah, Angel Canyon is now home to over 3,000 rescued animals. The stark beauty of the red-rock cliffs, majestic cottonwoods, and soft whispering willows create a magical enclave that soothes souls human and animal alike. This peaceful, tranquil place where ancient people once gathered is a place where animals are loved and heal from their hard life’s journey.

Today, Best Friends Animal Society supports animal welfare throughout the world. They were on the ground during Katrina, and are now on the East Coast assisting with pet rescue in Hurricane Sandy. Many of the dogs seized from the dog fighting raid on Michael Vick’s property went to Best Friends for training and rehabilitation. All but one of those “Victory” dogs were adopted and thriving in loving homes. Dogs, older dogs, puppies, birds, rabbits, cats, special needs cats, and horses all have their special facilities, beautifully designed with their unique needs in mind. Most of the original founders are still involved, and many of them were at the conference, a little grayer, but with commitment and enthusiasm intact.

Best Friends’ CEO Gregory Castle admonished us about the bickering and competition that still exists between animal welfare groups. “While all this bickering is taking place, some progressives are stepping outside of the arguments and getting on with saving lives. They are forming innovative partnerships and forging a new future in the world of animal welfare.” Public-private partnerships are forging the gaps in cash strapped municipalities, and providing resources to people who really don’t want to give up their pets. Working together, we can save more!

Michael Arms, director of San Diego’s Helen Woodward Animal Center, advised us, “We need to advertise and promote our rescue animals. Don’t use the word ‘shelter’, call your facility an ‘adoption center’. Market your product with positive descriptions of the animals.” Humor gets the public’s attention. One spay and neuter mobile in Utah is called “The Big Fix…because Utah already has enough pregnant females”.

At the “Austin Pets Alive” workshop we learned how Austin, Texas now has a 90% live release rate thanks to this innovative organization. A large network of foster homes has over 800 animals in foster care. A group of dog trainers go into the shelters focusing on the large dogs with behavior problems, a group that has a high euthanasia rate. Their website, is a wealth of information about how Austin is becoming a no-kill community.

Julie Castle noted that most of us were recruited to the world of rescue by an animal who made us aware that they experience the same emotions we do and they want to live just as we want to live. They shame us with their devotion and trust, a trust we violate when we hand them over to a public shelter when their being with us becomes an inconvenience. In Latin “Fido” means “I am faithful”. Faithfulness is a given for these animals who challenge us in this mission. In 1982 when Best Friends started, 17 million animals were killed annually in public shelters. Today that number is down to 5 million, though that is nearly 5 million too many. The no-kill movement is about saving animals, and saving ourselves in the process.

You can read more about Best Friends Animal Society, meet their wonderful animals, and discover innovative programs at The Best Friends animal sanctuary is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the Western United States. Free tours are offered daily. I had the opportunity to visit there and volunteered at the puppy sanctuary and at Dogtown. It was an exciting and most rewarding vacation.

Words from Faith Maloney, one of the founders, “What is it about these creatures that just seeing them, knowing they’re all right, makes every petty worry fade? Is it because they give us back ourselves? That with them we are not judged, need not pretend, can allow the emotions we must hide in order to survive to emerge freely, in all innocence, without fear?” Best Friends is about dreaming big, and creating a better world for people and the animals they love.

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