In 1989, I had been in Los Angeles less than a year. I was fresh out of college, knew only one person, and felt ungrounded. On a particularly lonely day, an old friend showed up — one who, in this lifetime; chose to wear a dog suit.
When his eyes connected with mine I could feel that he had been waiting for me to show up. The people at the store told me he wasn’t well and would need an operation to live a long life. They also mentioned they would “give me a good deal” since they wanted him out. In that moment none of it mattered to me. He was my friend and needed me as much as I needed him.
He was taken out of a cage too small for a six month old dog to be living in to meet me in person and in no time my black pants were covered in white fur. His immediate and exuberant acceptance of me only seemed to confirm my feelings that we were meant to be together and it was the first time since leaving home that I felt a sense of connection to anything in LA. I named him Merlin, and snuck him into my no-pets building telling the manager I was watching him temporarily for a friend. Once the lease was up, I gave notice and we never looked back.
After receiving his operation he lived an additional 16 years and passed peacefully at home with me in 2005. He was my Buddha dog, a wise and old soul who taught me about unconditional love through example. They say children choose their parents and I believe Merlin chose me.
I had grown up with family dogs and always loved them. But I never had one that was my dog—Merlin was my dog. From the moment he came home with me, he began teaching me lessons that I had never received before about joy, gratitude, patience, persistence, forgiveness, spontaneity-the list is really endless. And I was grateful.
Five years later, in 1994, as I was leaving Mrs. Gooch’s Market, I met a woman soliciting donations and support for Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. She told me about the sanctuary located in Kanab, Utah; it was the largest no-kill sanctuary in the USA with 1,800 animals living there on any given day. She also explained they were starting a Los Angeles branch of Best Friends and needed help. My relationship with my dog provided me with first-hand experience of the deep and profound connection that can be shared with an animal. I felt I needed to give back as repayment for that blessing. I picked up a brochure, dropped a few dollars in the donation can, and signed up to be on their volunteer list, not really knowing what to expect. Not long after, I received a call.
From that point forward, I became a Best Friends volunteer; I found myself sitting in front of my own local grocery store telling the story of Best Friends—usually with Merlin beside me. At that time, Best Friends didn’t have an office; it just had a phone number that reached a voice mail which volunteers took turns listening to and returning calls. Two of the founders, Francis and Silva Battista, would drive into Los Angeles one or more times a month and couch surf while they researched ways to build the program. Eventually, a volunteer donated an apartment for them to use. Francis even learned how to fly a plane so it would be easier to go back and forth from Utah to LA. We would show up at the drop of a hat, ready to do anything, if it meant we had a chance to share with someone the vision that Best Friends had for Los Angeles and beyond: the vision that one day we all could work together to end shelter death; that there will be a time when we could “Save Them All.”
Best Friends’ vision has always been singular and directed, and it inspired me because it never wavered. They planned for the day when they could act as an umbrella organization and help smaller rescues grow their programs. The decision was made to change their name from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary to Best Friends Animal Society. Soon after, Best Friends began to sponsor “Super Adoptions.” Any local rescue organization, as well as city and county animal shelters, that wanted to participate was welcome to come and show their available adoptable pets. Eventually, the Super Adoption grew so large that the La Brea Tar Pits was enlisted as its location, and still is used to this day. The family-friendly event was promoted far and wide; people often made a day of it, traveling from outside LA to have the opportunity to meet so many available pets in one place. It was always amazing to see that when an event ended, the many groups who participated would try to take one dog or cat so none would return to a city or county shelter. The spirit of community continues to build; many of the families who adopted their pets at Super Adoption now participate in the annual Best Friends event, “Strut Your Mutt.” Strut Your Mutt started 18 years ago at the Utah Sanctuary as the first fundraising walk-a-thon you could do with your dog. It came to Los Angeles four years later and is now held in eleven cities nationwide.
When Best Friends finally opened an office in Los Angeles, we were able to take on larger projects, including educating the public on the dark side of puppy mills. It was a painful truth to tell, but we kept moving forward and people came on board to help. One was Councilman Paul Koretz; he and his wife had a dog that came from a puppy mill. Like many puppy mill dogs—my own Merlin included—he had a host of health problems stemming from the inhumane conditions. This eventually connected Councilman Koretz with Elizabeth Oreck, the Best Friends National Manager for Puppy Mill Initiatives. In June of 2011, Councilman Koretz introduced the first motion to outlaw the sale of pets from mills. By June of 2013, the sale of these pets became illegal in the city Los Angeles.
Best Friends has become the go-to resource for information regarding animal rights issues. They were one of the first responders when Hurricane Katrina hit, setting up a makeshift shelter in Tylertown, Mississippi, and staying on for nine months. Best Friends also took in 22 of the most badly abused of the 50 pit bulls seized from NFL Quarterback Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels. Renaming them the Vicktory dogs, they were guided with loving-kindness and respect down the path to wellness. One of the dogs, Georgia, whose entire set of teeth had been pulled out so she wouldn’t bite the male dogs she was forced to mate with, became a TV star. Her storyline appeared on the syndicated National Geographic show Dogtown, which ran from 2008 to 2010 and was filmed entirely at the Best Friends Sanctuary in Utah. Georgia’s story was so compelling that she went on to appear on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Larry King Live.
Since 2001, Best Friends has been hosting the Best Friends National Conference. In 2012, over 1,400 people attended from all over the globe. They learned about such topics as Dog Behavior 101, Increasing Cat Adoptions, Fundraising 101, Marketing Matters, and Making Sense of Social Media. This year’s conference will take place in Las Vegas at the Rio Hotel on Oct 23-26.
When Best Friends heard about a new but mothballed shelter in Mission Hills that the city had no money to staff, the proverbial light bulb went off. Best Friends then worked with Brenda Barnette and LA Animal Services to formulate a plan where animals from LA city shelters could be housed and adopted out of the Best Friends Pet Adoption Center. Best Friends spent nearly three million dollars to get the current center up and running. The City of Los Angeles saves close to three million annually by not running the shelter on its own. Best Friends also offers a free spay and neuter clinic for the local community out of the center. In addition, it is the home base for the groundbreaking Pup My Ride program which takes dogs off death row and transports them to out-of-state no-kill rescues that have a shortage of adoptable dogs. Launched in 2007, Pup My Ride reached a milestone this past October with 10,000 lives saved. I know a lot about Pup My Ride, as I have been on the crew out of the Baldwin Park shelter since 2010.
The next logical step towards manifesting their big vision was to employ the “Coalition” approach that had worked in Utah to start a new initiative exclusive to Los Angeles: No Kill Los Angeles (NKLA). Today, 75 coalition partner rescues and welfare organizations based in Los Angeles work together and share resources to end shelter death. And it’s working. In 2011, the number of healthy animals that died in Los Angeles shelters was 17,400. By the end of 2013, that number had dropped to 9,075.
The resources needed to make this happen have come from all avenues. The style and intensity of the NKLA initiative, in terms of branding, web design, billboards, and logo, was masterminded and taken on pro bono by Lee Clow and the team at TBWA/Chiat/Day. This created a buzz early on, even before the NKLA Pet Adoption Center had been launched.
Opening its doors in August, 2013, and centrally located in West Los Angeles near the 405 Freeway, the NKLA Pet Adoption Center is a purpose-built facility created to showcase the many animals from all over LA looking for homes. The building was provided through the generosity of the Ronald and Catherine Gershman Foundation. Currently, the NKLA Center showcases dogs and cats from its 75 coalition members, along with some from the Best Friends Center. Often described as a “five-star hotel” for pets in transition, the location boasts soundproof kennels, a clean air exchange system, fully wired sound and video, meeting rooms, a store, and a private “meet and greet” room where you can get to know your potential new family member.
More than 50% of the residents at the NKLA Center are dogs and cats rescued by coalition member groups. Most of these organizations do not have shelter facilities of their own; this has allowed coalition members to save more animals. And since the fully staffed center is open daily from12:00noon to 8:00pm, the opportunity to be seen by the public is much greater, decreasing the time it takes for an adoption to happen. Once a new pet space opens up at NKLA, it is immediately filled by another pet looking for a home. The cycle is ongoing.
What you don’t see at the centers are some of the programs NKLA/Best Friends themselves back. Many of NKLA’s coalition partners are now the recipients of “staffing grants,” enabling them to hire individuals who can devote time and attention exclusively to their group’s unique goals. NKLA/Best Friends also provides a $150 subsidy per pet adoption to NKLA Coalition members, allowing coalition members to rescue more pets. In 2013, NKLA/Best Friends donated $100,000 to Downtown Dog Rescue to help build their own new shelter.
Marc Peralta, Executive Director of Best Friends LA/NKLA, says, “Los Angeles has an opportunity to set the mark for the rest of the country. To do this, we have to stay on track, strategize, organize, create goals, and reach them. And, if something isn’t working, we need to look towards how to change it to make it effective. Los Angeles was there for Best Friends Animal Society from the very beginning, and Best Friends will never forget that.”
Having been around for 20 years to witness the commitment Best Friends has demonstrated to saving lives and helping people work together, I am not only proud, but confident, that we are well on our way to making LA No Kill LA by our target year of 2017.
To become involved with Best Friends and NKLA, visit:
Below is a detailed list of NKLA Coalition Members who need volunteers! See which organization resonates with you. All kinds of help is needed!
THE DAWG SQUAD
Started in 2001 by Carole Pearson, The Dawg Squad is an all-volunteer organization. Dogs with medical issues and older, large black dogs often make up the bulk of Dawg Squad’s rescues. Black dogs are difficult to capture in a photograph. Their features get lost, especially if they also have black eyes. They often get overlooked solely because their photo does not represent them well. The best way to ensure black dogs don’t get passed over in shelters is to get them out and seen at adoption events. This is what Dawg Squad aims to do. Visit their “How to Help” page if you want to join in.
DOWNTOWN DOG RESCUE
Started 18 years ago in the back of a downtown LA furniture factory by Lori Weise, Downtown Dog Rescue’s mission is to help the underserved in South East Los Angeles, Watts and Compton. Last year alone, DDR assisted more than 3,000 families get their pets fed, trained, spayed, neutered and licensed. In 2013, DDR began the “South LA Shelter Intervention Program” which prevented over 2,000 pets from entering shelters in the first year alone. DDR is committed to serving more families living in poverty with their pets, whether they live on the sidewalk, in their car, a garage, apartment, or house; the goal is to keep pets in their first home/forever home. DDR, with help from a $100,000 grant from Best Friends Animal Society/NKLA, recently opened their own shelter located in South Gate in the center of the communities they serve. See their “Help Us” page for more information.
DOGS WITHOUT BORDERS
Started in 2006 by Galit Reuben, who, after fostering a dog herself, eventually decided to keep him (in rescue this is called “foster failure” but it should really be renamed “foster success”). When she began making inquiries about her dog Pluto’s history, she found he had been transported from Taiwan and most likely saved from the dinner table. This spurred her into action, and she created Dogs Without Borders. DWB rescues mostly from LA shelters, but still takes in about 5% of dogs from overseas. DWB is in need of foster families for the dogs they rescue. If you cannot have a dog full time, consider fostering. All expenses are paid; you will be giving a dog real-life experience in a home so that the transition is easier once a permanent adoptive family is found. Please visit the “Dogs Needing Fosters” page on their website.
ANGEL CITY PIT BULLS
Pit Bulls have suffered many prejudices and negative stereotypes. Angel City Pit Bulls is dedicated to promoting positive Pit Bull awareness and recreating the image of the Pit Bull as a loving and dedicated family pet. If you are a Pit Bull lover and want to help, even if you can’t commit to foster, help is needed at adoption events, transport to vet visits, and even taking a dog out for a good hike! Contact [email protected]
A CATS TALE
All-volunteer organization A Cats Tale was formed after a man contacted its founder, Darla Schultz, saying his mother had 20 cats and he needed to find temporary housing for them as she was ill and needed to be relocated. The man never did return and Darla was saddled with re-homing all of them. And out of this, A Cats Tale was born. A Cats Tale holds monthly adoption events in Culver City and is always looking for assistance, including fostering, web site maintenance, photography and bookkeeping. Visit their site for a full list of needs.
MUCH LOVE ANIMAL RESCUE
Since its inception in 1999, Much Love has placed over 3,000 lost, abandoned and orphaned animals from the streets and shelters of LA into wonderful homes. Their greatest need is for foster families. The more foster families available, the more lives that can be saved. Currently, Much Love has over 100 active fosters in their database; last year they were able to save 244 pets—a record for the group. Visit the “Get Involved” link on their website.
STRAY CAT ALLIANCE
The Stray Cat Alliance likes to think of itself as the go-to source for stray cats. They provide low-income support for cat owners in need, set up free spay and neuter clinics, and work to keep free-roaming cat colonies healthy and stable. One of the ways they do this is through “TNR” or “Trap, Neuter, Return”. Once a cat is caught in a humane trap, it is sterilized and then returned to the colony it came from. If you’d like to get involved and help end cat overpopulation and shelter deaths, email [email protected].
Found Animals was started in 2005 by Dr. Gary Michelson in response to the devastation to animals he witnessed during Hurricane Katrina. Found Animals has spearheaded low-cost microchipping and universal scanners offered to humane organizations. The Found Animals microchip registry is free to everyone.Any kind of microchip brand can be registered online and updated at any time. Once a pet is found, a shelter or vet can trigger an automated alert and the owner is contacted via multiple methods over a four-day period.
Found Animals Adopt & Shop boutiques were created with the idea to show adoptable pets in retail locations that get more traffic than a typical shelter. The newest flagship store will be opening in May in Culver City.
Help is always needed fostering kittens, at mobile events, at the Lakewood Adopt & Shop location (and soon Culver City) and even doing administrative duties. Visit “Get Involved” on their website.
Founded in 2003 by Rande Levine after witnessing through her own volunteer work the high rate of euthanasia in LA shelters, Karma’s “Karmic Programs” were set up so anyone can help a dog in need. If you cannot foster or currently don’t have time to physically help out, you can make a monthly donation to Karma’s 10,000 Paws Project which allows you to choose a level of monthly donation and see exactly what your donation can do. You can also sponsor a Karma dog. Choose any available dog on their current list of adoptables and contact Karma for more details at [email protected]. Karma also needs volunteers to foster and be available for mobile adoption events.
Lisa Avebury is a Wellness Consultant, Bodyworker, Yoga and Meditation instructor based in LA: circleseeker.com