The 2015 Best Friends National Conference is in the books and many repeat attendees have commented to me that they feel it was the best one yet. I agree and would add that I believe that the event in Atlanta was another expression of the gathering momentum of our movement. As I step back and look at the first half of 2015 — seeing where we’ve been and where we’re going — it strikes me that we have reached a milestone.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which is still influencing animal welfare due to the huge number of people that the storm transformed into activists, as well as the spotlight it shined on the true value of pets to families and to the nation. Accordingly, much of my conference-closing presentation, along with an art installation, was devoted to the work done by so many on behalf of the animals in the wake of the storm. In the coming days we’ll have video of that session available for viewing.
Likewise, as we look into the future, we have more than 200 no-kill communities around the country (an impressive feat), but it feels like now is the most critical time as we are approaching a tipping point. Considering all that and more, this year’s Best Friends National Conference seemed to hit at a very critical time.
Usually held in October, the conference now takes place each July to help relieve pressure on busy fall schedules for our partners and our staff. But despite the new date and location for 2015, the conference did what it always does — unite more than 1,500 people from around the world through the same passionate commitment to saving lives.
Holding the conference in Atlanta made it a very special week, especially given all the great work that is going on there via Lifeline Animal Project, which Rebecca Guinn started 13 years ago in DeKalb County, Georgia. Greater Atlanta comprises a jigsaw puzzle of counties, of which DeKalb is the most densely populated. Rebecca created some groundbreaking programs that helped push the city toward no-kill, but the game-changing moment for Atlanta’s animals came in 2013. Armed with inspiration from attending the prior year’s Best Friends conference, Rebecca realized that if anyone was going to change the situation for Atlanta’s animals, that person would be her. She won both Fulton and DeKalb county contracts within six months of each other.
One of the highlights (and privileges) for me occurred on Saturday morning, when I interviewed Rich Avanzino in a session devoted to honoring him on the occasion of his retirement from Maddie’s Fund. An iconic figure in animal welfare, Rich has been a personal mentor to me ever since we met in 1996. From the late 1970s through the ’80s and ’90s, he transformed the San Francisco SPCA from an institution that was reviled across its home community into a beacon of the no-kill movement. In 1994, San Francisco became the first no-kill city in America — a model for all of us to build upon.
The really astounding thing is that Rich didn’t have a conference to attend, a prior model to follow or a no-kill mentor to emulate. In fact, he led his city to no-kill against the objections of the animal welfare establishment of the time. He built it from his own vision and inspiration, and in so doing, he changed the world. At the conference, Rich led the crowd with a very simple mantra that sums up his approach to our work: “What do we want?” “No-kill!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”
That energy and can-do attitude were common themes of this year’s conference. Visionaries from communities big and small, as well as from rescue groups and shelters, all came together to share their ideas and beliefs. Attendees who met each other in the general sessions, presentations, exhibit hall and hallways realized they were not alone. No matter where each of them came from and no matter their focus, they are part of a much bigger tribe that does not accept the current badly broken sheltering system in which more than 9,000 animals die each and every day. Here are just some of the comments from this year’s attendees:
“A wonderful conference — thank you, Best Friends. Inspiring and empowering.” – Sharon, California
“I had an incredible experience at my first-ever Best Friends National Conference and can’t wait to go back next year! I feel energized and ready to save more lives. The speakers were incredible, the information shared was priceless and the opportunity to be with 1,500-plus like-minded people was unforgettable. I really do believe that one day, together, we can Save Them All!” – Laura, Texas
“Grateful to Best Friends and to everyone who attended! The positive energy was contagious! New friends, creative ideas, thinking-outside-the-box solutions, the power of passionate and dedicated people coming together. Feeling so inspired! And did I say grateful?” – Linda, Tennessee
“As a first-timer … wow! What an uplifting, thought-provoking and emotional experience this has been! My eyes have been opened to so many possibilities. Every single person I met was warm and welcoming, and I look forward to building our relationships in the movement to Save Them All.” – Kimberly, Florida
“I came alone, not knowing what to expect or who I would meet.… I felt a bit of uncertainty about the unknown.… How do I describe how I’m feeling tonight? There are no words … never in my life have I met 1,500-plus people with wings who I felt a certain bond with.… I listened to the lectures, one at a time, shopped, heard stories, shared cries and laughs, made toys for two shelters here in Atlanta, danced, sang, shopped more, ate and drank with these people. It all felt natural, like second nature. Every one of these people have a very special thing in common — a very wonderful thing in common: We all have a passion for life (rather than death) for all healthy and adoptable animals. I feel bittersweet in leaving, but know I now have a mission and also look forward to doing this all over again in Salt Lake City next year!” – Jennifer, New York
These sentiments are not unique. Many attendees shared similar stories. What is also remarkable is not just how many enjoyed a weekend filled with inspiration, but how many are new to this movement. Not only are so many people new to the Best Friends National Conference (72 percent of this year’s attendees had never attended before), but it was the first animal welfare conference of any kind for 50 percent of the attendees. In fact, 43 percent of our attendees have been involved in animal welfare for less than five years. This makes me smile. We want the no-kill movement to be each new animal activist’s first engagement experience.
We now stand on the brink of no-kill with cities like Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, San Diego and Baltimore. The thought of this new crop of inspired and educated no-kill leaders hitting the ground running, fully charged, just gives me the chills.
Next year’s conference is all set for Salt Lake City, Utah. We’re bringing the conference back to our home state, where you know we’ll pull out all of the stops. Mark your calendars now, for July 14-17, 2016. To make sure you don’t miss out on any important details, sign up to receive conference-related emails.
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Chief Development and Marketing Officer
Best Friends Animal Society