Maria Shriver

My Project: Best Friends Animal Society

Best Friends co-founder and CEO Gregory Castle with Oscar, Mona and Ruby. Best Friends Animal Society

This year, Best Friends Animal Society celebrates its 30th anniversary, and although the number of animals killed in the nation’s shelters has been greatly reduced since its inception, the mission of the largest no-kill animal sanctuary in the United States continues with equal fervor.

That mission is threefold: reducing the number of animals entering shelters, increasing the number being adopted into caring homes, and ensuring that a time will come when homeless and abandoned animals are no longer killed in shelters. The society states this purpose simply and powerfully as “Save Them All.”

The heart and soul of Best Friends can be found at its sprawling Sanctuary in Utah, a safe haven providing healing and restoration to nearly 2,000 homeless animals. Sheltering dogs, cats and goats, to name a few, the Sanctuary boasts a Bunny House, Horse Haven, and even a Piggy Paradise, and it hosts both visitors and volunteers.

Gregory Castle, the CEO and co-founder of the Best Friends Animal Society, is a 71-year-old Brit whose passion for rescuing animals is matched by his love of running. This month, the frequent marathoner is raising funds for Best Friends by participating in the grueling Grand to Grand Ultra, an epic seven day race spanning some 170 miles. Here, Castle shares how his work with animals has humbled him, and how the extraordinary efforts of “ordinary” folk have made a powerful impression on him.

What motivated you to get involved in this work?

Back in the late ‘70s I came into contact with a small local humane society where, in common with just about every other humane society, SPCA and shelter at the time, healthy dogs and cats were routinely killed if homes were not found for them. I really didn’t know much about animal welfare before that time, but I knew I loved animals. It wasn’t long before I and some friends were filling up our homes with animals from the humane society so that we could care for them well while we found them homes. That turned in to Best Friends Animal Society.

Best Friends Animal Society
Zeb and Beth. Best Friends Animal Society

What have you been most surprised to learn?

A lot has changed since those days with much more attention being given to the problem and far fewer animals suffering the fate I’ve described – 30 years ago it was 17 million a year in the U.S., now it’s about 4 million. It is wonderful progress, but we still have some way to go. It always surprised me, and still does, that beautiful, healthy pets wind up dying simply to make room in animal shelters, when with application, commitment and a certain amount of hard work, there are ways to save those lives and find them permanent, loving homes. I just can’t connect with the practice of killing them as a solution.

What do you most want people to know?

It’s really what I want people to FEEL. To me animals are as special as living creatures as are people. More and more people are coming to feel that their pets are part of the family. The immense growth of the pet products industry is evidence of this fact. We are spending so much more on them. What better indication of their value to us. But the pure sense of value is what people feel in their hearts. And to anyone who is not already there, I say “Open yourself to what your animals give to you, feel the value they truly have.”

Image: Siciliy
Siciliy the dog. Sarah Ause Kichas / Best Friends Animal Society

Who or what has made the greatest impression on you during your involvement?

There are many specific individuals I have met over the years whom I admire tremendously and have made a big impression on me through the dedicated work they do to save lives. But I can honestly say that what moves me the most is the very large number of “ordinary” folk – actually not ordinary at all – who care so much about the animals that they often turn their lives upside down to help them. In doing this they live a purely selfless life. I feel such a strong affinity for them, and I wish them every reward that can possibly be bestowed.

What has been the hardest part of this work, or how has this work challenged you?

I make it a point to visit animal shelters where cats and dogs are caged and awaiting their fate. For some it’s good, for others it’s the worst. As a chief executive of a large national non-profit, I have to attend to a lot of things that do not always keep me in direct contact with the animals. But I never want to drift from the emotional importance that they have for me. I make sure I stop by a shelter or two every few weeks so I never lose touch with the actual animals I’m working to save. It’s painful to do that, and though of course I can’t take them all with me, I always look them in the eye and send them a mental message renewing my commitment to do everything I can to save their lives.

Image: Steve and Joseph
Steve and Joseph Best Friends Animal Society

How has this work changed you?

I think it has made me more humble and less self-absorbed. In many ways I feel it has saved me. I feel so lucky to have been able to devote the major part of my working life to something that is deeply meaningful. Though I never had a deprived or disadvantaged life I felt essentially lost before I began this work. The animals I have known have taught me so much. They’ve taught me about love and loyalty and even given me insight into other worlds.

What goal do you have for the next 12 months?

I really just want to see more and more momentum develop behind the life-saving. I feel it building all the time. More people are becoming involved. There is increased attention being given to homeless animals and the fate they suffer. On the other side, there is increased exposure for the positive things our pet companions bring us. Just look at the explosion in popularity of internet cat videos! It’s all going in the right direction. But we cannot rest on our laurels. There are still some very unfortunate hot-spots needing more life saving. I see it going forward, but personally I want to play my part in driving it on to save even more lives. In fact to Save Them All!

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