Monday, December 7, 2009

Some lessons learned from Best Friends

I asked a lot of questions at Best Friends last week and I wasn't expecting any easy or ready made answers but I think I got a small sense of what makes BFAS different from any other animal sanctuary in the world.

The place is not without its politics and from the many sideways glances I saw whenever I broached the subject, I got the feeling there was a lot of it. Fine. You can't get two people in a room without there being politics. What's amazing then is that BFAS has succeeded, and succeeded in a big way, despite the politics.

I had intended the trip to be more of a vacation than a research trip but then the Toronto Humane Society arrests happened the day before I was to fly out of Toronto and all of a sudden there seemed to be a much more urgent need to start networking and gathering information for the now more likely reformation of the THS.

And because I thought it was just going to be a vacation, my questions were unfortunately ill-prepared, slipshod and all over the place as they were mostly to satisfy my own curiosity and not so much a serious attempt at starting to rebuild the broken pieces of an animal welfare agency.

Still, there were a lot of things discussed which pertain directly to what's going on at the THS and what needs to be done to get it out of its hole and other things things discussed which may only have a cursory importance.

I hesitate to post these incomplete thoughts because they are just that: incomplete. But then writing them down also helps and maybe can generate some discussion to pull them into better focus. So, here is some unfinished randomness.

1. The founders, there were 24 of them, placed equal value on developing and maintaining human relationships as well as animal relationships. There was definitely a spiritual, humanistic center to everything the founders did in the early days and I believe that's the binding force that saw them through the thick and thin.

2. All the people I've met at BFAS, the founders, animal caregivers, vets, media people, tour guides, not only have a primary concern for animal welfare but most of them also have very positive people skills. I asked if everyone's positive attitudes were due to the environment or the hiring practices or if the behaviour was codified in their job descriptions and it seems that it's a bit of each.

3. It seems most people here treat their jobs in a highly professional manner. I've never been in an organization where people were as proud to be doing what they were doing and worked so hard at it all the time.

4. Hiring seems to be based on positive personalities as much as experience or education.

5. Volunteers are treated with exceptional courtesy, appreciation and efficiency. The staff try to give volunteers meaningful work so that they walk away with a sense of having accomplished something. Volunteers play a huge role in the running of BFAS. I think it's safe to say that without them, BFAS would not have been able to accomplish nearly as much as it has. I'll have to check these numbers but I think there are something like 400 employees while 7000 volunteers helped out at BFAS last year.

6. I can't help but think that the landscape BFAS lies within has a great effect on the people working there. The beauty of the place is awe inspiring but it's not just that I'm refering to.

The nearest town is Kanab which until recently, used to be, literally, a one stoplight town. This in the state of Utah where religion still plays a fairly major role in many people's daily lives. For someone to move to Kanab or a neighbouring town and to remain there long term to work at BFAS would require a very special personality. Many don't make it more than a few months or even a couple of weeks. The remaining, remain not just because they have the utmost dedication to animal care but also because they appreciate or endure or some combination of the two, their new environment. In a way, the environment at and around BFAS, sort of does this natural selection thing where the well-suited stay and work and the rest move on.

I also got a lot of more specific ideas directly related to the care of dogs (and other animals) but those are really scattered and wouldn't make much of a good read in a blog.


Lynn said...

I wanted to respond to your first point--about the human dynamic. I'm not sure if it's something you wrote recently, or something I was thinking about elsewhere, but I agree that often humans get left out of the equation in the animal rescue arena. Our first thought is always to save these helpless critters, but unless we deal with the human problems, the animal ones will just keep repeating themselves. Unfortunately, I've found that "animal people" are not always the best "people people," and there can be a lot of hate and anger directed towards transgressors (people who give up animals, abandon them, abuse them), rather than compassion and--most importantly--education. Until we can address the attitudes and approaches of people, I'm afraid we'll be lost in a neverending cycle of saving animals.

Fred said...

I heard often at BFAS that there wasn't an animal problem but a human problem. In other words, the only way to solve the problems for animals is to educate people.

I agree with you totally about "animal people" and some of our attitudes towards other people. It can be difficult to be confronted with the suffering of animals at human hands and not end up being a misanthrope. As you point out, though, being a people hater is not a solution.

Anne said...

I never hire people that love animals more than people. because people come first- even in animal welfare.
I also fire people with a shit attitude. The job is hard enough without your coworkers bringing you down every day.
When hiring i actively look for applicants with a good attitude, a friendly nature, a personality that will mesh with the other staff and lots of Customer Service experience. I feel that the animal aspect of the job can be learned, but dealing with people is an inate skill, and either you have it or you don't

Anonymous said...

I have to admit I tend toward the misanthropic side myself, mostly because of the sheer number of animal abuse cases out there ( I really should stay off the internet). Unfortunately,I don't believe abuse can be helped with education (it's just too deep seated a pathology) but maybe neglect & abandonment can. I think that would have to start in the schools... an outreach program that goes around to schools and teaches the kids about animal care, animal rights, how to be responsible for their pets, etc. would be great.

Maybe that would be something for the 'new' THS to tackle. Without Trow wasting the money on lawyers, who knows what can be accomplished?

GoodDog said...

All good stuff Fred - glad to see that this trip has served to inspire and motivate you even more.

I have been thinking about the human factor for a while now too -- I have volunteered and worked at a number of different places over the years and seen a lot of mismanagement -- not by malice, but just by a lack of professional skills.

I think it's important to differentiate, however, between the ability to work with people and being able to work with the public. They are 2 very different things, I am lead to believe by your postings that BFAS understands that too.

Robin E Jackson said...

Your words are very moving and inspiring to those of us that work at Best Friends. Thank you for such a wonderful gift.

Maria said...

An additional blog with thoughts about Best Friends is at: