ST. GEORGE — Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab recently received two awards from the Salt Lake Tribune, including being named one of the best places to work in Utah in 2021. Additionally, the nonprofit’s CEO, Julie Castle, received the Tribune’s sole 2021 Leadership Award in their large business category.
Castle told St. George News that the journey that would ultimately lead her to Best Friends began with a harrowing experience when she was a student at Southern Utah University and visited a shelter in Enoch in the early ’90s.
“I went there to adopt some cats,” Castle said. “But I found a tin shed with no animals. Just a man who wore cowboy boots and a cowboy hat sitting behind a desk.”
She said she asked the man where the animals were, and he responded, “I took care of them.”
“I asked him what that meant,” she said, “and he told me that he put them in a barrel, then ran a hose from his pickup truck to the barrel, and…”
Castle trailed off at that point in the story. But she added that the experience may have been the moment that sparked her passion for the work she would eventually pursue.
Castle graduated with magna cum laude honors from SUU in 1994. She decided to forgo a career in law for a low-paying, high-demand job working to help animals in need. She discovered Best Friends Animal Sanctuary while en route to Mexico and decided to stay.
As the 17th employee in the history of the sanctuary, Castle gave tours, answered phones, cared for animals and even did some landscaping. She worked her way up the ranks to become the organization’s first female CEO in March 2018.
During her tenure as CEO, which began with a commitment to end the killing of dogs and cats in America’s shelters by the year 2025, she has helped to build the organization into an 800-employee national leader in animal welfare. While Castle said she’s grateful for the leadership award, she’s more excited by the organization’s workplace award.
“I’m really all about workplace culture,” she said. “To learn that they are gratified by their jobs and their employer means that we’re doing something right. After all, we spend much of our lives at our jobs. So it had better be good.”
Amy Kohlbecker: ‘They really invested in me’
Amy Kohlbecker was a teacher in Florida before she packed her belongings into a U-Haul to join Best Friends 11 years ago. Today, she’s the director of Cat World at the sanctuary. She had no experience in animal welfare, but she had a passion to help animals. She took a chance on Best Friends, she said, and was repaid in kind.
“They really invested in me,” Kohlbecker told St. George News. “They invested time and effort in me, just as they do in all their employees, as well as the animals we help.”
As an example, Kolhbecker said Best Friends stepped in to help the Cedar City Animal Shelter when they struggled to get cats adopted.
“They had so many cats,” she said, “and they were considering euthanizing them. They were running out of space, so they reached out to us.”
Best Friends, in turn, reached out to their vast network to see what could be done. Ultimately, Kohlbecker said, they agreed to accept nearly 50 of the cats in Kanab.
“Cedar City’s Shelter manager, Brittany, wept,” Kohlbecker said. “That’s a great great example of what we’re about.”
“I’ve always been as generous as possible,” she continued. “Best Friends is that way too. It feels amazing to be able to do what I love for a living, and for an organization whose goals and values align so well with mine.”
Brianna Vlach: ‘They create the space for us to improve’
Brianna Vlach supervises the Wild Friends section of the sanctuary. She studied conservation and wildlife at Montana State University and has been working with the wild friends – animals that are not typically domesticated, like desert tortoises, squirrels and crows – for nearly three years.
Though she admitted that she was biased in favor of Best Friends, she said that Castle, as well as Faith Maloney, who helped found Best Friends, have exceeded all expectations.
“Julie makes a point of getting to know each of our employees, as well as our animals,” Vlach said. “She asks how Salvadore, our rooster, is every time she visits.”
Castle wants to know whether employees and animals are doing well, Vlach added. And when something’s not right, she said, Castle is proactive in making whatever changes are necessary.
Vlach said that she has been fortunate enough to like the various places she has worked, but Best Friends is exceptional.
“Our leadership leads by example,” she said. “Faith makes a point to eat lunch with every intern. She answers questions they have and gets to know them. Every time they have lunch with Faith, they come back glowing.”
That feeling of support and appreciation extends to Vlach too.
“Whatever I want to do, as far as professional development goes, they do whatever they can to make it happen,” she said. “They want us to succeed. Just like they are always working to improve, they create the space for us to improve too. And that changes everything.”
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