KANAB —  For Women’s History Month, the women of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary discussed leadership, work culture, diversity and “saving lives.”

In this file photo, Julie Castle (R) and a staff member interact with a kitten at the Best Friends Lifesaving Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society, St. George News

Women comprise 77% of the nonprofit’s workforce and 81% of its animal care jobs, according to a news release issued by Best Friends.

“Nationally, Best Friends’ female staff have developed the country’s most comprehensive dataset for animal sheltering, oversee corporate, entertainment and B2B partnerships with more than 4,000 animal rescue and shelter organizations, and on the ground in municipal shelters implementing pet lifesaving programs,” the nonprofit states.

Best Friends’ first female CEO, Julie Castle, was named a “champion of change” by CNN in 2023 and included as No. 34 on In Style magazine’s list of women who “show up, speak up and get things done” in 2018. Castle was also awarded 2023’s CEO of the Year by Utah Business Magazine.

The sanctuary’s Cat World Director, Amy Kohlbecker, has been at Best Friends longer than she lived in her childhood home, with her 14th anniversary coming up this June. She’s responsible for 39 employees and between 400 and 700 cats, depending on the season.

Amy Kohlbecker pets a cat at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, Feb. 27, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

“I loved animals from a very early age but couldn’t see a path where I could work with them as a job,” she said. “And when I found Best Friends and saw there was an opportunity to work with cats, I just immediately jumped on it, came out here to Utah for the first time ever in my life for the job opportunity and just immediately, it was like, ‘This is it.’”

“I found my people,” Kohlbecker added. “I wasn’t a crazy person that loved cats anymore. I just fit in with the rest of the people that liked cats. So it was like we all were from very different walks of life from different parts of the country, but we all came together because we have this joint passion.”

At Best Friends, Kohlbecker said she has many great role models, with a high number of women in leadership. Still, she said some facilities can be “stuck in the old ways,” with people preferring to talk with a man.

Sylvia stares up at the camera at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, Feb. 28, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

“It’s almost like they want to talk to the person that’s in charge,” she said. “And I’m like, ‘No, I’m the one that’s in charge.’”

While on an assignment in Texas as part of Best Friends’ national shelter embed program, Kohlbecker said being a woman and an outsider was challenging at first.

“It took a lot of convincing and continuously repeating the same thing and showing up and showing them that I knew what I was talking about … but then at the end of it all, we developed really great relationships and really great bonds,” she recalled.

Kohlbecker said she handled these situations by trying not to take offense.

Velora observes her surroundings at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, Feb. 28, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

“It’s not personal — it’s not me,” she said. “It might be just that somebody hasn’t experienced a female leader before and doesn’t have experience with it. … Once I proved myself, they were like, ‘OK, you’re cool.’ And I guess, I don’t know, just continuously keep going — keep trying and keep putting yourself out there.”

Additionally, Kohlbecker said, “That experience definitely shaped my future,” both as a woman and a person who is “super into saving lives.”

“Part of it is resiliency and continuously showing up and believing in yourself, and also lifting up the other people around you,” she said. “And lifting everybody, not just the females, but everybody and giving everybody an opportunity. By being treated differently, it made me want to then be more open to everybody that I encountered.”

Amy Kohlbecker talks to another staff member at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, Feb. 27, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

For those hoping to get into the animal welfare game, Kohlbecker suggests learning from others.

“It’s really helpful if you have a role model,” Kohlbecker said. “Even if it’s not somebody you know personally, but somebody that you can look up to. And remembering that you can do anything that you want to, that as long as you work hard, keep showing up and believe in yourself, pretty much anything is possible.”

Kohlbecker said she tries to give back.

“I’ve had great people in my life who have been role models for me, both male and female and in animal welfare and not, and I try to repay the favor by helping other people who might not believe in themselves or see their potential,” she said.

Ali Waszmer, the director of Dogtown at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, said she was also treated differently than her male coworkers in male-dominated enforcement-focused agencies.

Best Friends Dogtown Director Ali Waszmer talks to St. George News via Zoom about dogs the nonprofit rescued from New Mexico, Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

“This (is) something that has been an obstacle in previous positions,” she said via email. “I am a big believer in ‘the proof is in the pudding,’ so in those situations, I focus on demonstrating that I am as capable, and in some cases, more capable. It’s unfortunate that women, who are often overqualified and overeducated, have to prove themselves in this way.”

Waszmer said she was drawn to Best Friends 2 1/2 years ago by the hope that she could make a difference in the animal welfare community and collaborate with other organizations to reach the nonprofit’s No-Kill 2025 goal to reduce the number of animals euthanized to a maximum of 10% across the U.S.

“I love getting to work with so many people with diverse backgrounds,” she said. “Having such unique experiences and backgrounds is crucial to the work we do and making No-Kill 2025 a reality.”

And then, “of course, the dogs,” she added.

Ali Waszmer walks Florida Beauty at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, Feb. 27, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

As Dogtown’s director, Waszmer is responsible for 52-58 employees and over 400 dogs. Throughout her career, she said the biggest change she’s seen was in herself.

“As I have advanced in my career, I have become more self-assured and able to trust myself and my abilities,” she said.

Waszmer said that while women and girls working toward a goal might follow unexpected paths and encounter detours along the way, they should keep their eyes on their goals and continue persevering.

“Keep your head up and follow your dreams,” she said.

Jen Reid, a 27-year Best Friends veteran who manages Horse Haven, said that both men and women thinking of entering the field should think outside the box.

Jen Reid trims a hoof at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, Feb. 27, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

“Don’t write off trades for any gender,” she said. “But for women, especially, there’s amazing opportunities for women to be farriers, to be trainers, to be equipment operators, to be in construction, to be in any of those fields that are traditionally thought of for men, but really and truly, are having a hard time finding workers.”

Reid grew up in the midwest on a farm, and said she was never treated differently than her brothers.

“It’s never been something where I’ve thought like, ‘Oh, this is man’s work, or this is woman’s work,’” she said. “This has always just been — this is work that I am capable of doing, and I want to do. So I do it. And that’s how I was brought up. … As a farrier — that is a very male-dominated profession. When you picture a horseshoe, I’m not it, but it doesn’t matter to me whether somebody believes I can or believes I can’t. I know that I can.”

Jen Reid prepares to trim a horse’s hooves at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, Feb. 27, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

As a farrier, Reid is a certified lameness specialist, instructor and examiner with the Equine Lameness Prevention Organization and can assess common lameness issues. Day-to-day, she and 13 others in her “kingdom” stack hay — weighing as much as 85 pounds — on trailers, move 50-pound bags of feed, work with large animals, such as horses, goats and potbellied pigs.

“There is repetition, there is hard work, and some days, it’s like, ‘I’m tired,’” she said. “I’m physically tired. For me, that’s good.”

Still, nothing makes Reid’s day more than helping an animal in need.

“Getting to be a part of bringing them back to health and watching them thrive and then go on to a new home,” she said. “That’s pretty awesome. … Like Mr. Roger’s said, ‘Look for the helpers.’ I get to be a helper. I get to be a part of helping them get to a better place.”

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