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They thought we were crazy…

“Why did you decide to start Best Friends in such a remote location?”

We often are asked this question, so since we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of Best Friends, I thought I’d write a blog post or two that reflects back on our early days.

When my colleagues and I founded Best Friends Animal Society in 1984, we did so without much fanfare, little money, and a very high likelihood of failure. Locating the Sanctuary in what was (relatively speaking) the middle of nowhere, in the pre-email, pre-Web era, didn’t do much to raise the odds in our favor.

Many readers will not remember the early 1980s, but here are some watershed events of that time:

Both President Reagan and Pope John Paul II were shot in assassination attempts. More than 240 U.S. military personnel, mostly Marines, were killed in a suicide truck bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in Lebanon. AIDS was identified as a global health threat. The dire warnings of future food shortage, the greenhouse effect, “The Population Bomb,” and species extinction from the 60s and 70s had gone unheeded. Meanwhile, the Middle East was at war and the U.S. was working on a space-based weapons system affectionately known as the “Star Wars” program.

In short, it was not a whole lot different from now, other than a matter of degree. So the desert seemed as good a place as any to stake out our future.

We were in debt since we had purchased a “white elephant” ranch in the red-rock canyons of southern Utah — 3,000 acres of sand, sagebrush and juniper trees in a spectacularly beautiful canyon setting. We also had about 200 dogs and cats, many of them with special needs, from the group of founders’ years of animal rescue work. That number would soon grow to a population of nearly 2,000 animals, making our property the largest no-kill sanctuary in the country and an incubator of advocacy for the no-kill movement.

In short, we had no phone, no water, no power, little money and we were a 90-minute drive from the nearest veterinarian.

All we had were the convictions that the life of every animal has intrinsic value and that the practice of killing homeless pets as a method of population control was an unacceptable fact that we were committed to changing.

People thought, perhaps with good reason, that we were a crazy remnant of 60s idealism, with few practical skills and zero experience of living or working in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau.

We built our first structures with materials scavenged from the demolition of an airport in Texas and a children’s hospital in Las Vegas, and from various construction company scrap piles around the West.

We (the founders, not a contractor power company or the phone company) installed miles of cable to bring in power and phone service. We developed local springs and dug trenches for water lines. It was an all-in, do-it-yourself adventure that surely would have made for several great seasons of reality TV, if such a thing had been popular 30 years ago.

Shortly after our arrival, one of our dogs went missing and turned up in what passed for the local pound — a tin-roofed, cinderblock set of cages in an open field surrounded by a chain-link fence. Each week, a vet from St. George would come to town and kill any dogs who were unlucky enough to be locked up there.

Seeing this was a shocker, and we figured that anything we could do had to be better, so I was volunteered to visit the local mayor and offer to handle animal control for Kanab, our little town of about 3,000 residents. Without missing a beat or asking a question, the mayor said OK to our proposal. (I think we could have been making sausages for all he cared.) Faith Maloney, who previously had run a small private rescue kennel in upstate New York, became (basically overnight) the de facto animal control officer for two and a half counties.

Planning ahead was never our strong suit. The Sanctuary grew exponentially in those first few years, as did our resolve to make a difference, but we were still a hand-to-mouth organization, operating in the red and perpetually on the brink of financial disaster.

When we ran out of money, we set up fundraising tables at grocery stores in Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico. We handed out the simplest of brochures, and signed 70,000 people up for what was to become our original mailing list.

We built our crazy dream into one of the largest and most influential animal welfare organizations in the country, if not the world. And we helped to create and through the years have led a movement that has changed the face of animal welfare.

So, yes, people thought we were crazy, and occasionally, when I was trying to pickax my way through 18 inches of frozen sand or sitting outside a grocery in the baking sun for 10 hours a day, I thought we were crazy, too. But we persevered.

Oh, and this magnificent but remote location that we chose continues to inspire and motivate us, as well as just about everyone who comes here. Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the headquarters for Best Friends Animal Society, is a mecca for animal lovers from around the world.

It’s been an interesting 30 years.
Francis Battista, Co-founder, Best Friends Animal Society Francis Battista
Co-founder
Best Friends Animal Society