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The beating heart of Best Friends Animal Society

This year is the 35th anniversary of Best Friends.

On a cold February day in 1984, a team of friends who would go on to be counted among the founders of Best Friends Animal Society arrived at Angel Canyon and began clearing sagebrush for a track to our first construction site, The Bunk House, so called because that’s where we, the work crew, would eventually sleep. Paul Eckhoff, the trained architect among us, had camped on-site in a drafty old travel trailer for a couple of days. In the mornings, his boots were frozen to the trailer floor and had to be cracked loose to start the day. The rest of us shared a rental in town.

I know it sounds like one of those geezer stories in which the teller used to walk to school uphill in the snow both ways, but there we were, making it up as we went along. We had three old trucks, some hand tools, a map, a generator, a few dogs and some “how to” books.

It was the beginning of an adventure that is still unfolding.

In a few months, other colleagues would arrive and, with them, about 200 cats and dogs who we had individually and collectively rescued from various shelters or out of traffic on some lonely highway. The sanctuary that we had imagined for many years was now a reality and Best Friends was born.

Thinking back to those days, however grandiose our flights of fancy might have been, we could never have imagined how the simple and seemingly obvious idea that homeless pets should be saved rather than killed would change the world of animal welfare and propel our harebrained undertaking in the middle of nowhere to international prominence.

We weren’t planning on it, but a few months later, in order to address a situation of abuse and neglect at the local pound, we asked the mayor of Kanab if we could take on animal control duties for this small, rural community. After all, we reasoned, how difficult could it be? The existing pound was a depressing three-sided cinder-block structure divided into four or five sections with some fencing and a corrugated steel roof. It was punishingly hot in the summer and frigid in the winter. Once a week, a vet would make the hour-and-a half drive from St. George and kill any dogs unlucky enough to find themselves in this small compound that appeared to be something out of a World War II concentration camp. (They did not house cats there.) We knew that anything we could do for these poor animals would have to be better than this and of course we had no intention of killing any animal who came into our care.

That was the first of many occasions in the following years, and up to the present day, that the real-world needs of homeless pets beyond the idyllic confines of our red-rock canyon sanctuary required us to make dramatic changes to our operation and to our own ideas about the role of the Sanctuary.

It wasn’t long before one of the founders, Faith Maloney, became the de facto animal control officer for three area counties, and the rhetorical question “How difficult could it be?” was answered as our population of rescued animals grew from 200 to 500 to 1,000 to 1,500. Whatever ideas we might have had about easily managing the local homeless pet population gave way to the urgent demands imposed by the sheer number of animals in our care.

The scale and scope of our responsibilities physically, financially and emotionally were no longer being managed according to our pre-determined plan. We were now operating at a pace determined by the sad reality of animal control and the long-standing practice of killing pets in America’s shelters. Suddenly, no-kill became more than simply the way we operated our own growing sanctuary; it became the flag that we flew and the course that we would chart.

We had to grow, we had to adapt, and we had to evolve.

Over the years, the Sanctuary has continued to evolve in what we do and how we do it, as a function of the changing landscape of animal welfare in the wider world.

As a beacon and a laboratory for the no-kill movement, the Sanctuary challenged convention in animal care protocols in terms of what constitutes an adoptable animal and many of the rationales that were being used to justify the killing of dogs and cats in shelters.

Early on, we had the largest population of otherwise healthy cats with feline leukemia (FeLV), who we kept well through proactive care and support, and we worked with universities on field trials of some of the early FeLV in-house screening tests.

In 1987, when feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) was identified by a researcher at the University of California, Davis, we tested cats from one of our areas where cats lived together and learned that about half of them had FIV. On the advice of the team from Davis, we kept this group isolated and neither adopted out cats from this group nor added any new cats to live with them. Several years later, with all of the cats who had FIV appearing outwardly happy and healthy, we retested them all and, to everyone’s surprise, all of the cats who had previously tested negative had not contracted the virus.

Thanks to the Sanctuary’s commitment to the lives of all our cats, we demonstrated quite by accident that FIV is not easily spread. And as other university researchers later confirmed, it is most commonly transmitted via bites if cats fight. That bit of information has spared the lives of untold numbers of cats with FIV, who were previously being killed in shelters.

Landmark events such as Hurricane Katrina, the Vicktory dogs (rescued from Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring) and Hurricane Harvey pushed the envelope of the Sanctuary’s operations in significant ways, but none more so than the incremental changes required to stay in sync with Best Friends’ growing national reach.

Again, our plan, such as it is, has always been to save animals’ lives. Whether that has meant Faith going on every local police call, back in the 1980s, in which a dog or cat might be involved or turning Dogtown inside out to create special accommodations for the Vicktory dogs or working to achieve no-kill nationwide by 2025 with new health and behavior protocols, the Sanctuary’s north star has remained the same.

Today, the Sanctuary is adapting to support Best Friends’ no-kill campaign by providing support for our regional operations in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, New York and Houston, as well as in places like Edinburg, Texas, and other border communities where tens of thousands of pets are killed annually.

The Sanctuary, though, does much more than save at-risk animals: It transforms people’s lives.

The power of Best Friends’ no-kill philosophy, the magical beauty of the canyon and the miracle of love that is expressed in the lifesaving kindness and care of our staff has made the Sanctuary a mecca for animal lovers everywhere. More than 30,000 visitors will experience the Sanctuary in 2019. They will be inspired and revitalized in their commitment to the animals and the no-kill movement. It is an indelible, life-changing experience.

Of course, none of us who were there on day one back in 1984, with cold fingers and toes and chattering teeth, had any idea what lay ahead. To be honest, however much we may think that we have the Sanctuary operation locked in, I know that it will change and grow because it is so much more than a set of buildings. It is a living, breathing thing that will continue to grow and change.

Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is the beating heart of our organization. That’s what it has always been and that’s what we intend it to remain.

It inspires me every day, as it has inspired hundreds of thousands of visitors over the years as we move ever closer to realizing our mission to bring about a time when there are no more homeless pets.

Together, we will Save Them All.

Francis Battista, Co-founder, Best Friends Animal Society Francis Battista
Co-founder
Best Friends Animal Society