The story of Best Friends is one to be shared with anyone who might be inspired by the power of a belief
Thirty-five years ago, a group of people made a leap of faith to realize a vision that they had long shared — to create a sanctuary for abandoned and abused animals. This was the logical extension of the rescue and advocacy work they had been doing for years. Little did they appreciate that their endeavor would catapult them to the forefront of a fledging movement to end the killing of 17 million dogs and cats who were dying in our nation’s shelters annually at that time. With little money, no master plan, few construction skills and countless lives hanging in the balance, they set out to address a local aspect of a much larger problem. What they created instead was the largest no-kill animal sanctuary in the world and a national movement to end the killing of companion animals.
Looking back now, it was a watershed moment for animal welfare. Yet to the founders of Best Friends Animal Society, it wasn’t about carving a place or moment in history, it was simply about doing the right thing for creatures who could not speak or act on their own behalf. The founders sought a meaningful spiritual life and they held to an understanding that the spiritual is expressed through kindness to those most in need — the animals and the earth.
In 2021, the number of animals being killed in our nation’s shelters was down to around 355,000 per year. It’s still a problem. Yet the work inspired by the founders of Best Friends has yielded a movement to Save Them All, creating a significant cultural shift in how animals are treated. That movement, rooted in the simple notions of right versus wrong, kindness over killing, individual value over faceless numbers, has taken hold in all corners of the country, from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City to Brown County, Indiana. Today, a third of all communities with sheltering services around the country are now no-kill.
The story of the founding of Best Friends and of its creators can be compared to other pivotal social movements: John Muir and the Sierra Club; Jane Goodall and the Jane Goodall Institute’s preservation of species. It is also a story comparable to the beginnings of other iconic brands like Apple and Nike. Steve Jobs, seeking to get a computer into the hands of everyday people, started Apple in his garage; Bill Bowerman, a University of Oregon track and field coach who wanted to improve the performance of his athletes, joined with avid runner Phil Knight, who had an MBA, to create Nike. The story of Best Friends is one to be shared with anyone who might be inspired by the power of a belief, and how that belief can change attitudes, transform lives and create a better world.
Why Best Friends was founded:
In 1984, the founders of Best Friends made a promise to one another and to the animals already in their care that they would build an animal sanctuary in Southern Utah, where they could dedicate their lives to housing and finding homes for unwanted pets while advocating the importance of no kill. At that time, shelters across America routinely killed cats and dogs as the primary method of pet population control. There wasn’t a national voice to end the killing. However, as the founders began to broaden the reach of Best Friends, they quickly learned that others would stand with them. Over 30 years later, they have inspired others throughout the country to take up the mantle of no kill and have helped to reduce the number of animals being killed in shelters by 91 percent.
Unlike the beginning of other nonprofit organizations, Best Friends was not launched with much fanfare. There was no official board leadership, strategic plan or outreach strategy. Financially, the founders had very little money. They had salted away what they needed to make an acceptable offer on the property that would become the Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, and were earning some income off the sale of their previous property in Arizona. In terms of designing and constructing the space, the founders had very few practical skills to meet the needs of their current animal population, never mind the scale of what it ultimately became.
The founders were a motley crew. Francis Battista’s background in real estate led him to discover the land in Southern Utah for the Sanctuary. London-educated architecture graduate Paul Eckhoff straightened and reutilized old nails to create the early bunkhouse and facilities for the animals. Cambridge-educated philosophy major Gregory Castle built the roads and became the electrician. Faith Maloney, known as “Chief Dog,” rode herd on the dogs while construction of the Sanctuary was underway. Seventeen-year-old Judah Battista, Francis’s son, worked with Diana Asher to care for the cats. He slept in a shed at night while construction of the facilities was underway. Quite literally, the founders say they relied on a set of construction manuals from Time Life to help guide the way. What these remarkable and passionate individuals lacked in expertise, they made up for with sheer hard work and determination, and their connectedness to the animals and one another.
We had no visible means of support. We were hung out to dry. We were all in it together. – Francis Battista
All of this development went on as Best Friends was adding to the daily population of unwanted animals who found their way to the Sanctuary. The local area, despite a small population, turned out to be a seemingly endless source of homeless pets. And without a long-range plan and a means to generate sufficient income to keep up with the growing numbers of animals, the founders found themselves in a huge predicament in the early 90s. The owner of their previous property in Arizona had defaulted on the mortgage, leaving Best Friends unable to meet their financial needs. With their duty to the animals foremost in their mind, the group realized they had to create a formal entity that could generate a reliable source of income. The group set about fundraising. They set up tables in front of grocery stores in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City to raise sufficient money and in-kind donations to feed the animals and keep the lights on, while developing a rudimentary mailing list. The daily tally was deposited into the organization’s bank account to keep Best Friends operational. Co-founders Michael Mountain and Steven Hirano created Best Friends magazine, highlighting the positive news about the animals at the Sanctuary. Lucky for the group, it wasn’t long before they discovered that so many others felt as they did about animals. There was enough interest and eagerness to create a national movement across the country.
Through passion and purpose, trial and error, and a belief in the intrinsic value of all living things, the founders prevailed.
The founders belief system:
While the creation of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary grew out of a desire to address the senseless killing of animals in shelters, the group was ultimately motivated by a desire to live a life of kindness, compassion, integrity, and a connection to something greater than themselves. United in the belief that all life has intrinsic value, the founders worked to put aside personal ambition and ego to stay true to the goal of ending the killing. The result was something far greater than they had hoped — a better life for themselves and those with whom they shared their values.
We are following a path or a vision. People identify with this. It is actually a better life. –Gregory Castle
The founders reflect back on themselves as a unit
While the story of Best Friends is one that is truly unique in the world of other well-established national or international animal welfare nonprofits, the founders do not regard themselves as anything special, even though they have achieved a kind of “rock star” status in the animal welfare community. In addition to being the leading voice behind no-kill, Best Friends is recognized as a leader in all aspects of animal care and rescue, with practices and innovations that are leading the way in animal care nationwide. In terms of their philosophic beliefs, the founders are also well regarded for taking “the road less traveled” in pursuit of what was most important: ending the killing of companion animals in shelters.
When asked about their individual role in the success of the organization, the founders disavow any personal accomplishments to the importance of working together. For them, rescuing animals was always the number one priority, and everything else was subordinate to that. The founders happily lived without the common material possessions and luxuries that others would find necessary. Furthermore, they did not view this as any kind of sacrifice.
Supporters of Best Friends say the founders were (and still are) “living a dream.” However, Francis Battista described the day-to-day management of a start-up sanctuary, with an ever-growing population of homeless animals, and lack of necessary staff and resources to succeed more like living a nightmare. Yet they persevered. They maintained a strict focus on mission and did what was required to save the lives of more animals.
What is it about this group that is so attractive? The integrity runs right through us. We do what we are. –Steven Hirano
The unique history of the founders: How they came together in a quest for a better world
The founders of Best Friends began their work 20 years before they founded the Sanctuary. They came together in the turbulent 1960s in an effort to sort out personal conflict and live a better life. They saw the problems that bedeviled the larger society as scaled-up symptoms of the pettiness and problems that trouble and destroy personal and family relationships. While the obvious answer of kindness was a glib toss-off for most, the discipline of observing a life committed to kindness was of a different order of commitment. The very simple principle of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” was and is their guiding philosophy, and they extended this essential guide to life to the animals with whom we share the planet and especially to those with whom we share our homes.
The founders of Best Friends believed that by relating with kindness and unconditional love toward the most vulnerable and unfortunate recipients of humankind’s irresponsible actions, animals, they were being consistent with their aspirations for society as a whole. As Francis describes, “We were working out human conflict, understanding why despite our best efforts, we destroy our own dreams, and ruin our relationships.” This pursuit was manifest through the group’s relationship with animals. They were confounded by how our species could create companion animals, bring them into our environment, and fail them in the most basic way. If we can’t fulfill a commitment to an animal who makes few demands and offers unconditional love, how can we expect to manage the more demanding relationships of human interaction that make up our society?
Ultimately, the group felt a genuine responsibility toward these loyal and loving creatures. Their desire to pursue a better life for their animals and themselves led them on a spiritual quest to the beautiful canyon in Kanab, Utah.
The spiritual side: The philosophy of Best Friends leads to a better life for all
We thought if we would be a voice crying out in the wilderness, let’s find a really nice wilderness. – Gabriel de Peyer
Best Friends Animal Society is located in a red rock canyon near Kanab, Utah, at the heart of the Golden Circle of national parks, which include Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon. The locale of the sanctuary is a sacred place that was once home to ancient peoples of the Southwest. The founders knew they had discovered something very rare and special in what has become known as Angel Canyon. Visitors to the Sanctuary feel the healing effects of the animals and the canyon and a connection to something very powerful.
In creating Best Friends for the animals, the founders say they were simply listening to their inner voice. Founder Anne Mejia talks about how there is a desire within people’s hearts to do good things. But we get so trapped in our lifestyle, in our obligations, expectations and commitments that we sacrifice the voice within and suffer immensely as a result. The founders overcame whatever expectations were upon them to live a traditional life to follow their passion — rescuing animals. What others might perceive as a complicated existence (no money, home or personal possessions), the founders describe as “breaking out of jail.”
While the founders can be viewed as rejecting society’s norms of the time, they would not advise the rest of us to drop our personal responsibilities and commitments in pursuit of our passion. However, they do share an important bit of philosophy that could make us all a bit happier: It’s never too late to listen to your voice and follow your heart and your passion. Also, be kind. Silva Battista explains it best:
If you don’t understand or accept the basic principle of kindness – that it is an unbroken continuum that encompasses all life, including the animals, and if you dismiss this as not being important – you won’t get anything else right.
The founders today
Of the 31 individuals who began Best Friends in 1984, 15 continue to bring their own special gift to the whole that is Best Friends. Some play a very active role in the day-to-day aspects of the organization while others who reside at the Sanctuary interact with the thousands of visitors and volunteers who make their pilgrimage each year to Angel Canyon.
The work, begun over 30 years ago by a group of individuals dedicated to living life by the Golden Rule, will continue on long after the founders have retired. For the animals whose lives have been saved and will continue to be saved at the Sanctuary, through local rescues and through advocacy efforts, the founders have definitely shown the world what a little kindness can do.
When people can no longer say ‘it’s only a dog,’ that is social change. – Cyrus Mejia