Digging deep: 35 things you probably don’t know about Best Friends

List of 35 "insider" tidbits of information about Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Some are fun, some interesting, and some surprising.
By Kelli Harmon

As we wrap up 2019 and the 35th anniversary year of Best Friends Animal Society, we’re celebrating by looking back on our unique history. You probably know about our amazing Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, and that Best Friends and its founders have always been leaders in the no-kill movement. You likely know that our goal is to make the entire country no-kill by 2025. But did you know that a cat at Best Friends once won a Pulitzer Prize? That’s just one gem out of 35 fun facts and trivia fodder provided for you from Best Friends co-founders and colleagues in the know.

Are these facts fun? Yes, they are. Have they all been rigorously checked for airtight accuracy? No. Well, some have, but others can only be verified by memory. If you’ve been a longtime Best Friends supporter, see if anything here surprises you. If you’re new, welcome to some of the lesser-known facts about Best Friends since the very beginning 35 years ago.

35 things you might not know about Best Friends

  1. Best Friends started with around 30 friends who had a dream. Today, there are nearly 800 people working either at the Sanctuary in Kanab or in other parts of the country. Fifteen of the original founders are still active in Best Friends’ current work.
  2. The original veterinary clinic was a travel trailer. The kitchen table was the surgery table.
    The original veterinary trailer
  3. The first Best Friends magazine was 24 pages and printed in black and white on an old IBM copy machine. The first run was 50 copies.
  4. Meow, a community cat at the Sanctuary, has for years been hanging around Horse Haven. She’s estimated to be around 20 years old.
    Meow the community cat by a woman petting a pig
  5. Lots of different kinds of animals call the Sanctuary their home-between-homes, including dogs, cats, horses, parrots, rabbits, guinea pigs, potbellied pigs, donkeys, mules, goats, sheep, domestic birds, mink, reptiles, rodents and Utah native wildlife.
  6. The cats at Cat World eat about 20,000 pounds of dry food per year and use more than 460 pounds of kitty litter a day.
  7. Years ago, three Best Friends co-founders became pilots to make travel easier. The first flight was to take a sheep to Salt Lake City for surgery.
  8. In the early days of Dogtown, there were more canine residents than today, with fewer staff and volunteers to care for them. Dog caregivers would each look after their own group of dogs that would be let out of runs to spend the day with them. The dogs followed their caregivers throughout the day and returned to their runs in the evening. During the day, you could always tell where staff persons were by the individual dog groups waiting for them outside of buildings.
    Tyson walking a pack of dogs
  9. The “Disney barn,” still at the Sanctuary today, was a set for the 1973 film One Little Indian, starring James Garner and nine-year-old Jodie Foster. Among the many dozens of movies and TV shows filmed in the canyon were The Lone Ranger, The Outlaw Josey Wales, “Lassie” and "Gunsmoke.”
    Horses standing in front of the barn from the One Little Indian film
  10. Volunteers make all the work possible at Best Friends. When the Sanctuary first started welcoming volunteer help, it was just a handful of people and grew from there. Last year the total number of volunteer hours across all Best Friends locations, events and programs was 501,570.
  11. Tomato the cat, who for years had a regular column in Best Friends magazine, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in August of 2000. The award letter stated it was for a new category: “the Purr Prize for service to man’s best friends.”
  12. The Sanctuary is big. Best Friends owns nearly 4,200 acres in Angel Canyon and leases about 17,000 additional acres.
    Overview of Angel Canyon
  13. The dogs at Dogtown eat approximately 123,600 pounds of dog food a year.
  14. In January of 2008, 22 of the 51 dogs from the Michael Vick dogfighting case were brought to Best Friends. We called them the Vicktory dogs. All the Vicktory dogs were either adopted or remained as Sanctuary residents for the rest of their lives. Meryl is the one remaining Vicktory dog at Best Friends, and though she’s now a senior citizen, she’s still happy and well-loved.
    Lucas the Vicktory dog licking Ethan's nose
  15. Best Friends Animal Sanctuary was the organization’s only location until the first off-site adoption center opened in Los Angeles in 2011. Today there are five Best Friends Lifesaving centers: two in Los Angeles, one each in Salt Lake City, Atlanta, and New York City, and one each on the way for Houston and northwest Arkansas.
  16. Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is in Kane County, Utah. One of the largest counties in the state at 4,109 square miles, it has just two stoplights.
  17. Best Friends was one the first animal organizations on the ground in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina to pull animals from the floodwaters during and following the storm. We were the last animal organization to leave.
    Man holding a white pit-bull-type dog who was rescued after Hurricane Katrina
  18. The oldest animal currently living at the Sanctuary is an Amazon parrot named Paco, who hatched in 1957.
    Paco the Amazon parrot
  19. In her past, Best Friends co-founder Silva Battista worked in the gardens at Buckingham Palace.
  20. Hay for the horses and other barnyard animals is stored in a cave at the Sanctuary. The previous property owner blasted a 40-foot hole in the rock to create a naturally-heated storage space for his RV. Using geothermal principles and with the outdoor doors closed, the cave maintains a temperature of 55 degrees year-round.
  21. Some of the more edgy spay/neuter campaigns in Best Friends’ past include “Hooters for Neuters” (in conjunction with the restaurant chain) and “Desex and the City.”
  22. Wild Friends is more than just one of the animal areas at the Sanctuary. It’s a state- and federally-licensed wildlife rehabilitation center.
  23. Gregory Castle, Best Friends co-founder and CEO emeritus, plays the bagpipes.
    Gregory Castle playing bagpipes in Angel Canyon
  24. Best Friends has always made a lifetime commitment to every animal at the Sanctuary. If unforeseen circumstances prevent someone from keeping a pet adopted from Best Friends, we happily take them back.
  25. A time capsule was buried at the Sanctuary on the occasion of our 25th anniversary.
  26. Some of Best Friends’ well-known friends include Willie Nelson, Ellen DeGeneres, Jackson Galaxy, Dr. Jane Goodall, Danny Trejo, Christopher Walken, Allison Janney and Amanda Seyfried.
    Jackson Galaxy in a room surrounded by cats
  27. Holly Sizemore dressed up as Heathcliff the cat to encourage trap-neuter-return (TNR)Leaders at Best Friends aren’t afraid to look silly when it comes to saving lives. Holly Sizemore, Best Friends chief mission officer, once dressed up in a big orange Heathcliff cat costume and sat in a giant cat trap outside of Salt Lake County Animal Services to bring attention to national feral cat day and trap-neuter-return (TNR).
  28. Best Friends was the first organization to plan and host super adoption events, which bring together hundreds of adoptable animals from multiple animal welfare organizations to meet potential adopters in one location.
  29. Angels Rest and Angels Overlook, the two areas at the Sanctuary where pets who have passed away are laid to rest, are dotted with more than 1,500 wind chimes.
    The front gates at Angels Rest
  30. On any given day, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is home to between 1,400 and 1,600 animals.
  31. One of the most popular spots at the Sanctuary is the Angel Village café, where staff, visitors and volunteers gather every day. Why? Check out the view.
    The view of Angel Canyon outside the Angel Village café
  32. During a time when the Sanctuary was still originally under construction, Judah Battista, co-founder and current chief of staff, lived in a cattery with the cats.
  33. The oldest equine resident at Best Friends was Dee the Appaloosa, who lived to be 47 years old.
    Dee the horse in a dust cloud
  34. Since 1998, Best Friends has been holding workshops on the topic of "How to Start and Run an Animal Sanctuary."
  35. It was back in the late 90s when Julie Castle — long before she would become our chief executive officer — stopped by the Sanctuary with some friends while on vacation. The Sanctuary’s no-kill ethic and the founders’ vision had a profound effect on her — so much so that she gave up a spot at the University of Virginia School of Law for a low-paying, six-and-a-half-days-per-week job as Best Friends employee No. 17.

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Photos courtesy of Best Friends staff