Backstory of new Best Friends Animal Clinic

When I toured the new facility a few weeks back, before all the medical operations had made landfall from across the road in Dogtown, I was blown away by the place. The architectural design, well-planned layout, and technical sophistication of the various medical care and surgical suites are more than a fulfillment of the vision that Faith Maloney has been referencing for almost 30 years. Faith would always point to this expansive sagebrush flat across from Dogtown and say, “And that’s where the clinic is going to be built.” She was usually showing around a group of visitors and would gesture and build out the vision with the panache of a real estate developer taking a young family on a tour of model homes.

As I walked through the high-ceilinged, open and airy spaces, I could not help but recollect where this all started and one person, in particular, who helped us get this show on the road. One man who I wish were here to enjoy what his generosity, patience and love of the animals helped to create.

When we arrived here in 1984 with 200 dogs and cats from shelter rescue efforts in Arizona and elsewhere, the closest vet was either an hour and a half drive due east to Page, Arizona – then little more than a Lake Powell marina, a few tourist trading posts, and a shopping destination for the adjacent Navajo Nation – or due west, across the Arizona strip, to St. George, Utah. Despite our generally DIY-approach life (“Hey I’ve got an idea – let’s start an animal sanctuary in the middle of nowhere!” “Sounds like a plan.”), our animal nursing care at the time was pretty sophisticated. We had been working closely with vets and universities for about five years and were up on the latest support therapies for old, injured and sick animals, especially the many feline leukemia–positive cats that we pulled from shelters where the disease was endemic at the time. With an animal population profile like that, a good vet was essential. And in veterinary terms, as in every other, we were living in a desert.

Then, a few months into the adventure, in one of those moments of serendipity that, in hindsight, seem to have occurred at every moment of desperate need along Best Friends’ journey, a young vet with a mobile farm practice out of Panguitch, a town about 70 miles north of here, introduced himself at a local pet groomer’s and said he’d like to work with us. Enter Dr. William Christy, Best Friends’ first veterinarian.

Dr. Christy would drive up in his old Chevy pickup kitted out with a standard vet box – kind of like a plumber’s truck but with specialty compartments for holding meds, injectables, fluids, cold sterilization trays, and those medieval-looking implements known only to farm vets, and, of course, packs of latex, long-sleeved gloves for preg checking the cows! He wore overalls that frequently bore evidence of whichever farm or herd he had last visited.

Like us, and the rest of Southern Utah, Doc Christy was a bailing wire and duct tape kind of guy, and we loved him for it. First off, he said he didn’t want to make his money peddling drugs, so he would give us meds and supplies at cost, which made us love him even more. He was also an Eagle Scout. The photo (at left) shows the Doc getting ready to clipper a kitty’s neck area in prep for a blood draw with me doing the tech bit. Bill was dressed for the nice weather, and I was dressed for a long day of claws. And, yes, that is a fridge in the background and that is the kitchen table in the Bunkhouse, our first “clinic.”

Doc Christy was into it from the start, and he set about to find us something that we could use as a more suitable clinic. But what he came up with didn’t come cheap.

He’d located an old Airstream on his rounds, which he’d taken in payment for a bill, but we’d have to take a bunch of “wood pile cats” from an elderly client he was trying to help. That was how we acquired our first vet clinic, which we affectionately christened the “Silver Bullet” after the trending Coors Light ad campaign.

We have been searching for a photo of the Bullet for years to no avail, but like all Airstreams, its shiny aluminum exterior matched its name. The inside, however, needed a tad of work. You had to watch where you walked on the mustard-colored shag carpet because the floor was rotted out in places, and we had to tear out what was left of the built-ins. The windows were all broken out, so I got some nice, new 1/8-inch Plexiglas from the local Ace Hardware and fixed that in about an hour and a half. The Doc also provided us with our first piece of actual medical equipment – an operating table that went up and down. Actually it was an ancient OB/GYN exam table, movable stirrups and all. I have no idea where he came up with that, but it was part of the package. The table wasn’t hydraulic; you had to turn these two large cranks on either side to raise and lower it or change the angle of the surface. When he was doing surgery on a large dog such as a Rottie, and the angle of the table needed to be changed for a gravity assist with the dog’s internals, Doc Christy would call out, “Handles,” and Faith would come running from the front of Bullet and crank away! He also scavenged an old anesthesia machine for the setup, which a visiting member who was also an anesthesia machine salesman later noted “should be in the Smithsonian.” Both these relics made the transition to the next clinic, pictured below, a year or so later, which we built from scratch.

This second clinic, parts of which remained as the core of the clinic operation until a renovation two years ago was outfitted in large part thanks to the demolition of the Sunrise Humana Children’s Hospital in Las Vegas.

One of the team had arranged for us to remove whatever was left the day before the dozers arrived, so a group of us went down in a few pickups to see what we could find. There was some good stuff – drop-down exam tables, medical cabinets, a big, old autoclave unit, and a beautiful set of operating lights for which I gave my left knee. The lights were attached to a very high ceiling. I was on my own and too stupid to wait for help. All I had was a set of wrenches and a shaky, old 8-foot stepladder. I had to stand on the very apex of the ladder to reach the lights, but I was pretty sure that once I had a hand braced on the ceiling I’d stabilize the ridiculous arrangement. Just as one end of the heavy support mount pulled free from the ceiling, however, my world started to rock, and I had to bail, tearing up my knee on the terrazzo floor. I screamed for a while before limping off to find help. We got the lights, but our clinic ceiling was too low to accommodate them without Dr. Christy banging his head on them, so they sat in a shed for years as a mocking reminder of my foolishness.

As the Sanctuary grew, and with it, our veterinary needs, Dr. Christy’s practice also grew and extended a radius of about 100 miles, many of them accessible only by dirt tracks deep in rural Southern Utah. He was often out on emergency farm calls in the middle of the night and on his days at the Sanctuary, I would sometimes wake in the morning to find him asleep at the Bunkhouse kitchen table, exhausted.

I started going to Los Angles in late 1991 with my wife-to-be Silva, to raise much-needed funding for the Sanctuary, which was struggling to stay afloat. The “no-plan plan” had hit its limit, and we were at the most challenging of our put-up or shut-up periods. While I was in Los Angeles on one trip and called in to let the folks back home know how much we had raised at tabling so they could pay off some bills, I heard the news.

In the early morning hours of February 5, 1992, Dr. Christy was killed in a highway accident about 30 miles north of the Sanctuary. He left a wife and four children.

I wept when I heard that, and I’m crying as I write.

Neither words nor tears could ever do justice to how much Bill meant to Best Friends and to me. He was a friend and a teacher, and just a kind and generous man. But as I walk through the new clinic, I know he would be happy and proud. We miss you Doc, and I truly wish you were here to see this.

Take a virtual tour of the new clinic.

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