Best Friends’ 40th anniversary: History of our world, part I

Group shot featuring nine of the co-founders of Best Friends Animal Society with a dog
By Julie Castle

Forty years ago today, the founders of Best Friends put shovel to frozen, snow-covered sand in one of the most inaccessible places in the continental United States and set out on a journey that would change the way humans relate to homeless pets around the world. China, Korea, India, Australia, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, Europe — just throw a dart at a map of the world, and the no-kill movement has influenced it.

I started volunteering for Best Friends 10 years later and became employee No. 17 two years after that. I had the privilege of getting to know all the founders. Sadly, more of them than I care to count have passed, but they are the most extraordinary collection of people I have ever met. Brilliant, fearless, innovative, and absolutely eccentric. Without much more than a pot to pee in, they set out to change the world, and improbably, they did! If I were to tell any of the founders that they are the most remarkable people I’d ever met, they’d likely say, “Well, Julie, you obviously need to widen your circle of acquaintances!” with a droll British or edgy American delivery. Yeah, they are funny too.

While it’s impossible to commemorate the history of Best Friends without discussing the founders, it is equally impossible to do so without acknowledging the role of Angel Canyon as an agent in its creation and culture. The founders describe the creation of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary as giving form to something that was already present: a true sanctuary, a place of peace, and a gateway to a relationship with the natural world. The relationship that the founders and many of us have with the canyon is one of mutual respect and protection. It’s the spiritual underpinning of the organization, the no-kill philosophy, and the no-kill movement. There is no Best Friends without Angel Canyon.

Before Angel Canyon, the founders had been operating a small sanctuary at a ranch about 30 miles west of Prescott, Arizona. They were caring for 200 or so “times-up” pets from a humane society in Prescott. Many of the cats had feline leukemia, which was rampant in shelters before an immunizing vaccine was available. Working closely with local vets, they became experts at providing supportive care to the animals with special needs whom they adopted from the shelter. It was the beginning of the specialized care for which Best Friends became known.

By June 1984, a couple of trailers, a prefab house, a hastily constructed bunkhouse for the work team, and a few dog runs were in place. The Arizona contingent, plus 200 or so animals, then arrived in Kanab. This was the nucleus of what would become Best Friends Animal Society.

The lost dog who changed everything

Not long after the Arizona arrivals, one of the founders’ dogs wandered off and was officially declared missing after two days of searching. Turns out, he had followed Kanab Creek for about 5 miles and made it to the little town of Kanab, where he was placed in the animal control impoundment building — an unattended, open-sided, cinderblock structure with a tin roof that could have been lifted from a World War II prisoner of war camp. Baking hot in the summer, freezing cold in the winter —  it was not untypical for rural America.

Located in a field in the back of the little local airport, once a week a vet from St. George was contracted to stop by and put down any dog who was there. After checking with the local police, Best Friends co-founder Gabriel de Peyer found his missing dog at the impound and returned with the depressing description of what was taking place just down the road from the little piece of heaven he and his colleagues had just settled into.

The founders resolved at that moment that they had to do something. They knew that anything they did would be better than the scene Gabriel described of the local pound.

This was the flexion point that would turn their sanctuary adventure from a modest, private passion project to the country’s largest no-kill sanctuary for abandoned and abused animals. Francis Battista was dispatched to visit the mayor of Kanab and volunteer the group’s services as animal control for the town.

As Francis tells it, Mayor Jenkins was watering the flowers in his front yard when the two met. Francis said something to the effect of, “Hey mayor, we just acquired all this land up the canyon, and we’d like to do animal control for Kanab.”

With no qualifying questions, the mayor, who was probably thinking “a sucker is born every minute,” nodded his approval and went back to tending to his flower bed. One of the Best Friends founders would go to see the chief of police the next day to work out the details. How bad could it be? It was such a small town, so they figured they’d set up some more dog runs and everyone could take in a few more cats. The founders nominated Faith Maloney for the role of working with the police, and she owned it without blinking.

Before it had a name, the no-kill philosophy was baked into the cake of the founders’ commitment to the animals. It was unimaginable to take a dog or a cat into your care only to kill them if they became inconvenient or expensive. All the money they had set aside and all the plans they had to build were entirely upended and subordinated to the needs of their commitment to take on animal control for a tiny Utah town, which in short order would expand beyond Kanab to include Kane County; Garfield County; Fredonia, Arizona; and the Paiute Tribal Police at Pipe Spring, Arizona. Faith was on call day and night for each of them, and everyone else’s time and energy became devoted to caring for the animals, building more runs and enclosures, and, as money dwindled, scavenging pet food and building materials from far and wide.

The power of a card table, a coffee can, and a commitment to positivity

By 1991, with now close to 2,000 animals in their care, the proverbial smelly stuff hit the fan. It was another flexion point that would have an impact on the future of nonprofit fundraising across the board.

They were essentially broke. And it was all hands on deck to figure out ways to raise the money needed to care for the animals. Most of the founders went tabling. They’d set up a card table at a market or mall with the manager’s permission, put out a large coffee can wrapped with photos of animals and a couple of boards with little blurbs about no-kill and the Sanctuary with photos of some of the residents, and just talk to passersby about their work and ask for donations. The only literature they had was a three-fold brochure about the Sanctuary.

Starting locally, they expanded their circuit to include Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Flagstaff, Santa Fe, San Francisco, and even the Pacific Northwest. They would staff those tables for 12 hours a day, six days a week, and at the end of each day, they would call home to Angel Canyon with how much they’d raised in donations so that the most pressing bills could be paid ASAP.

After officially joining Best Friends in 1996, I did my fair share of tabling, and I can tell you it is not easy. Rejection is humbling, and the hours and weather are wearing. Some founders tabled from 1991 through 2007, while building local programs at the same time.

Tabling kept Best Friends afloat and provided some of the longest standing and most personal connections with our membership — and the start of a very strong mailing list. But the breakthrough for the organization was an intentional decision about how Best Friends would message our cause.

The founders were veterans of many animal welfare struggles. They would donate to other organizations and receive magazines and appeals from many of the leading groups of the ’80s and ’90s. Each was filled with horrific images and, because of that, was essentially unreadable. The shock and horror of gory photos, of Draize testing on rabbits’ eyes, and of shivering, starving dogs or foxes caught in traps were a moneymaker, and those organizations mined that narrative for all it was worth. Hell, some still do.

It wasn’t just in animal welfare though. Sad, depressing images were the rule, and fundraising consultants, short on ideas, advised nonprofits to push negative images and the impending dire consequences that would occur if funds weren’t sent immediately.

The founders were pretty hardcore rescuers and had seen more than their fair share of distressed, injured, and sick animals up close and personal. But even they found it difficult to read the gory literature coming from other groups. If they didn’t want to look at those images, with all that they had seen and experienced firsthand under their belt, how could they expect regular animal lovers to do so?

The founders weren’t going to lay a guilt trip on people, nor would they portray animals as victims. Rather, they offered an unspoken contract based on kindness and consideration for animal lovers’ sensibilities. They would not violate that trust with shocking images and hopeless stories. The founders felt strongly that they didn’t need to shock the public to engage the public. After all, what’s more engaging than a happy dog or cat?

It was a commitment to unfailingly positive news about the animals in all communications with donors and the public. The relationship with donors and the public became an ongoing conversation about good news and progress being made. It’s simple: Treat people the way you would want to be treated. Today, most animal organizations and other charities have learned from Best Friends’ success, and now they, too, focus on the positive and on building relationships versus relying on quick-hit shock.

These formative years of Best Friends, the challenges and the decisions made, set the course for the organization. They describe a throughline that continues to guide us today.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the story and too much to do justice to in just one blog, so I am looking forward to sharing more of the amazing story of Best Friends Animal Society as we continue to celebrate our 40th anniversary year throughout 2024.

Thank you for being here. Together, we will Save Them All.


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Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society