Our very own St. Francis, patron saint of the animals

Best Friends truly is a unique organization. Beyond the breathtaking beauty of our national headquarters in the red rock country of Southern Utah, there are many elements that distinguish Best Friends, most of which can be traced back to the philosophy of kindness and compassion that the founders shared, and of course to the character and commitment of the founders themselves.

In 1984, a group of friends mustered all the resources they could find, including an enormous amount of personal sweat equity, to start what would become Best Friends Animal Society. Each of them was passionate about animals, and many of them had already been in shelter rescue across America and operating mini sanctuaries along the way. That extraordinary undertaking was a critical and essential piece of what we all know today as the no-kill movement. They are legends, and as I’ve said before, together they really are a national treasure.

I’m proud, but certainly not surprised, to announce that Francis Battista will be honored at the upcoming Compassion Now Gala in Los Angeles. It’s going to be a very cool L.A.-style event at the Ritz Carlton in Marina del Rey, California. All the proceeds of the evening will benefit an important NKLA Coalition partner, the Spay Neuter Project of Los Angeles (SNPLA).

Francis played a central role in the creation of the Sanctuary and also helped to shape the programs and policies that Best Friends is now known for, including a gritty, four-month stint leading our operations during Hurricane Katrina and negotiating with the powers that be to bring 22 of Michael Vick’s fight-bust dogs to Best Friends. However, on this occasion, he is being recognized for his contributions to animal welfare in Los Angeles.

Despite all that can be said about his role in building the Sanctuary, including locating the land back in the early 1980s, it was Francis’ work in Los Angeles that, arguably, has shaped the organization the most. Starting in 1991, he and his wife, Silva, began building a program in Los Angeles. Driven by the needs of the animals at what was already the nation’s largest no-kill sanctuary and by a commitment to spreading the no-kill message, the pair spent time “tabling” at stores and malls around greater L.A. They were fundraising, gathering volunteers, showing dogs for adoption, and making face-to-face contact with individuals who would become, and who continue to be, valuable supporters of the organization. Many of those early volunteers went on to create local rescue organizations of their own, like Christi Metropole of Stray Cat Alliance, and many other local groups. That influence continues to this day, each group extending Best Friends’ no-kill philosophy in their own way.

One of the primary unintended effects of having a street-level presence while tabling for years in Los Angeles was that Francis and Silva inevitably made strong connections with the entertainment industry on both sides of the camera. Celebrities, producers, directors, agents and managers flocked to our no-kill message. Those early friendships have provided a powerful platform for the animals over the years, and today, Best Friends’ Acclaimed Ambassadors include many of those high-profile individuals who are still involved with our mission. The work in L.A. grew and grew, and without Francis’ insistence that we do more beyond the borders of the Sanctuary (along with our CEO Gregory Castle and the work he was doing in Salt Lake City), I am not sure that we’d be the same organization today. We very likely wouldn’t have the successful outreach programs that we have today, which are pushing the entire country toward no-kill. Francis’ work in L.A. most definitely mapped out, if you will, our ability to build where we are today with the NKLA program.

Francis is part philosopher, part mini sanctuary director at his home with a pack of “throwaway” dogs few others would attempt to provide a home for, and part guidance counselor. I’ve never seen someone take so many calls for help from across the country and offer so much advice to so many people without a single complaint!

On a personal note, Francis was my biggest champion through the darkest and most difficult challenge of my life, battling cancer. He did this both by just being there for me, and by being one of my strongest advocates. He did hours of research, he attended appointments, he was there for me every step of the way. And that’s Francis. He’s loyal and generous – not just with his friends, but more importantly to the animals. The animals always come first with Francis.

So here’s to our very own St. Francis, patron saint of the animals. Congratulations on your well-deserved recognition. Best Friends wouldn’t be what it is today without you, and I know I can certainly say the same of myself. I am proud to call you a mentor and a friend.

Julie Castle with Sunny the dog
Julie Castle
Best Friends Animal Society