Credit: Best Friends Animal Society
Two rescued horses graze in a grassy paddock on the sanctuary grounds.

Best Friends Animal Society.

The largest companion animal sanctuary in the United States is a beautiful example of how choosing kindness builds a better world for everyone.
Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated 28 November 2007

On any given day Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Angel Canyon Utah is home to 1500 dogs, cats, and other animals, who have come to the sanctuary for special care from shelters and rescue groups all across the USA.

Angel Canyon, the home of Best Friends, is a miracle of nature, millions of years in the making. For thousands of abused and abandoned animals, what happens there every day is a miracle of love. Once they’re at Best Friends, nothing bad will ever happen to them again. Many of them are soon ready to go to good, new homes with loving families. Others find lifetime care at the nation’s largest sanctuary.

Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is visited by over 20,000 people from around the world each year and has over 250,000 financial members in the USA.

Michael Mountain is President and one of the founders of Best Friends Animal Society. Here he tells the remarkable story of the creation of Best Friends and why they believe that simple concept of kindness to animals and respect for all living beings resonates with more and more people as the key spiritual and moral principle of our time — indeed of any time.

Today, it’s the largest companion animal sanctuary in the United States, and the flagship of the no-kill movement. But it began as a typical grassroots group of friends working with local shelters.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Split images of: Michael Mountain, President of Best Friends Animal Society / Walking dogs at Best Friends / A dog rescued from floodwaters during Hurricane Katrina.
Image credit: Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

Best Friends… the beginning…

In the late 1970s, a group of friends, who owned a small ranch in Arizona, were regular visitors to our local shelters. We would take home as many as possible of the dogs and cats who were scheduled to be destroyed, and then rehabilitate them. We found that we were soon able to place most of them in good new homes. And the few who remained formed an eccentric assortment of lovable creatures who inspired us to go looking for a place to open a larger sanctuary.

We found it at Angel Canyon, a glorious red canyon ranch among the national parks of Southern Utah. And we began building there in 1984.

In the early years, our attention was fully occupied in building the sanctuary and caring for the hundreds of animals who were coming in from all around. In those early years, the sanctuary was funded privately, but as word spread, we found ourselves receiving letters from far and wide saying, “I thought I was the only person who felt this way about animals. Now I know I’m not.” These kinds of responses led us, in the early 1990s, to incorporating Best Friends as a charitable organization.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has..
Margaret Mead

A tragedy of mammoth proportions…

At that time, more than 15 million dogs and cats every year were being killed at shelters across the USA. And the conventional wisdom of the time, at most humane societies, was that there was no solution to the ever-growing numbers of homeless pets, that killing them was a “necessary evil”, and that shelters “had no choice” but to destroy their “unadoptable” animals.

Yet we knew that other countries had an entirely different approach to their companion animals. In Germany, for example, it was illegal to kill a homeless animal without a team of veterinarians agreeing in writing that the animal was beyond medical recovery.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

A puppy looking out of the cage

Embracing the challenge

So we set about envisioning a time when millions of homeless animals would no longer be being killed every year, and we began setting up model programs that could accomplish this.

The response from our members and supporters was very enthusiastic. Grassroots groups were springing up all across the country: rescue groups, spay/neuter programs, adoption groups, volunteers working with their local shelters. Best Friends quickly became the flagship of this grassroots movement, and we created programs that could be applied by our members and other people anywhere. These included:

  • A statewide No More Homeless Pets campaign in our home state of Utah. Every humane society in the state agreed to take part, as did all the animal control shelters and most of the private rescue groups.
  • Model super-adoption events in Los Angeles and other cities — where we invited dozens of humane groups and city shelters to bring their animals, and celebrities to come and help promote them. Thousands of people would come and enjoy the “fun fair” atmosphere, including agility demonstrations and activities for kids. And these events would result in around 500 animals being adopted in a single day.
  • Catnippers — a model feral cat trap/neuter/return program, providing free services, with veterinarians donating their time and companies donating their supplies, to feral cat caregivers needing spay/neuter, health checks, and vaccinations.

“Unadoptable” animals? Not at Best Friends…

Meanwhile, the sanctuary itself began to focus more and more on animals with special needs, medical and behavioral, and longer-term rehabilitation. We also worked to change the whole idea that some animals were “unadoptable.” And as we told their stories and helped them become real “characters” — even celebrities in our publications — we found that more and more people wanted to take them home. Often, they were even competing to adopt them! (I have a special recollection of walking into our Incontinental Suite, where we house the kitties with neurological and “back-end” challenges, and finding two ladies arguing over which of them should get to take home one of those incontinent cats!). All of this helped redefine what people thought of as being “adoptable”.

No More Homeless Pets conference

Also, twice a year we would hold a No More Homeless Pets conference — each time in a different part of the country. Experts in shelter care, spay/neuter, adoption, fund-raising, etc. would lead workshops and discussion groups. But most of all, these conferences provided critical support and inspiration to people who were often still working alone to replace the old catch-and-kill mentality with a new life-oriented ethic.

The results

Today, the number of animals being killed in shelters each year has dropped from 15 million to a little over 4 million, and most major humane organizations and the veterinary profession work cooperatively to advance spay/neuter and programs. Also, most of the major pet supply stores have stopped selling dogs and cats altogether, and Best Friends is now leading a major effort to bring an end to the commercial breeding of animals in puppy mills.

Another initiative focuses on taking municipal animal control to the next level, where animal care becomes the responsibility of local government, in much the same way as are education, transportation etc.

Hurricane Katrina

Two years ago, when Hurricane Katrina hit the U.S. Gulf Coast, Best Friends took another major step forward. As the first national organization on the scene, we were able to set up an entire satellite sanctuary outside of New Orleans and mount an operation that rescued and transported more than 6,000 displaced animals from the region. Every one of these was then either reunited them with their family or placed in a new home. We now work with local groups in other countries to help mount rescue operations and help them create local humane programs.

Meanwhile, the sanctuary itself has become a gathering place for people from around the world who are looking to establish humane programs in their own neighborhoods. We host humane groups, college and school groups, intern programs, visits from young people in rehab programs, and conferences for people of all kinds who are involved in animal care and animal rights. Best Friends holds conferences and workshops for pastors, scientists, attorneys, teachers, and business people who want to promote the concept of kindness to animals in their daily work.

This image contains content which some may find confronting

Image credit: Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

The Power of Kindness

When people ask what accounts for the growth of Best Friends, we note that in the troubled times that face us all in today’s world, the simple concept of kindness to animals and respect for all living beings resonates with more and more people as the key spiritual and moral principle of our time — indeed of any time. That’s because kindness is the practical expression of the simple, yet universal Golden Rule that guides us to treat each other, and all living creatures, as we ourselves would want to be treated.

Help animals by supporting a sanctuary

Supporting sanctuaries through tour tickets, merchandise, donations, or volunteering, contributes to the rescue, rehabilitation, and rehoming or life-long care of animals in need. You can visit the Best Friends Animal Society website here. There are animal sanctuaries for companion and farmed animals that you can visit in most states across Australia – check out Where Pigs Fly (NSW), Edgar’s Mission (VIC), Brightside (TAS), Freedom Hill (SA) and Greener Pastures (WA).

If you are thinking about welcoming a companion animal into your home, take the pledge to adopt an animal in need of a second chance. You’ll not only be giving them a new, loving life, but you’ll be freeing up space in a shelter for another animal in need, and helping to combat the overbreeding fuelled by unethical breeders and pet stores.