Tommy and Tyson lived on the streets of Los Angeles, feral cats that no one wanted; wild things that wanted no one but each other. The cats could sometimes be spotted wandering along with tails entwined; Tyson leading his brother along the streets - because Tommy is blind. Food was put out for them by a neighborhood woman, but the day came when she had to move. Tommy and Tyson could not live in a human home, and the woman worried about how they would survive after she left.
The stories all begin with being unwanted. They begin with neglect and abandonment and disfavor and sometimes abuse. And every creature at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab has such a story. At this place, however, all the stories end with love.
Tommy and Tyson were carefully caught and brought to Kanab and will soon be housed in the new Wildcats Village, a home specifically for feral cats being constructed at the sanctuary. They will never have to worry about where their next meal comes from, and Tyson can still care for his blind brother.
Margo was pregnant when she was found wandering the hills outside of Cedar City, probably dumped off by someone who didn't want to be bothered with the puppies. When the puppies came, Margo, likely a spaniel-heeler mix, was overwhelmed and couldn't take care of them. One died, but the other six - tiny black puppies that had to be bottle-fed every two hours around the clock - were farmed out to staff members. They are all doing well.
Bianca, a long-haired cat, lived with her owner in New York City for 15 years, until the owner got married and her new husband said: it's me or the cat. Bianca's silky hair had gotten matted until volunteer Sandra Nagasaka sat her down one day and patiently combed all the snarls out. Bianca is adoptable and would do well in a loving home, but until then she enjoys attention at the TLC Cat Center at the sanctuary.
Max, a sleek Great Dane, was on death row in Cleveland, Ohio, accused of biting a little boy and another dog. But the circumstances were never very clear, and a lot of people thought Max was getting a bum rap. Per court order, he now has his own compound at the sanctuary, with a padlock on the gate, and he will never be adopted out. But he can enjoy the company of other dogs, including his new girlfriend, Sniffs.
Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is built on the premise that every animal deserves a good home, that no animal should have to suffer simply because it is unwanted.
In an ideal world, say sanctuary personnel, there would be no homeless animals. In the real world, millions of animals are put to death each year in shelters around the country simply because there is no room.
In ancient times Angel Canyon, about five miles outside Kanab, was a sacred gathering place for scattered Anasazi peoples. "I think it is fitting that we were drawn to this place to do this humanitarian work," says Cyrus Mejia, one of nine directors of the nonprofit corporation, and the center's tour director.
Best Friends Animal Sanctuary takes up 3,000 acres in the canyon, brought here in 1984 by a group of friends and associates who had pooled their resources to create an animal sanctuary in Kirkland, Ariz. They had outgrown that facility and were looking for something larger when they found the canyon property for sale.
They all came from different walks of life. Mejia was an artist, as was Faith Maloney. Raphael de Peyer was an architect, Michael Mountain a writer. But they all were animal lovers. "We had about 200 animals in Kirkland," says de Peyer, "about all we could handle. When we realized that we were not going to stop doing this, no matter what, we started looking for a bigger place."
Angel Canyon had been used extensively for moviemaking in the 1950s and '60s, but no one was making westerns anymore. Some of the movie sets remained, including a barn that is being used to house horses. But almost all of the other buildings had to be built, often by the directors themselves.
The canyon makes an ideal setting for the sanctuary, offering not only a peaceful, quiet setting well away from any neighbors, but also enough room so animals are not crowded. Dogs and cats are kept up on top of the mesa. The lower canyon has a visitors center, rental cottages and other facilities. Extra space is set aside as natural wildlife habitat.
At any one time, there will be no fewer than 1,500 animals, making Best Friends the largest sanctuary of its kind in the country. The sanctuary has a no-kill policy, meaning that it does not euthanize healthy animals. "Sometimes we have to put animals down because they are sick or in pain, and that becomes the kind thing to do," says Mejia.
Most of the animals that come to the sanctuary - about 75 percent - are adopted out, placed in loving homes. For the rest - the ones no one else wants - there will always be a place at Best Friends.
The center is funded almost entirely by member donations, now numbering about 120,000 around the country. It provides full- and part-time work for 95 people and is the third largest employer in Kane County. (It is also one of the top tourist attractions in the area, giving tours to visitors twice a day.)
The sanctuary also benefits from volunteers, who come to spend time with the animals - to walk the dogs, to pet the cats, to help feed the horses or clean the facilities or whatever else needs to be done. They come from all over the country, says Dawna Zullo, volunteer coordinator for the center. Recently, a couple from Michigan came to spend a week as dog-walkers. Zullo also had a group from L.A. and Las Vegas who were giving loving attention to the cats.
Zullo herself, a colonel in the Army, first visited the center as a tourist. She retired from the Army, and has been at the sanctuary two years in June.
"It's a mystical place," she says. "It lets your soul catch up with your body. The spirit of the mission here is so strong."
Benton was a city cat, a pet in a good home. But when his owners moved, they gave the cat away. Benton ran away from his new home, probably trying to find his old owners, and was hit by a car. His front leg is now paralyzed.
In Benton's room at Best Friends are a number of other cats with physical disabilities: Julius, with a neurological disorder that means he can't walk; Alfassi, who is missing part of his tongue and has to be shaved because he can't lick his fur. There's a cat without a paw, another with two stubby feet that came as a birth defect.
Not too many people want to deal with cats like these, says Mejia, but here they have each other's company. To them, this is probably what cats are.
Next door is a group who may think that cats come without ears. They all have had skin cancer, which affects the ears to the extent they need surgery. In another room are cats with feline immunovirus. "They have to be kept away from other cats, because it's contagious. But they can still live a decent life with others of their kind," says Mejia. There's an "incontinental suite" for cats who have a hard time using the litter box. And a roomful of adoptable cats.
"If we can find them a good home, that's the best," says Mejia. If not, they live here in groups, with places they can climb and play. They all have an indoor place with access to an outdoor place, so they can come and go as they want. Their places are kept immaculate; dry food is out all the time and wet food provided once a day. And they enjoy lots of human interaction.
The dogs, too, are kept in groups, with indoor rooms and outdoor runs. "Dogs are social animals," says Mejia. "The critical decision is which group to put a new animal with." New dogs are introduced gradually; "we try them on a leash first." Mostly, it's an intuitive decision, based on their years of experience in working with animals.
The majority of the dogs at the sanctuary are the larger breeds. "Large dogs are not what most people want." A number of "trustee" dogs - mostly those that belong to the staff - are allowed to freely wander the compound.
Each dog has its own bowl and special diet, so feeding the 650 dogs is a good morning's work each day. The center uses about 10 tons of dry dog food each month, mixed in with about 5,000 cans of wet food. The cats use about a ton of food and a ton of litter each month. "We get donations from KalKan, Petsmart and others," says Mejia, but food is still one of their major expenses.
As is veterinary care. "We spend a lot on medical care. Many of the animals come here because they are older or have health problems." The center has a fully staffed veterinarian clinic, with a vet and several technicians. It also has an education/outreach program that brings in groups of interns from BYU each year.
In addition to veterinary care, Best Friends offers a monthly spay and neuter clinic, where anyone can have the work done for $25.
And when the time comes, nestled away in a peaceful corner of the canyon is Angel's Rest, a pet cemetery. Enclosed by red-rock walls and soothed by the sound of wind chimes, placed there by loving owners in memory of their loving pets, it is a resting place for many animals, not just those from the sanctuary.
Dogs and cats are the primary tenants at Best Friends, but other animals are cared for as well. There's Ali Baa Baa, a lamb that had to have an injured leg surgically removed and now frolics three-legged style with his new friend, Baa Baa Ganosh. Mr. Goat, Goatie and Sarah have found a home, as have Virginia and Sunbeam, two burros that have retired from Grand Canyon.
About 45 horses live at the center, mostly old horses too worn down to still earn their keep as saddle horses or farm workers. Some have injuries, some have been mistreated.
And nothing raises the ire of Diana Asher, who helps feed and care for the horses, more than mistreatment. "All animal abuse is apalling, but there's something about abusing a horse . . . they're so trusting, so naturally sweet and trusting. They just want to please people."
Horses have a definite pecking order, she says. "I have to feed Navajo first; he's the oldest and the boss." You get so you know them well, she says; they all have distinct personalities.
It may be harder to get to know the 200 or so rabbits that are now housed at the sanctuary, awaiting completion of the new bunny house being built just for them. "Well, we had to bring them here; they'd have died," says de Peyer. The majority of the rabbits - 180, in fact - came from a woman in Las Vegas who started out with only three. "She claimed she didn't know they needed to be fixed." They rabbits have now all been spayed and neutered. The center hopes to adopt out as many as possible. "Rabbits make good pets," says Mejia. "They are affectionate and can be trained to use a litter box."
"We do what we have to," says de Peyer of building new facilities to house the rabbits. But, you know, he says, even if they had room for a million animals, it would not be enough. "What we really need is to change the perception that it is OK to abandon animals." In Germany, for example, you never see homeless animals, he says. "It is simply not done."
Ask staffer Mike Long what he likes best about animals, and he is quick to say "that they're not people." Animals are so giving, he says, "they just want love." He tells about a puppy that was brought to the center. "They brought him in because he was so dumb - every time they kicked him, he just came back for more."
People sometimes ask how Best Friends can spend so much time and effort on animals, when there are so many needy people in the world, says Mejia. "But what we do here is based on kindness. And it seems to me that teaching people to be more kind is the best thing we can do for people."
It's a sentiment echoed by others at the sanctuary. "People who care about animals care about people, and people who care about people care about animals," says de Peyer.
So much research shows how animals benefit people in nursing homes and children who are sick and just in everyday life, he said. Animals help people connect with nature, he adds. "As a society, we're getting more and more isolated from nature, but dogs and cats can provide that grounding, that connection."
Animals, he says, are unique creatures. It's easy to anthropomorphize, to try to give animals human characteristics. Instead, we should celebrate their animalness. And because they are animals, that doesn't mean they can't be loving, real members of the family.
"We make the separation in our heads between animals and people. But really, all life is interdependent. You break that interdependence, and bad things happen. All life is precious." In the end, it is as simple as love.