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MARCH 2004

How to tell the best friends Animal Society from the cult who built Kanab

KANAB--Utah--The Best Friends Animal Society main entrance at the mouth of Angel Canyon now has a National Park-sized reception center and gift shop, newly expanded to include a 50-seat orientation room. Shelter director Faith Maloney and reception center manager Anne Mejia already wonder how long it will be big enough. Best Friends now attracts more than 20,000 visitors per year. At least half a dozen other major animal shelters and sanctuaries around the U.S. attract more, but they all occupy central locations in cities of several million people. Best Friends attracts more than three times the total population of Kane County. The closest big city is Las Vegas, three hours away by car.

Visitors to other major U.S. shelters and sanctuaries come mostly to adopt or surrender animals. They usually enter, transact their business, and leave within an hour. Visitors to Best Friends come as a pilgrimage. They spend the day, or become temporary volunteers, contributing several days.

Welcoming visitors and volunteers has helped to build Best Friends. Maloney, Mejia, and the other cofounders and senior staff have no wish to discourage anyone from coming. Their anxiety is over developing the capacity to meet the visitors' and volunteers' expectations, now that Best Friends has become not just a big sanctuary but a defacto humane university.

Some people attend to do internships, some to take a six-week formal course in "How to start an animal shelter," some as juvenile offenders assigned to the sanctuary instead of reform school.

RIGHT: Michael Mountain (Kim Bartlett)

Others visit just to see the campus, occupying the central several thousand acres of a 33,000-acre tract of former ranch land and surrounding range leased from the Bureau of Land Management. There is a lot to see, including 17 separate project areas, 14 of which are animal care facilities, each in effect a shelter unto itself.

RIGHT: Michael Mountain-->

On any given day about 700 dogs occupy Dog Headquarters, Old Dogtown, Old Friends and Dogtown Heights: A Gated Community. Adoptable dogs don't stay long, but potentially dangerous dogs and dogs who are too old to be readily adopted or have infirmities are given homes for life. The longterm residents share 17 "parasol" kennels similar to those developed by the Dogs Trust in Britain.

 

About 450 cats share quarters at Cat World, Wild Cat's Village, Benton's House, Kitty Motel, Happy Landings, and Morgain's Place, a series of complexes with special housing for injured and disabled cats, feline leukemia and feline immune deficiency cases, and shy ferals. As with dogs, healthy and gregarious cats tend to be quickly adopted.

 

Best friends cofounders Faith Maloney, Gabriel DePeyer, and Anne Mejias (Kim Bartlett)
 

 

Other facilities accommodate horses, several hundred former pet rabbits, a variety of birds including wild species undergoing rehabilitation for release, a few pigs, and three mink. In general, explains Maloney, Best Friends tries to network with other shelters that specialize in unusual species, to give the animals the best possible placement, but sometimes they receive animals for whom there are no other shelters. No one else has mink, so Best Friends is developing mink expertiseand is discovering that mink can be far friendlier than the reputation they have developed on fur farms.

 

 

Since 1995, when ANIMAL PEOPLE first visited Best Friends, the sanctuary has added approximately 200 paid staff. There may now be more Best Friends workers and family members living in nearby Kanab than known members of Mormon polygamist householdsperhaps the first time since Mormon polygamists arrived in 1848 that their insular way of life, officially disavowed by the Mormon church since 1890, has been seriously challenged for local cultural ascendancy.

Polygamist enclaves are still visible, on back roads behind the growing numbers of motels and restaurants that line the highway through town, but the polygamist community is dwindling under the pressure of increasing numbers of state and federal prosecutions of patriarchs for illegally forcing their daughters to marry each other at early ages.

The total population of Kanab has meanwhile increased by more than 1,000 people in 10 years, and the annual growth rate, according to the Chamber of Commerce, is now 5% per year, even though the ability of the community to expand is restricted by the limited access to water. Coming to Kanab means accepting desert life. At 5,000 feet above sea level, every well is a deep well, and drilling a well is a major part of the investment in building a new home.

Zion National Park, founded in 1919, is still by far the biggest visitor draw to Kane County, bringing more than 2.3 million people a year. But the traffic passing through Kanab is mostly speeding between Zion, to the northwest, and the Grand Canyon and Lake Powell, to the south. Before Best Friends came, Kanab was little more than a gasoline-and-lunch stop, with a limited selection of restaurants. The only local tourist attraction of note was a collection of prop buildings used in filming some of the 92 Hollywood westerns that were made at Angel Canyon between 1924, when Tom Mix starred in Deadwood Coach, and 1976, when Clint Eastwood starred in The Outlaw Josie Wales, the last Kanab production.

Before Best Friends came, Kanab seemed well on the way toward becoming a ghost town, chiefly inhabited by the polygamists, whose buildings are conspicuous, but who tend to keep to themselves.

The Best Friends Animal Society arrived in Kanab in 1984, 18 years after eight of the cofounders met as part of an Anglican discussion group in London, England, organized by Robert and Mary Ann deGrimston.

Michael Mountain, now the Best Friends Animal Society president, was then a 17-year-old Oxford dropout, and was among the youngest members. Calling themselves "The Foundation Faith Church of the Millennium," members of the group including the eight Best Friends cofounders in June 1966 tried to start a commune near a Mayan ruin called Xtul, in Yucatan, Mexico. A hurricane ended that effort within months. Returning briefly to England, where they found themselves still as much misfits as ever, they reorganized in New Orleans, where they formally incorporated in 1967 as The Process Church of the Final Judgement, claiming that their mission was to "conduct spiritual and occult research. "

 

Bonney brown (Kim Bartlett)

During the next five years the Best Friends cofounders drifted to Los Angeles; wrote bizarre statements on required public accountability documents, essentially mocking bureaucracy; staged flamboyant publicity stunts to help promote their activities and proto-New Age philosophy; and two members, including eventual Best Friends Animal Society cofounder John Fripp, interviewed mass murderer Charles Manson in prison for a short-lived magazine they published.

As Lou Klizer of the Rocky Mount-ain News recently summarized, "The group had trouble gaining traction, no matter how outrageous they acted. Mountain chalks this up to their philosophy of abstinence from sex and drugsnot overly popular notions in the 1960s...In 1971, a book speculated on Manson's possible connection to the Process Church. They sued. The publisher apologized, recalled the books, and issued subsequent editions without the offending chapter. But with the birth of the Internet, the legend has only grown."

The Process Church broke up when the deGrimstons split. Mary Ann deGrimston remained in close contact with the Best Friends cofounders, and eventually remarried to Best Friends cofounder Gabriel dePeyer. They are still together.

Robert deGrimston went his own way, making sporadic efforts to start a new church, having nothing further to do with the group who became Best Friends.

The Best Friends cofounders continued as close friends, often widely separated by geography, pursuing their jobs and lives. Several worked in the social services. Paul Eckhoff worked as an architect, Chris dePeyer (who left Best Friends in 2002 for career reasons) as a civil engineer. Francis Battista sold real estate. Nathania Gartman, who died in 2003, entertained severely burned children at a Denver hospital. Faith Maloney was a Pennsylvania housewife. Cyrus Mejia built a still growing reputation as an artist.

Time, circumstance, and a common interest in helping animals reunited them, as recounted by Samantha Glen in Best Friends: The True Story of the World's Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary (2001). Their first sanctuary site, near Prescott, Arizona, proved inacessible to visitors. They arrived in Kanab after a two-year search for somewhere better.

Along the way they took what they thought at the time was a shortcut, operating under the dormant Process Church nonprofit incorporation instead of reincorporating. In the short run, that saved a few dollars, at a time when Best Friends had so little money that the cofounders would go out to place animals for adoption in Las Vegas and Phoenix without knowing whether they would collect enough in donations to buy gas to get home. They raised funds chiefly by tabling. By 1992, when they started the Best Friends magazine of good news about animals and began to develop a national donor base, they were still nearly penniless, but had at last found the combination of message, medium, location, and knowhow that they needed to grow.

Reincorporating as a secular 501(c)(3) charity in 1995, rather than as a church, enabled the growth phase.

But Best Friends had also made mysterious enemies, who have circulated rumors based on the Process Church history ever since. Many of the assertions echo events and allegations which were actually part of local Mormon history, 150 years earlier.

At least two directors of conventional animal shelters, neither of whom has ever visited Best Friends, have recently amplified material apparently first posted to the Internet nearly 10 years ago by a person who campaigned in Washington state against regulation of pet breeding during the mid-1990s under the names "Lee Wallet" and "Animal Awareness Legislative Network." Wallet and her organization dropped out of sight about five years before similar postings were distributed in early 2004 by one "T.P. McKinney." Extensive electronic searching indicates that the only "Lee Wallet" in the U.S. and a "T&P McKinney" of unlisted address are both in the same small town in Pennsylvania. Calls to both did not clarify their relationship, if any, either with each other or the Internet attacks.

Best Friends has enjoyed uninterrupted rapid growth, despite the sniping, for more than a decade. The cofounders, some already in their early seventies, have steered a straight course and remain friends, in a field where organizational growth seems to bring bitter splits more often than not.

When the San Francisco SPCA and San Francisco Department of Animal Care and Control signed the Adoption Pact in 1994, making San Francisco the first U.S. no-kill city, Best Friends was already the most prominent no-kill organization between San Francisco and the North Shore Animal League, near New York City. Best Friends joined the SF/SPCA, North Shore, and ANIMAL PEOPLE in cosponsoring the first No-Kill Conference in Phoenix in 1995.

As the no-kill movement spread, Best Friends expanded from sheltering animals into teaching others how to develop their own no-kill mission.

When longtime SF/SPCA president Richard Avanzino left the SF/SPCA in 1998 to head Maddie's Fund, formed by PeopleSoft entrepreneurs Dave and Cheryl Duffield to promote no-kill animal control nationwide, Best Friends cofounder Gregory Castle organized a statewide coalition to make Utah the first no-kill state. With Maddie's Fund backing, the coalition has in three years cut shelter killing in Utah from 21.9 dogs and cats per 1,000 humans to 13.9.

When the initially small No-Kill Conference metamorphized into the Confer-ence on Homeless Animal Management & Policy, one of the biggest in the animal welfare field, Best Friends hired Bonney Brown, co-organizer of several of the early No-Kill Conferences, to direct the twice-a-year No More Homeless Pets regional conferences.

The Best Friends magazine topped 100,000 circulation in 2002. Even the No More Homeless Pets conferences, trying to stay small, sometimes draw more than 400 participants. Raising $17.9 million in 2002, Best Friends brought in $1.5 million more than PETA, employing nearly twice as many program staff. No pro-animal charity founded within the past 50 years is bigger.

Yet Best Friends has not really changed character. The cofounderswho initially all worked for many years virtually without compensationnow receive comfortable middle class salaries, but the chief executives of the American SPCA, North Shore Animal League America, Humane Society of the U.S., and Massachusetts SPCA each were paid approximately as much in 2002, or more, than the sum paid to all seven compensated Best Friends cofounders combined.

Each cofounder quietly sponsors individual humane projects out of his or her own resources, including international outreach. Francis Battista, for example, brought Wildlife SOS dancing bear sanctuary director Kartick Satyanarayan and Friendicoes Animal Sanctuary director Geeta Seshamani from India to attend the recent No More Homeless Pets conference in Las Vegas at his own expense, after meeting them at the Asia For Animals conference in Hong Kong. Best Friends computer guru Stephen Hirano at Christmas 2002 surprised ANIMAL PEOPLE with a new MacIntosh computer.

Inevitably, albeit perhaps not for many more years, the Best Friends leadership will pass to another generation. Mountain, 54, is the youngest of the founding nucleus. Among the future leaders may be some of the now adult children of the founders, several of whom have grown up at the sanctuary, left to pursue their education, and have returned to help. One of them, Judah Battista, is now a member of the leadership team, managing the cluster of shelters called Kittyville.

Other future leaders may be chosen from among the volunteers and paid staff recruited during the rise from poverty and hardship, who will remember how the harsh environment and initial isolation helped to form the Best Friends character, before the world found its way to Angel Canyon.

The transition process has not yet begun, but the cofounders are thinking about it, discussing it among themselves, considering how best to keep Best Friends from ever either losing the sense of communal mission that enables it to help new impoverished pro-animal groups to reach their own growth phase, or becoming cultish and insular.

They need only look across the desert to the sprawling unpainted housing complexes of the Mormon polygamists still in the vicinity to see what authentic cults look like. The polygamists' ancestors came west to build a New Jerusalem. Within a generation of the arrival of Kanab cofounder Levi Stewart and his three wives, however, the polygamists' focus had dwindled to self-maintenance by excluding the outside world and discouraging their children from exploration.

Isolating their children is not something the Best Friends cofounders can be accused of. One of Faith Maloney's daughters, for example, served in the U.S. Navy as far away as Antarctica before returning to Best Friends to do construction. A son plans to return to Best Friends after completing his veterinary studies in the Virgin Islands.

"We did not think of creating Best Friends as a mission for our children, although they may choose it as their mission," Mountain told ANIMAL PEOPLE. "But we did think of it as a place where our children, as well as our visitors and volunteers, might come to share a sense of having a mission, somewhere, greater than themselves, that either they would find or would find them, if they only kept looking and thinking about it. The extent to which we are succeeding is the extent to which all of us are finding and continuing to fulfill our missions, whether it is here at the sanctuary or anywhere else we may happen to find ourselves."

--Merritt Clifton

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