In July 1984, a dedicated group of people created a sanctuary in Utah for abandoned and abused animals. Thirty years later, Best Friends Animal Society is the largest no-kill animal sanctuary in the world and has been at the forefront of the animal welfare movement, changing hearts and minds with regard to how animals are perceived and treated. Francis Battista, one of the founders, explains the origin of the organization, how it has evolved, and where it's going.

MNN: What was the idea behind Best Friends?

Francis Battista: That the life of every animal has intrinsic value and is not ours to waste or destroy.

How and why did you get it started?

I, and the other co-founders of Best Friends, had been working in different areas of animal advocacy and rescue since the late 1960s. Most municipal animal shelters of the era were like archaic prisons — miserable, dank places where most of the animals that entered were killed. It was a gross injustice that was happening in just about every community in the country, and we felt compelled to whatever we could to make a difference.

What challenges or obstacles did you face?

When we came together to purchase the land that is now the headquarters of Best Friends Animal Society and the location of Best Friends sanctuary, we had little money and few practical skills to develop over 3,000 acres of raw land in the high desert of southern Utah, but we persevered. We scavenged materials from places like a demolished airport in Texas, a children's hospital in Las Vegas that was being torn down and from construction company scrap piles from around the West. As our animal population grew and the money ran out, we set up fund raising tables at grocery stores in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and California. Between looking after the sanctuary animals and raising the funds to keep things going, it was a 24/7 commitment.

Looking back on the 30 years, what highlights stand out?

The creation of the nation's largest no-kill sanctuary and helping to create and lead the no-kill movement are high on the list. Best Friends' work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina set a new benchmark for post-disaster animal care, and our work in taking on the care and rehabilitation of 22 of the Michael Vick dogs helped to change the public perception and policy related to dogs rescued from fight ring busts. Probably our most impactful work is our NKLA initiative (No Kill Los Angeles) that is on track to make Los Angeles a no-kill city by 2017.

What impact has Best Friends had on society?

Best Friends is most readily understood as a movement for social change. Creating a no-kill community means creating a community-wide ecosystem and ethic that supports ending the killing of shelter pets and sustaining those conditions. That is compassionate social change.

What are you proudest of?

Having the privilege of being able to do this work and getting to know so many amazing people and animals.

What was your mission then and how has it broadened over the years till today?

Our mission 30 years ago and our mission now are pretty much the same: to bring an end to shelter killing as a method of pet population control. The main difference is that now the reality is in sight. 30 years ago it was just a vision and a conviction.

What is the sanctuary is like? How many animals are housed there?

The sanctuary is a 3,000-acre reserve alongside a red rock canyon that segues into Zion National Park to the northwest and into the Grand Canyon to the south. It is a spectacular location. The sanctuary is home to 1,700 to 2,000 dogs, cats, birds, bunnies, horses pigs and goats on any given day. Most arrive at Best Friends with special medical or behavioral needs. Most people who visit say it's a life-changing experience. In addition to the domestic animals mentioned above, we have a wildlife rehabilitation department — Wild Friends — that provides care for local native species ranging from mice to eagles with the occasional bobcat or mountain lion. We have the largest flight aviary in the region and help to rehab raptors for state and federal agencies.

How many visitors do you get?

We receive about 30,000 visitors per year.

What do you want them to take away?

We hope that they will leave with a greater appreciation of the animals that we share the planet with and some urgency about helping to end the killing of shelter pets in their own communities.

What initiatives are in place going forward?

We have programs in place to lead Los Angeles to the status of no-kill, likewise the entire state of Utah. We also have initiatives related to pit bull terrier-type dogs, puppy mills and community cats. Over the next few years, we will launch no-kill campaigns in other regions of the country.

What remains to accomplish?

About 9,000 shelter pets are being killed in our nation's shelters every day — about 3.5 to 4 million healthy, adoptable animals every year. With increasing public support and in cooperation with many great organizations, we will save them all.

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