Helping Animals in Need

Hometown Heroes, People
on June 17, 2001

Tommy and Tyson were among the countless feral cats scrounging for survival in Los Angeles garbage cans. But there was something uniquely different about this feline pair: Their tails always were intertwined.

In viewing the odd tandem, a curious neighborhood resident felt something might be wrong and managed to capture them.

She realized that Tyson was blind and the other cat was leading him around by having their tails woven together, says Michael Mountain, co-founder and president of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, located near Kanab, Utah (pop. 3,616).

Their rescuer, a Best Friends member, arranged for Best Friends to take them in. Five years later, the two black cats are well fed and living happily, but theyre no longer inseparable. They did that at first, with Tommy showing his pal Tyson around, Mountain says. But hes in familiar surroundings now.

Prevailing animal welfare practice has long dictated that animals such as Tommy and Tyson be euthanized. But today the two are in safe surroundings at Best Friends 350-acre animal haventhe flagship for the no-kill animal rescue movementfounded in the 1970s by Mountain, Faith Maloney, the sanctuarys director, and a small circle of friends.

Their work has earned astounding results. In 1987, some 17 million homeless dogs and cats were destroyed in U.S. pounds and shelters; in 1999, fewer than five million were killed, says Best Friends, which attributes the dramatic drop to responsible pet owners spaying and neutering their animals and to pet lovers who choose to adopt from shelters.

Best Friends is home to more than 1,800 cats, dogs, horses, rabbits, birds, and other animals. Most eventually find homes across the country, but about one-fourth remain as permanent residents because, like Tyson and Tommy, they are considered unadoptable due to aggressiveness, advanced age, or health problems.

Before Best Friends was founded, Mountain and Maloney individually rescued animals from pounds and shelters. We realized there was a need to create some form of sanctuary to help a lot of the animals, particularly the ones not easy to place, Maloney says. That translated to Best Friends.

Their search for a large site eventually led them to the scenic red rock country of southern Utah, where today the sanctuary features an assemblage of folksy habitats: Dogtown; the TLC Cat Club, a specialized shelter for handicapped cats; WildCats Village, where feral cats congregate uncaged; the Bunny House for rabbits; pastures for horses and burros; aviaries for birds; plus a veterinary clinic.

Once Maloney became attuned to pet irresponsibility and overpopulation, she had no choice but to devote her life to it. Once you open the door, once you become aware of it, you cant turn it off; you cant say its somebody elses problem, she says. Once I became sensitized to that, I couldnt not do something.

Best Friends work is not limited to the sanctuary. Theyve organized a nationwide network of about 5,000 volunteers, such as the woman who found Tommy and Tyson, that keeps them apprised of situations where they can help. It also sponsors a number of outreach efforts such as mobile spay/neuter marathons, seminars on starting a no-kill shelter, classroom programs, fund-raising benefits, and a website and magazine, of which Mountain is editor.

The story of Rhonda, unadoptable because she was snappy and unfriendly, best explains Best Friends.

She lived a wonderfully full and active life and took up with another dog, Maloney says. When he died from bone cancer I had never seen a dog grieve as profoundly.

When Mountain wrote an editorial about her, an Atlanta woman adopted the dog. Rhonda lived only 18 more months before dying of cancer at age 9, but she got to live out her life in a loving home.

Typically, animals with behavioral or medical problems are quickly euthanized without being given the time or medical attention to grow up. By the time she was 9, Rhonda had matured and was not snappy anymore, Maloney says. She was a very charming little dog.

Rhondas story, and others like it, proves that Best Friends venture is most worthwhile.

At some point the right person comes along, Maloney says, and that makes me feel so good.