A Champion for Homeless Pets

February 1st, 2012 by Charles Siebert

The founder of the nation’s largest animal sanctuary opens up.

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The Responsibility Project

Back in the late 1970’s, an astounding 15 million homeless cats and dogs were killed each year in shelters around the United States. Today that number has fallen to roughly 3 million, thanks in large part to the efforts of one big-hearted British immigrant named Michael Mountain. In 1979, Mountain and a group of friends decided to buy a storied canyon in Southern Utah and turn it into a sanctuary for abandoned pets. It soon became known as The Best Friends Animal Society, the nation’s largest animal sanctuary, and the flagship of a new “no kill movement” that aimed to bring an end to the killing of homeless pets in shelters. In the first 6 years of Best Friends’ “no kill” campaign, the number of animals being killed each year was reduced by two-thirds. Mountain also became the founder and editor of Best Friends Magazine, now the nation’s largest general-interest publication about animals. He has since become co-founder and editor of Zoe, an integrated media organization for people who care about animals and the world of nature.

How would you define responsibility?

I often hear teachers in humane education talking about “responsible pet ownership,” and it can feel like being lectured by an English schoolmarm in a tweed skirt. You can see people’s eyes blurring over and feeling like they’re being accused of doing something wrong. It’s certainly important to teach people how to care for the animals they love. But once you make a real connection with other animals and you want to do what’s right for them, a sense of responsibility is an easy next step.

Where do you think your deep sense of compassion and interspecies empathy comes from?

When I was 5, visiting my grandfather in Brighton, on the south coast of England, he took me fishing on an amusement pier. When I saw a little white fish on the end of the line, I started screaming. My grandfather thought I was frightened, but I was imagining having a sharp hook in my mouth. I managed to get the fish off the hook and drop her back into the sea.

When I was 16, and spent a summer vacation at school in Spain, I went to a bullfight on a Sunday afternoon. There were six bulls, and I left when the picadors were slashing the neck muscles of the fourth bull. I got physically sick, and had this overwhelming sense of ice-cold helplessness and of being completely alone. A few years later I began to meet other people who cared about animals. I don’t know why some people care and some don’t. In some cases it seems to be there from birth. In others it takes time to develop. And in others it just doesn’t seem to be there. I don’t know why.

Where did the idea and setting for Best Friends come from?

I was living in Phoenix in 1979 and volunteering with various small humane groups. Some friends were also rehabbing homeless pets at a small ranch near Prescott, Ariz., and we had the idea of starting a “slightly larger sanctuary.” We happened upon this ridiculously big, beautiful red-rock canyon in Southern Utah that had been used for various movies in earlier years – The Outlaw Josie Wales, How the West Was Won, The Lone Ranger. It was irresistible. The company that owned it was urgent to get rid of it so they could build a small golf course in town, so we picked it up cheap and started building a sanctuary there. We soon had more animals than funds to support them, so I started publishing newsletters and sending appeals to people who’d heard what we were doing, and also I started Best Friends magazine. I didn’t think at first that people far away would want to support a sanctuary for dogs and cats in the middle of nowhere, but there was a wonderful response. The whole notion of a no-kill sanctuary really touched a chord with people.

How did the “no kill” movement take hold and spread?

The conventional wisdom of the time – the early- to mid-1990s – was that killing homeless animals was okay; major humane organizations called it a “necessary evil.” I still have a recording of a speaker from the Humane Society of the United States explaining to her audience that, “It’s not killing. Kill is such a negative connotation. We’re not killing them. We’re taking their life, we’re ending their life, we’re giving them a good death, we’re humanely destroying… whatever. But we’re not killing.”

This was typical of the pretzel shapes that the humane movement was tying itself in to justify the killing of 17 million dogs and cats a year, most of which were perfectly healthy. One writer, Ed Duvin, called it “the dirty little secret of the humane movement.” As a no-kill sanctuary, we’d already found that we were tapping into the deeper sense that people had that this was just plain wrong, but we didn’t want to add to the existing negativity with blame and accusations. So instead we began to put a positive, warm, feel-good face on the animals themselves and this helped build the no-kill community and the idea that these once-homeless pets were all special in their own way and that to adopt them was to bring something special into your own life.  We also peppered our literature with phrases like “All the good we do is returned in kind” and “May all good things be yours in return for your kindness to these innocent creatures.” It was all part of fostering a culture of kindness that had, as its bottom line, that killing is not the answer. Very soon, it was becoming more fashionable to adopt an old mutt than to buy a glossy “pure” bred puppy. 

How do you rehabilitate dogs deemed irredeemable?

In the early days, before we had a paid staff, my colleague Faith Maloney ran Best Friends Dogtown with a few volunteers. We soon had about 500 dogs living in indoor-outdoor compounds. It was like a real “town” for abused and abandoned pooches.

Faith put them in groups that would work well together and where newcomers would fit well, and the key to the whole thing was just enabling these traumatized animals to become dogs again. They would form their own communities and hierarchies, and do their doggy thing. It was amazing to watch the healing that took place by enabling them to rediscover their own nature. Today, the operation is more sophisticated and organized. But it’s still all about letting them find their true doggie nature again.

Among your new endeavors is the online magazine Zoe. What inspired it?

There’s too much compartmentalization when it comes to animals and the environment. Humane societies work with dogs and cats but often serve animals from factory farms for lunch. People who campaign for the environment rarely talk about the animals. And you have wildlife groups that aim to protect certain tracts of land but again don’t bring the whole thing together. You can’t separate all these things. They’re one interdependent whole – ourselves, the other animals, our environment which is their environment and the planet that’s home to all of us. So we try to tell stories that include all three elements.

Do you feel it’s having the desired impact?

There’s a long way to go. But more people are beginning to understand, for example, that factory farming isn’t just a disaster for the animals. It’s poisoning the planet and it’s a major health risk to us, too. What’s good for the other animals is good for us. It’s the old golden rule that says whatever we’re doing to others we’re ultimately doing to ourselves.

Charles Siebert is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and is the author most recently of “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.”