Sanctuary at Angel Canyon: Animal rescue mission settles in the desert

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1995:

ANGEL CANYON, Utah––As The Outlaw Josie Wales,
Kansas/Missouri border country farmer Clint Eastwood came home
to find his wife and family massacred by Jayhawkers, picked up a
gun, and swore bloody vengeance. The Civil War was over, but not
the fighting. Killing whoever crossed him, Eastwood fought his
way west, reluctantly gathering misfit sidekicks as he went––a
horse, a dog, an Indian, an abused woman, a child. Struggling to
stay focused on murder, he found himself sidetracked by the effort
of keeping them all sheltered and fed.
The bounty hunter sent to kill Eastwood or drag him back
for a public hanging caught up with him at Angel Canyon, scoping
out the situation before Eastwood knew he was there. Rather than
risk involving his newfound second family in a shootout, Eastwood
rode to Kanab, five miles south, to meet the bounty hunter in the
town saloon.

But the bounty hunter, a man of patient wisdom, had
decided not to take Eastwood. He was preparing to ride back home.
“I’ve never met Josie Wales,” he said, looking the fugitive
in the eye. “But if I did meet him, I’d tell him the war is over.”
With the completion of The Outlaw Josie Wales in 1976,
the “Little Hollywood” era was just about over for Angel Canyon
and Kanab. At least 92 feature-length films and countless episodes
of serial cliffhangers were made in the Kanab area, mostly westerns,
but the sandstone terrain also passed for the Middle East in T h e
Arabian Nights, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and The Greatest
Story Ever Told. Kanab became Hollywood’s biggest backlot in
1924, when nearby Johnson Canyon served as backdrop for
Deadwood Coach, starring Tom Mix. Brothers Gron, Whit, and
Chaunce Parry of Kanab earned a windfall fortune during the filming
by taking the cast and crew to tour the many nearby National Parks
and National Monuments: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Cedar Breaks,
Pipe Spring, yet to be flooded Glen Canyon, and most distant, the
Grand Canyon.
“An idea was born,” recalls Dixie Brunner of Southern
Utah News, the Kanab weekly newspaper. “If one movie
company liked this incredibly scenic area, there might be
others. Chaunce took aerial and backcountry pictures,
assembled them ino a portfolio, and headed to California to
peddle Kane County to Hollywood. The boys bought the
motel that now bears their name on the bend in the Kanab
River,” which flows through Angel Canyon and Kanab itself.
“Whit Parry housed the film crews. Gron provided the film
sets, props, and people.”
Of all the filming locales around Kanab, Angel
Canyon was perhaps most popular, hosting the making of the
Lone Ranger, Rin Tin Tin, and Six Million Dollar Man television
shows, and features including How The West Was
Won, Death Valley, Daniel Boone, and McKenna’s Gold.
But the popularity of the canyon took a toll. Hunters killed
wildlife, looters dug up Anasazi graves, vandals carved their
names into cliffs, and some even shot up petroglyphs.
The Anasaz, whose name means “the ones who
came before,” were the first known human residents of Angel
Canyon. They grew corn, squash, and beans there for
almost 1,000 years before mysteriously vanishing about 100
years before the arrival of the first Spanish explorers. They
were peaceful people, leaving no evidence of ever having
hunted in Angel Canyon and no trace of blood sacrifice.
Their presence remains manifest in sandstone caves whose
entrances have been squared off to resemble benign jack
o’lantern eyes overlooking some of the Best Friends pastures;
a kiva, or sweatlodge site; and stone circles that were once
the foundations of wigwams made to store corn, much
resembling today’s far larger steel corn cribs. The Anasazi
also left behind the petroglyphs, showing people, animals,
and symbols indicative of the sun, moon, and water, as well
as tracings of their hands, but no depictions of weapons or
Even the unknown Horace who carved a cross into
the rock near the mouth of the storage cave on September 15,
1916 seems to have understood that this was not a place for
violence. The cross is of modest size, low on the cave wall,
and Horace apparently took care to avoid damaging the marks
of the Anasazi.
Hopi descendants of the Anasazi still live nearby,
as do Paiute and Navajo. Shortly after Best Friends arrived in
Angel Canyon, Best Friends sanctuary senior staffers
Michael Mountain and Faith Maloney recall, an old Paiute
medicine man came to reconsecrate it. He spent a day alone
in one of the biggest caves, a traditional gathering place for
tribal elders, now used for tourist picnics and occasional
wedding ceremonies. He told Mountain and Maloney when
he left that the spirits of the canyon would be with them.
Mountain and Maloney are two of the cofounders
and visionaries behind Best Friends, perhaps the most
mythologized of all animal sanctuaries. Everyone’s heard of
Best Friends, through the widely distributed Best Friends
magazine, emphasizing good news about animals, founded
in February 1993; the Best Friends tables frequently set up
outside supermarkets as far away as California; and the Best
Friends online service (, and
soon to debut in expanded format via the Microsoft Network).
Cyrus and Anne Mejia welcome and guide thousands of visi-
tors, too. The visitors have made Best Friends “the second
biggest economic engine in Kanab,” according to Mountain.
But Angel Canyon is seven hours by car from Phoenix, and
almost as far from Las Vegas and Salt Lake City. In absence
of familiarity, rumors start.
The first rumor, Mountain laughs, began only days
after Best Friends bought their first piece of the property in
1984, and promptly dismantled the old movie sets to restore
the natural scenery. They didn’t destroy the historic sets;
rebuilt, they now stand as a tourist attraction at a new site east
of Kanab. But stories began about Best Friends being some
sort of Afro-American militant commune, with designs on
taking over the Kanab school system.
“Among all of us, we had about five children
enrolled in the schools,” Mountain says. “I don’t think any of
us were Afro-American.”
But somehow the editor of ANIMAL PEOPLE
arrived at Best Friends with the idea that Mountain came from
the Virgin Islands.
“I wish I did come from somewhere as beautifully
exotic as that,” Mountain mused. “I was born and raised in
downtown London.”
There’s also the rumor that Mountain and Maloney
are a couple. “That’s never been true,” they agree. “We’ve
each been married, but not to each other.”
Mountain legends
Mountain is perhaps the most storied of the Best
Friends. According to legend, he’s a guru who took the name
“Mountain” to symbolize the New Age power he gathered
from the desert and used to woo his disciples, the Best
Friends staff. “The key people, in terms of direction and policy
of the sanctuary,” Mountain admits, “are Faith, myself,
Francis Battista, and John Fripp, our treasurer. Faith sets the
basic direction in terms of the care of the animals, working
with the other people who run the animal areas. I frame the
Best Friends message, as expressed in the magazine,
newsletters, and our other literature and presentations.
Francis directs most of our outreach programs, which is why
he’s away from here quite a bit. John, as treasurer and general
administrative person, keeps the wheels on track and the
poop being scooped.”
Best Friends staffers actually relate to Mountain
more as departmental ministers to a prime minister. Mountain
is the communicator who keeps everyone posted, whose typical
description of colleagues is that, “She (or he) does things
her (his) own way, in her (his) own style.”
That’s not exactly the way of anyone who imposes
anything, and indeed Mountain is more often imposed upon,
as the cheerful butt of many mild jokes. The idea that
Mountain spends a lot of time meditating, for instance, may
reflect his ability to think out and solve practical problems,
while contemplating the spider spinning webs on the sink in
his used trailer home, preventing him from drawing water.
Mejia, who spends a lot of time on the road playing
guitar, singing songs of his own composition, and telling stories
to help raise funds for Best Friends, especially loves
telling Mountain stories––like the story of the spider, whom
he says Mountain hasn’t disturbed in six or seven summers.
Mejia introduces the closest semblance to mysticism at Best
Friends in his own imagining that small birds rustling leaves
are not only the ghost deer, who in legend lead hunters away
from their quarry in Angel Canyon, but also do it on purpose.
As to the name Mountain, explains Mountain, “My
parents were Alex and Dolly Mountain, and my grandparents
were Mountains. At some point, back when their forebears
came to England from Eastern Europe, they translated their
Estonian Mountain, H o c h b e r g or H u b e r g or something like
that, as in ‘iceberg,’ an ice mountain, my grandma used to
tell me, to an English Mountain. But all the Mountains I
grew up with were born Mountains.”
What about the secret mansion?
It isn’t any secret, and it isn’t a mansion. It’s the
newer of the two Best Friends office sites, with huge solar
windows in the lunch room––not anyone’s drawing
room––overlooking the major Anasazi settlements. It
includes two kitchens, a lavatory, modest living quarters for
some of the staff, and of course office space, arranged
around a semi-courtyard, so that it looks much bigger from
below than it actually is.
What about drugs?
They drink coffee, all right, and even tea.
What about the cathouse and the teenaged slaves?
There were two teenagers among the crew of 40-odd
people on site during the two days ANIMAL PEOPLE visited.
One, sure enough, was a volunteer cat-handler. The
other got up at dawn to spend the next several hours with the
pigeons. Neither one seemed to have or need direct supervision.
The cathouse, by the way, is called Benson’s House,
after Benson, a big grey tom, one of the more renowned of
Best Friends’ menagerie . Each of the three spacious wings of
Benson’s House holds numerous special-case cats: adoptables
up front, injury cases in a more secluded area. Many of the
latter were tortured by abusive people before rescuers brought
them to Best Friends. Some have only three legs, some are
missing ears, and some have lost eyes. Most, however, are
affectionate. Their treatment at Best Friends has restored their
faith in humanity. Instead of racing for the rafters upon our
arrival, the majority descended to meet us.
They keep most of their animals in cages, out of
sight around back.
Sort of. The original outdoor wire pens with individual
doghouses and cathouses, predating the buildings, are
still in use, pending the construction of more buildings when
funds permit. But the wire pens are quite visible from the cat
and dog buildings. Each dog or cat in such a structure is kept
in a compatible social group. The layout allows for interactive
play, sleeping either alone or curled up together, and
opportunity to run and jump. Shade and water are available at
all times. Though the structures are nothing fancy, they are
kept clean. You won’t smell much poop, even on a hot day.
It isn’t the ideal facility, Maloney explains. Yet you won’t
have to visit many shelters to see worse––and to realize the
high morale of the Best Friends animals. Shelter depression
seems almost unknown.
What of the underground arsenal?
Previous owners of one part of the property enlarged
a natural sandstone cave into a tractor shed and built a door on
it. The temperature inside stays at a cool 55 degrees, all year
round. Maloney finds it’s the ideal place to store donations of
dog and cat food. “I really work the telephones,” she
explains, “hustling donations of anything we can get,
because we can always use it for someone. With 2,500 animal
mouths to feed, money doesn’t go very far.” The oddest
part of the arsenal rumor, Maloney continues, is that rural
Utah is full of apocalyptic sects and survivalists who do have
arsenals. Many of Best Friends’ quizzical neighbors have
arsenals. But most of the Best Friends crew, including
Maloney, have never so much as held a gun.
How about their high-tech surveillance system?
Best Friends doesn’t like to discourage this rumor.
They’ve chased a fair number of poachers away in the middle
of the night. Best Friends magazine editor Steve Hirano
admits to running the war room. “I work at night a lot,”
Hirano grins, “and from up here on the cliff, you can see
jacklighting from pretty far away.”
Hirano, in myth, is Best Friends’ ninja. He confesses
to some electronic virtuosity.
However, testifies Mountain, “Steven can hear one
hand clapping. There are always odd stories circulating,”
Mountain continues. “They’re pretty harmless, and there’s a
simple pattern to them. Depending on what’s current in the
news, there’s likely to be an associated rumor about Best
Friends. During the Reagan years, when Nicaragua was front
and center, there was a story going around that we were actually
a cover for training attack dogs for the CIA to send down
to Central America. After the movie In The Line of Fire came
out last year, there was another, that the star, Clint
Eastwood, spends his weekends hiding out here. The director
and the producer of the movie and most of the actors are
members,” Mountain confirms, “with the exception of
Eastwood,” who was, however, in Angel Canyon for the
making of The Outlaw Josie Wales.
“For several months, a few years ago, when there
were some scandals around Utah about Mormon cults conducting
Satanic rituals, someone started a rumor about Best
Friends keeping animals here for Satanic sacrifice,”
Mountain adds. “What the rumors have in common is that
some people just cannot believe that there are other people
who believe that animals they don’t want are worth taking
care of. So Best Friends can’t really be an animal sanctuary––we
have to be about something else. To the best of my
knowledge, there’s nothing malicious about any of it.”
Foundation Faith
The pattern of animal protection organizations is
that passionately concerned people join in common cause,
start a group, build it up, then splinter into factions, which
often become the nucleus of new groups.
But the best friends who founded Best Friends
became best friends long ago, came together gradually, and
are still making room for others, in an organization that values
initiative and autonomy.
“I first met Faith when I dropped out of Oxford
University in 1967,” Mountain recalls. “She was an artist,
living in London.” Mountain had already hawked anti-vivisection
literature on the streets in Germany, but neither
Mountain nor Maloney anticipated anything like their future.
“While traveling in the U.S. in 1968, I met Francis
Battista in New York,” Mountain adds. Battista directs the
Best Friends’ outreach programs, including tabling at supermarkets
and arranging animal adoptions through PetsSmart
stores. “I also first met Cyrus Mejia in New Orleans at about
that time.” Mejia was a shipyard welder, looking for something
to do more in keeping with his creative spirit––though
he still welds, for instance to help build the cat facilities. “I
met our computer person Steve Hirano then, too, in Los
Angeles. In the early 1970s, a group of us including Faith,
our treasurer John Fipp, and Francis, formed the Foundation
Faith, which was a relatively loose association of people
involved in work with children, the elderly, drug rehab, and
other local programs in various cities. Francis, for example,
ran a program in Miami, Florida, which included pound rescue
and adoption. Fipp ran a community center in New York.
Other members of the Foundation Faith, whose membership
never exceeded 150 people, became involved in the Clown
Ministry, which visited terminally ill children in hospitals.
Cyrus and Anne ran such a program in Denver, and Nathania
Gartman,” now the Best Friends education director, “was
running a Clown Ministry in Las Vegas until about 1991.”
“By the late 1970s, it was clear to many of us that
our various life experiences led to the same conclusion: we
cared about the needs of animals more than anything else,
and we had observed that people who are kind to animals tend
to be kind and decent people generally.”
In the beginning
However, Mountain explains, “Only a few of the
people who were active in the work of the Foundation
Faith––most of the founders, and a few others––were truly
interested in developing the work with the animals as a primary
activity. So it became evident that the organization could
not continue in its existing form. The Foundation Faith was
incorporated as a religious organization. Although it had no
denomination––Faith’s Catholic, I’m Jewish, John’s
Anglican, and Steven studied Zen Buddhism––we have
always recognized the value of following the Golden Rule,
which is taught in all religions. But once Best Friends
became an organization in its own right, raising its own funds
and developing its own membership, it was also important
that it be treated by the IRS as a regular nonprofit. Religious
organizations don’t, for example, file Form 990s, and have
other privileges––which are often totally undeserved,”
Mountain adds.
“I still give the Golden Rule a regular plug in editorials,”
he notes, “because ‘Do as you would be done by’
really is the foundation of what we do. And it’s how we all
remain good friends. It really does work.”
Otherwise, religion is if anything less in evidence at
Best Friends than at many other shelters and sanctuaries. The
only visible shrines and symbols are those left by the Anasazi,
and even those tend to be somewhat hidden, around the back
sides of rocks, or behind tall brush.
Best Friends now owns several hundred acres, leasing
more, but it started on a more modest scale. “Faith began
building the sanctuary at a small ranch we had outside of
Prescott, Arizona,” Mountain recounts, “in about 1979.
Prior to that, she was involved in other animal work around
the country, and had done animal rescue in Pennsylvania.”
The nucleus of the animal care staff formed at the
Prescott facility. Diana Castle, the Best Friends cat coordinator,
assumed that job “in about 1980,” Mountain believes.
“She would adopt the most unadoptable cats from the Prescott
Humane Society and take them back to the ranch.”
Rabbit coordinator Chandra Forsythe, originally
from Toronto, “worked at the ranch in Arizona and came to
Angel Canyon in about 1986, helping to build Best Friends in
several different capacities.”
The relocation to Kanab, like everything else about
Best Friends, evolved gradually. Outgrowing the Prescott
site, Best Friends needed to move. The leadership scouted
potential new locations throughout the west. They visited and
rejected Angel Canyon several times, but kept coming back
to it, until finally they had to settle somewhere and everywhere
else had been somehow eliminated. At the time,
Mountain and Maloney agree, they thought Angel Canyon
might be too big. But Best Friends’ capacity for expansion
was soon reached again. Taking local animal control contracts,
since relinquished, multiplied the number of animals
in custody, since Best Friends does not euthanize healthy animals,
yet the opportunities for adoption in such a remote
place are few. Reluctantly, they realized they would have to
reorient the sanctuary to emphasize care-for-life, for animals
genuinely requiring lifetime care, to stay within their capacity
for providing quality service.
Water imposed further limits. Angel Canyon is part
of the watershed serving Kanab. No more buildings can be
built pending the result of ongoing negotiations over how
much water the sanctuary is permitted to use. Best Friends
continues to add people and programs, but most of the staff
now live in town, and the newer programs emphasize education
and outreach.
Ironically, water was one thing the Prescott site had
in abundance. Best Friends hasn’t been able to sell it, despite
years of trying, because of flood damage.
Gabriel’s on the horn
In addition to Mountain, Maloney, Hirano, Fripp,
and Battista, members of the Best Friends board of directors
include corporation secretary Celeste Fripp, John’s wife;
coordinator of special events Gregory Castle, husband of
Diana Castle; architect and maintenance coordinator Paul
Eckhoff, whose wife Magdalen runs the Best Friends vege
tarian cafe in Kanab; and Gabriel de Peyer.
“Gabriel and his wife take care of about 60 of the
animals,” Mountain says, “and he does the telephone part of
our new member solicitation and membership renewal. If you
ever sign up at a Best Friends table, and you include your
phone number, expect a call from Gabriel.”
Key additions to the animal care staff include horse
coordinator Amber Gleeson and Feathered Friends coordinator
Sharon St. Joan. “Amber comes from a horse family in
Georgia,” Mountain says. “She worked in a public relations
company in Dallas, and then took part in the clown work in
children’s hospitals. We then invited her to come and be the
horse person at Best Friends, and she’s been here since
1991.” St. Joan is a former librarian and occasional volunteer
for the San Antonio-area sanctuary Primarily Primates. “At
some point she discovered she had a healing touch,”
Mountain explains, “and spent a couple of years traveling in
the eastern states, working in churches and on TV programs,
praying for sick people and visiting the sick in hospitals. She
is also an artist and sculptor, which helped provide for her to
continue her healing work, for which she did not charge.”
Now a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, handling every avian
species from large hawks to small doves, St. Joan “came to
Best Friends in 1992, after living in Phoenix, where she
began her work with birds.”
Among the senior office staff are receptionist Jonna
Wiemayer; mail room person Mariko Hirano (Steve’s wife);
Estelle Gartenlaub, who answers information requests; animal
care referral person Kate Willer; Joy Moffat, who
according to Mountain “counsels people with the telephone in
one hand while entering the daily donations with the other”;
and computer person Peter Dillman.
Claire Ives sells advertising for the bubbly B e s t
F r i e n d s magazine. “People would give us money but say,
‘Don’t send any literature, because I can’t stand to read about
cruelty,'” Mountain explains. “So we decided to publish a
magazine they would read.”
Minimum wage
Decision-makers at many animal-related charities
insist they can’t attract top people without paying six-figure
salaries, but Best Friends has no trouble finding the people
they need at minimum wage. In fact, qualified people find
them. For instance, as ANIMAL PEOPLE went to press,
Mountain prepared for the arrival of Don and Fina Bruce.
“Don was editor of the day desk at Long Island N e w s d a y, ”
Mountain said. “Fina was public relations director for various
nonprofits on Long Island. Their association with Best
Friends dates back three years now, when they first picked up
some Best Friends literature at one of our tables in Las Vegas,
where they were vacationing. The next year they spent their
summer vacation here at the sanctuary, and the next year,
and the next year.” Eventually the Newsday parent firm
decided to merge the New York City Newsday with the Long
Island edition. Don Fina accepted a severance package, and
the Finas are now joining Best Friends to help put together
and run the Microsoft Network project.
Two of Maloney’s adult children now work at Best
Friends, her oldest daughter Carragh as a truck driver and dog
care person and her son David as a veterinary assistant. Her
middle daughter Eve is a Seabee in the U.S. Navy, recently
stationed in Antarctica and soon scheduled to return there as a
civilian staffer with a research team. “My children can go in
their own direction,” Maloney says, “and they have, but two
of them have decided they like the way of life here, at least
for now. But the desert life isn’t for everybody. Though
Antarctica is a bit of an extreme difference.”
The best testimony to the success of Best Friends
may come from the seven hundred or more resident dogs.
Already, at sunrise, their din echoes off the canyon walls,
audible three miles away. As they settle down, a lone coyote
howls from farther up the canyon, setting them off again. But
the dogs are not barking at a coyote for want of anything else
to do. A visit to the dog site finds a canine city; the hubbub is
the dog equivalent of the wave of sound one hears upon
approaching any crowded urban area from the countryside.
There are three classes of dog at Best Friends: those
considered most adoptable, kept in big runs, radiating out
from huge round doghouses; the special cases, kept in smaller
runs, like a matched trio of Malamutes inherited from a
man whose will was that they should not be separated; and
the dogs who run the place, led by the mayor, a huge
Malamute, with a much smaller peripatetic wife. The latter
dogs roam free. They could run off, but they don’t. Each
dog has his or her own invisibly delineated lounging territory,
some including elaborate self-constructed dugouts. Each dog
escorts the mayor and wife for a prescribed distance on a ceremonial
inspection. Each “changes the guard” with another
dog at a territorial boundary.
The longer one looks, the more orderly the chaos

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.