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Pet project: Best Friends raises the woof in Las Vegas

Utah-based animal rescue group Best Friends is getting a stronger foothold in Las Vegas. Here’s what it means for animals — and other animal rescue groups

Quietly headquartered next door in tiny Kanab, Utah, Best Friends Animal Society is one of the most well-funded, well-organized and, simply put, effective animal welfare organizations in the United States.
In 2009, it reported $47.9 million in gross income. It’s got marquee celebrity support from names such as film director Wolfgang Petersen and actor Charlize Theron. It boasts 300,000 members (6,729 of them in Southern Nevada) who donate money and time, subscribe to the organization’s magazine (circulation about 225,000) and sponsor any of the 1,700 or so animals living at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab. And those who aren’t necessarily volunteering or bankrolling love to watch: National Geographic Channel shot a reality TV show titled “DogTown,” focused on the canine sector of the Best Friends sanctuary. It ran for four seasons.
But for being just across the border, Best Friends’ presence in Las Vegas been surprisingly low-key. That’s about to change, however, as the tightly organized animal welfare group is putting a paw squarely in Las Vegas. In 2009, Best Friends hired Tami Simon as campaign coordinator for Las Vegas, a full-time staff position. She is charged with beefing up Best Friends’ presence in the city.

Support comes from

Why? It’s the economy. Simon says the animal health department of Best Friends was getting hundreds of inquiries a week from Las Vegans who needed help. Many had to do with people being unable to keep pets due to economic distress.
“One of our greatest concerns is the overcrowding of the shelter and the euthanization that occurs here due to lack of space,” she says. She’s since launched five different initiatives to help pets — and help people help pets — in the Las Vegas Valley.
But will Best Friends get any puppy love from local animal welfare organizations? In the past, the group’s way of thinking and of doing things drove a wedge between it and the animal welfare community in Las Vegas. Shelters that believe they have no choice but to use euthanasia are alienated by Best Friends’ near-religious no-kill stance. David-like rescue organizations facing the Goliath of pet overpopulation don’t appreciate the wealthy outsider sharing its pets with Las Vegans — but keeping its cash at the sanctuary. (Disclosure: I’ve volunteered for Best Friends in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.)

Give me sanctuary
Many animal activists are mum when asked to comment about Best Friends. “We really don’t work with Best Friends,” says Harold Vosko, president of Heaven Can Wait Society. “We have been doing this 10 years, and never once have we worked together. We are a local group, and I’m not sure what they do here in Las Vegas, for they are a national group.”
Doug Duke, executive director of the Nevada SPCA, also said he had no comment, because he hadn’t done much with Best Friends.
What gives? Best Friends has stronger relationships with L.A. and Salt Lake City than with Las Vegas next door. As Best Friends cofounder Francis Battista explains, when the fledgling group went looking for donors and members, it hit the road, eventually landing in L.A. and Salt Lake City, where it built relationships with the people who now run community programs there. But when Best Friends drove to or from Las Vegas, it was usually to pick up or deliver animals.
“Things that we’ve done in Las Vegas tended to be more connected directly to the sanctuary,” says Judah Battista, interim director of community programs and services, and Francis’ son. “Until very recently, we were more geared toward taking in animals from Las Vegas, and also adopting out animals from the sanctuary there. For instance, through the mobile adoptions.”
Mobile adoptions brought dogs and cats from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary to Las Vegas, where they were made available to potential adopters during weekend events at PetSmart and other locations.
This was fine when there were plenty of people to adopt these pets. Then, the economy soured. Las Vegans didn’t need another mouth to feed, especially the canine or feline kind. As people abandoned their homes, they left their pets behind too. (The practice even gave birth to one local rescue, started by a former realtor, called Foreclosed Upon Pets.) As numbers of abandoned animals rose, numbers of potential adopters fell. Las Vegas rescues were having enough trouble placing Las Vegas dogs and cats; they didn’t need outsiders snatching valuable potential homes.

Retreat and regroup
Compounding the tension over mobile adoptions was an event that struck at the core of Best Friends’ beliefs: the 2007 disease outbreak at Lied Animal Shelter resulting in the mass euthanasia of more than 1,000 dogs and cats. The Animal Foundation, a nonprofit group that provides shelter services to Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Clark County, had been trying to run Lied as no-kill. But overcrowding led to squalor, spreading three viruses and an aggressive bacterial infection among the animals. A group of inspectors invited by the foundation uncovered what press reports described as one of the largest animal health disasters on record.
Best Friends offered its assistance in the crisis, but the Animal Foundation chose instead to work with the Humane Society of the United States, which had led the inspection. The decision to euthanize the sick animals followed.
Judah Battista is cautiously critical of the choice. “I always think that there are ways to find a solution that saves as many lives as possible,” he says. “I’m not saying that wasn’t done, but it certainly wasn’t messaged that it was done.”
Around that time, Best Friends was going through its own upheaval. Co-founder and longtime president Michael Mountain stepped down in 2008, and the organization, which had grown too large to manage in its original form, undertook a sweeping structural overhaul.
In 2008, mobile dog adoptions from Kanab to Las Vegas stopped. Things got quiet on the animal welfare front in Sin City, at least as far as Best Friends volunteers were concerned.

Keeping the faith
Best Friends’ origins perhaps explain why the group is so tightly organized. In the ’80s, a group of friends from the Foundation Faith in northern Arizona pooled their money and looked for a place to build a charitable organization with a spiritual dimension. One of them, Francis Battista, happened on some land for sale outside Kanab, about 80 miles east of St. George, Utah, in an area dubbed Angel Canyon. It was a steal at around $1 million with only a $5,000 down payment required for the 3,800 acres they now own (they lease another 20,000 acres from the Bureau of Land Management).
“There were about 25 of us, and most were animal lovers,” Francis Battista recalls, adding that some had been involved in anti-vivisection demonstrations and other animal welfare activities before moving to Kanab. The group had about 200 animals in tow when it arrived.
Soon enough, somebody’s dog went missing. When Battista and a couple others headed to town to fetch it, he says, they were horrified to find a tin shed and a wire enclosure in a field behind the small local airport serving as Kanab’s dog pound. After recovering their pet, they asked the mayor if they could take over animal control. He said yes.
“That’s how it all started,” Battista says. “We were smart people. We figured anything we did would be better than the way it was.”
Over nearly 20 years, the small band of do-gooders has morphed into a 490-employee organization with a board of directors and distinct divisions for management, operations, communications, development, advocacy and the other usual functions of major nonprofits.
During that time, they’ve helped a lot of animals. Best Friends reported that 465 dogs and cats were adopted or placed with fosters at its two 2010 L.A. Super Adoptions, mega-events that Best Friends markets and produces, inviting local rescuers and the city’s animal control to introduce their pets to potential adopters over the course of two days. Best Friends L.A. Programs holds dozens of other events each year, including monthly adoptions. Similar programs in Salt Lake City and New York are equally active.
There are no Best Friends Super Adoptions in Las Vegas — at least not since the first and last one in 2007. And it’s not as if we don’t need them. According to statistics on the Clark County Administrative Services website, Animal Control euthanized 12,700 dogs and cats in fiscal ’08-’09, and adopted out 4,596 – a 2.7-to-1 ratio. According to L.A. Animal Services, in 2009 it euthanized 93,961 and adopted out 87, 297 – nearly 1-to-1.

Can’t we be friends?
To understand why Best Friends would be more active in Los Angeles than right next door in Las Vegas, you first have to understand the group’s modus operandi.
Best Friends has many activities. Those directly related to helping animals generally fall into the categories of rescue and community-building.
The group may be best known for its emergency response. Best Friends led the rescue of several thousand dogs and cats in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Closer to home, it cooperated with the Nevada Humane Society, United Animal Nation and Humane Society of the U.S. to rescue 145 dogs from a facility in Gabbs, Nev., after the owner died. Best Friends also oversaw the rescue of 1,000 rabbits in Reno – although they multiplied to 1,600 by the time they were all adopted, Battista jokes.
Such huge rescues make headlines, but the more mundane activity of community-building may actually save more animals’ lives in the long run. It builds the infrastructure to support day-to-day, grassroots activity, such as pulling adoptable animals from the pound before they’re euthanized, finding foster homes for lost or abandoned pets until they can be placed in permanent homes, and educating the public on the need to spay and neuter pets.
“We feel that, in order to address the problem of homeless animals around the country, what communities really need is to be empowered,” says Gregory Castle, co-founder and CEO of Best Friends. “We don’t want to walk into a community and set up even a great program without a real involvement from local people.”
This empowerment comes in the form of funds, guidance and tools. A free program called Network Charities offers everything from a DIY website to grant money. Best Friends started the No More Homeless Pets conference as a way for rescuers to get together, network and share good ideas.

Paws-on perspective
The hub of all this activity is the sanctuary in Kanab. A sort of last resort for unwanted animals, it takes in pets that have been rescued through Best Friends initiatives and can’t — because they’re too sick or too vicious — be put up for adoption. A staff of trainers and veterinarians rehabilitates as many pets as possible; those that never become adoptable live out their natural lives at the sanctuary.
This operational model is unique. “Best Friends has a much more hands-on perspective,” says Doug Favre, editor-in-chief of the Animal Legal & Historical Web Center of the Michigan State College of Law. “There are no others like them.”
Then there’s its categorical no-kill stance. In animal welfare, practices fall somewhere on a spectrum between using euthanasia as a solution to overpopulation and using it only as a last resort. At one end of the spectrum, you might find public animal control agencies, which euthanize dogs and cats deemed unadoptable, or that have gone unclaimed by owners after a holding period. Toward the opposite end of the spectrum are most animal rescue groups, with Best Friends at the farthest point.
You can’t get into animal welfare without planting yourself somewhere on this spectrum, dubbed “kill” versus “no-kill.” But as Favre explains, it’s more complicated than being for or against killing.
“Public animal control agencies only have so many cages, and when they’re full, they have to start killing the animals. Some people fervently believe no animal should be killed; you should work harder to find it a home. But the other side of that is, there are no-kill shelters that are nothing more than prisons. They don’t kill the animals, so they may spend a significant number of years in a cage. So, ‘kill’ can be a quality-of-life decision.”
Best Friends is above this debate. It doesn’t have to kill any animals, because it has the resources to keep and care for them, cage-free, for as long as they live.
“An animal that gets into Best Friends has gone to heaven,” Favre says. “There’s no better possible outcome.”

Adapt — and adopt
Best Friends will have its work cut out for it in Las Vegas. Holly Stoberski, who represented nonprofit humane groups on Clark County’s Animal Advisory Committee through 2010, says, “I think we have some unique challenges that other cities don’t face, because of the transient nature of our population.”
Stoberski points to the low-cost spay and neuter program of Heaven Can Wait, for which she is board vice president, as an example of grassroots movement in the right direction.
“We certainly appreciate any other group who wants to help, but I’m not aware of what Best Friends has done in Clark County,” she says. “We’d break our backs to have a garage sale and try to raise a couple hundred dollars, whereas they have so many resources.”
Jason Smith, director of operations for the Animal Foundation, is happy to take advantage of whatever Best Friends has to offer. “They certainly seem to have the resources to open up new opportunities for collaboration. We are always looking for new and creative ways to positively place animals, and Best Friends’ willingness to coordinate transfers outside our community opens up new doors to us,” Smith says. He’s referring to Pup My Ride, a cooperative effort with the Animal Foundation to move small dogs from Lied, where they are abundant, to adoption events where small dogs are in demand.
Best Friends Las Vegas Campaign Coordinator Tami Simon acknowledges there’s a need for more help. Case in point: In March, Adopt A Rescue Pet lost a major donor and had no other resources to pay the $70,000 balloon payment on its five-acre dog sanctuary in the Amargosa Valley. If Adopt A Rescue Pet doesn’t meet its goal of making the payment and keeping its doors open, as many as 300 dogs and cats could be displaced.
Simon said Best Friends’ Animal Help department was working with Adopt A Rescue Pet, providing advice on fundraising and reducing the number of dogs in its care. Adopt A Rescue Pet Founder Elizabeth Rubin confirmed Best Friends’ involvement and said her group was halfway to its goal.
More help is on the way. Best Friends CEO Castle says Las Vegas is one of four cities — along with Atlanta, Chicago and Jacksonville, Fla. — in the plan for developing tier two programs, having established tier one in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and New York. After assessing each city in the second tier, Best Friends will put together a plan for investment to start in the next two to three years.
The local mood seems to be improving, too. Stoberski says, “I think the past couple years have been a very positive change, especially with Chris Giunchigliani (a strong animal welfare advocate) on the County Commission. The Advisory Committee has been taking a stronger, more active role in educating the public. Schools are opening up to rescue groups coming in. The more the merrier, I say.”
Asked how he felt about working with Lied again, Judah Battista says, “Any time you’ve had sort of a bumpy relationship, it’s a little awkward again. We’re getting our footing. Everybody’s been receptive to us.”
He adds that a new approach to Las Vegas is replacing the old, sanctuary-centered one.
“We still have folks in Las Vegas who adopt from Best Friends, but ultimately, we didn’t want those adoptions to be a distraction for the community from the fact there are shelter dogs here that need to be adopted. … New groups have grown up that want to own the solutions here, and we want to complement the work they’re doing.”

A tale of canine karma

It’s hard to stay focused on Rich and Marilyn Neve with Ginger in the room. The 9-year-old German shepherd-golden retriever mix is used to getting all the love, and her expression says she’s serious about the toy in her mouth: “Play. Or else.”

Ginger was willed to Best Friends by her former owner in Florida, a Best Friends member who wanted to make sure her beloved pet wouldn’t be put down after her death. Ginger ended up with Rich and Marilyn through a combination of good karma and good organization. Several years ago, the couple had to give up an elderly Australian Blue Healer, Rosie, that had become unmanageably aggressive. After searching for a local no-kill shelter to take Rosie, they ended up sending her to Best Friends, where she’s now buried.

“We wanted to pay Best Friends back for taking care of Rosie,” Marilyn says, “so we decided to adopt an older dog from there.”

The Neves took advantage of Best Friends’ careful screening process. “We’re not young, and we wanted to know we were getting a dog we wouldn’t have to do a lot of work with,” Marilyn says. Rich adds, “We even did a trial sleepover. We fell in love with Ginger right away.”

Best Friends’ well-developed methods for connecting the right pets with the right people — then making sure they’re well taken care of for life — is one of the things that has cultivated the group’s large, loyal following. And led to pet owners who are commmited for life.

“Someday, we may be visiting Ginger’s grave at Angels Landing, next to Rosie’s,” Marilyn says. — H.K. 

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