No Kill Pretenders: Best Friends Animal Society

My relationship with Best Friends Animal Society is long and complex. Of all of the organizations listed on the Pretenders Page, I know them the best. I have worked with them the most. I have known their staff personally, and I mean staff at many levels, from the founders to the Board to entry-level line staff. I have dined in the homes of their founders. I have worked elbow-to-elbow with them in Tylertown at a rescue station set up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I lent them some of my staff on different occasions and gave them use of a mobile veterinary surgery suite I managed. I have consulted with them on different topics. I have seen the dark nooks and crannies of their operation. They are not pretty. Here are a collection of stories that help explain my perspective on Best Friends, and why I believe they are, at best, No Kill pretenders...

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Best Friends Failed a Dog Named Buster and Their Mission Exposing A Dark Reality About Their "Sanctuary"

One of my multiple trips to the Best Friends Animal Society facility in Kanab, Utah was a multi-purpose visit. A veterinarian friend of mine was being consulted by Best Friends to help them with the Michael Vick dogs they had on site. At the same time, I had a dog at my shelter that desperately needed the controlled and structured environment of a sanctuary. Buster was a Rottweiler/American Staffordshire Terrier mix who had seriously injured multiple people, and would continue to injure

more if not managed in a very specific way.

Buester

Most of the time, Buster was a sweet and loving dog (see photo). Sometimes, however, he would, for no apparent reason, become highly reactive and aggressive.

When Buster first came into my care he had been very abused and was almost completely shut down. My staff worked hard over a period of months to gain his trust and help him come out of his shell. When he finally began to flourish is when we began seeing his aggression. We continued to work with him over a period of more than a year to see if we could help him to become a safe dog that could find the comfort of a loving home.

Being a large and powerful dog, Buster would be a pretty frightening creature when he would suddenly become aggressive. In spite of that, my staff did a remarkable job working with and managing Buster. We took him to behaviorists to try to figure out what was going on in his doggy brain to see if we could help him. We isolated him from the public and volunteers to keep people safe. We gave him dedicated play time in our outdoor play yards, gave him extra socialization and training and tried everything we could to turn him into an adoptable pet. After a year and thousands of dollars we had gone as far as we could with Buster. We, and the veterinary behaviorists with whom we consulted agreed that Buster was an ideal candidate for sanctuary placement. With a highly controlled and enriched environment, Buster could have lived a good life.

On the other hand, we were a small, rural shelter with a only two "sanctuary" kennels. We had all kinds of public coming and going all the time. For a dangerous dog, like Buster, we were not a permanent place to live. I asked Best Friends to take Buster and they had said no. When my friend was going there to consult with them about the Michael Vick dogs, I decided to go along to see if I could make a more impassioned plea in-person to ask Best Friends to save Buster. They were, after all, a "sanctuary." I was an "adoption center."

While visiting the Best Friends sanctuary my friend and I were given multiple tours of different areas of the facility. I also had the opportunity to make multiple appeals to different people at Best Friends for them to take Buster. In one particularly memorable exchange with a senior-level staff person, we were standing in a large, outdoor dog run housing three very friendly dogs. When the BF staff told me they did not have room for Buster, I told them I could easily take all three of the dogs in this expansive run and adopt them into homes in order to make room for Buster to come to their "sanctuary." They were all highly social. They said it couldn't "work that way." Later, I realized that all of the dogs in that same building (about 24 dogs) were all highly adoptable. I told them I would take all of the dogs in that entire building if they would take Buster. They still said no.

Later, we were eating lunch in another building housing dogs. All of the doors to the dogs' kennels were open and the dogs were free to come mingle with us as we ate. I commented that all of the dogs in this building were also adoptable and that if Best Friends would take Buster, I would find homes for all of the dogs in both buildings. Still, the answer was no. I requested a meeting later that night so I could give one last pitch for them to take Buster.

At that meeting I was told that "We cannot fill our sanctuary with animals that are not adoptable, because the people visiting here want to be able to interact with the animals."

I was stunned and mortified. A facility that keeps animals for people to play with (depriving those animals of loving homes they could have) isn't a "sanctuary" in my opinion; it is a glorified petting zoo.

In a strange twist, more than a year later I received a phone call from Francis Battista, one of the founders of Best Friends. He was complaining that I was supporting Oreo's law, a bill introduced in New York to help save shelter pets. When I refused to withdraw my support for the bill, Battista threatened me by saying, "How would you like me to go around telling everyone about you killing Buster?"

His threat, along with his assumption that our donors did not already know Buster's story, told me everything I needed to know. I simply responded that his threat carried no weight with me, because I had blogged Buster's story in real-time for all of our supporters. Everyone already knew the real story and his assumption that I would have kept that secret was more than insightful. I also requested that the wind chime I had hanging at their facility in honor of my dog Barney be returned to me. That wind chime now hangs from a branch in an old oak tree above our back deck. Whenever I hear it chiming I feel relieved that I got it back. It would make me sick to think of it hanging at Best Friends. I couldn't get the money I paid back. But, at least we get to keep the memory of our beloved pet away from the toxicity of Best Friends.

The Untold Story of the Michael Vick's Dogs

Many people have heard about how Best Friends Animal Society took in and cared for dogs rescued from Michael Vick's dog fighting operation. What they do not know, I believe, is how poorly the animals were housed, how irresponsible they were in the transfer, and how many other animals were put at-risk because of them.

The issues laid out in the story of the Michael Vick dogs would likely have never transpired if Best Friends had given half the attention to the care and handling of the dogs that they gave to the marketing and fundraising they did around them. Prioritizing fundraising over the actual mission is always tragic. With Best Friends in my opinion that is an unfortunately common issue. As it occurred with the Michael Vick dogs, I found it particularly concerning and something anyone who has a dog in Utah should be concerned about.

Paintings of 6 of the Victory Dogs

As I noted earlier, I visited Best Friends with a veterinarian friend of mine who was asked to consult with them because, as it turned out, many of the dogs were positive for Babesiosis (aka "Babesia"), a blood-born parasite that is endemic in the Eastern United States, but that had not been detected in the entire state of Utah, until the "Victory Dogs" (as the dogs rescued from Vick's dog fighting operation were called) were brought to Best Friends.

Babesia spreads through dog fight operations rapidly, because the dogs have direct contact with the blood of other dogs when they are fighting. It can also be spread by ticks. It can be managed but not cured. Bringing infected dogs into an area where Babesia had not previously existed, therefore, is, at best, reckless.

When we first arrived at the sanctuary, in the summer of 2008, staff expressed their frustration that the authorities had known about the Babesia infections but that they had failed to inform Best Friends. Later, a technician at their veterinary clinic confided in me that the diagnosis was actually written in the dogs' paperwork before they were transferred to the sanctuary.

We were told that it took the staff at Best Friends many weeks to figure out why the dogs were suffering a wide range of ailments, until they finally figured out they had Babesia. I, therefore, concluded that the organization was so busy moving and marketing the dogs that they did not even bother to sit down and read all of the material about the dogs that was given to them. It is worth noting that while our visit was in the summer of 2008, Best Friends had had these dogs in their care since January of that same year.

Though Best Friends could have opened up ample space for each of the dogs, when we arrived, the dogs were living in small wire kennels that were all set up inside one of the outdoor dog runs. They had been living in those small kennels for several months and I heard no plans to move them to better accommodations. To my shock, they had also failed to start the dogs on any kind of flea or tick treatment. Given that Babesia can be spread by ticks - not just to other dogs at the sanctuary, but also to the wild canids that live in the area - the failure to enact that simplest of precautions was, in my opinion, negligent to the extreme, not to mention the fact that the only reason for Best Friends to have brought them to Utah at all was for fundraising purposes. There were plenty of qualified organizations in areas with endemic Babesia that would have loved the PR and fundraising opportunity those dogs provided.

If Best Friends did not connect those dots before transporting the dogs, shame on them. If they did but took no precautions and moved them anyway, shame on them even more.

I should note that I have seen no evidence that Babesia spread to other dogs at the sanctuary or beyond. It is nearly certain Best Friends would never admit that they did spread it. It is also almost 100% certain that veterinarians in Utah are not testing dogs for Babesia, since it is not at all prevalent there.

The Hoarding of the Nevada Cats

During my last visit to Best Friends, I was shown nearly 200 cats that had been living in small wire cages for many months. The cages were stacked on top of each other, 6-feet-high, in make-shift yurts in a hidden "staff-only" parking area at the "sanctuary." Suffice it to say that not all of the animals housed at Best Friends are on the public tour, and the ones the public does not get to see are often suffering due to lack of housing and care, almost as if the housing and care provided are for public presentation only, rather than because the animals need or deserve it.

The cats were in terrible shape before rescue and deserved better care than they got

I was already familiar with cats in question because they were part of a remarkable rescue operation taken on by Best Friends in 2007. To this day, I have a hard time pinpointing an exact total number of cats involved. The lowest number I have seen is 600 cats. I have seen a number as high as 1,000 cats reported. Best Friends themselves have reported different numbers at different times. By any measure, it was a lot of cats. A LOT of cats - all rescued from a hoarding situation in Pahrump, Nevada.

On the other hand, the small, rural shelter I ran took on rescue efforts for up to about 200 cats at a time from hoarding situations, without any significant national outreach and with no massive influx of funding. Best Friends, on the other hand, is and was a national organization, with enormous national support and income in the many, many millions of dollars annually. Therefore, if they were a well-run organization, it should have been a very manageable effort, in my experience.

 

In spite of the extreme size differential between our organizations, we decided we wanted to help them. We chose to take in several dozens of cats to help ease the load. We also sent our "Neuter Commuter", a mobile surgical suite we used for such efforts along with a small team of staff to help.

 

I offered these things at no charge because our mission was animal rescue and we believed that in extreme situations all rescues should lend a hand when we could. Furthermore, I had staff that were enamored with Best Friends. They badly WANTED to go help, in part because they believed they would learn important things from these supposed gurus of No Kill rescue. Boy, were they wrong!

Within days of their arrival I began getting a continual stream of complaints from my staff about the disorganized, sloppy and poorly-led rescue efforts. More troubling: they also complained about the lack of necessary surgical protocols being followed for the surgeries being performed in our surgical suite. My staff left as quickly as they could, without disrupting the rescue efforts. Again, that all happened back in 2007.

Flash forward to the summer of 2008 and the 200 cats I saw in the yurts in the hidden parking area were the same cats, in the same yurts that had been set up for emergency, "very temporary" housing. Nearly a year later, those Pahrump cats were still there, still sitting in tiny wire cages, waiting for the uber-wealthy organization that controlled their fates to do something to end their suffering.

I asked multiple staff if there was a plan in place for what to do with the Pahrump cats. I never got a meaningful response from anyone. It reminded me of so many animal hoarding situations I have seen over the years, only on an institutional scale.

Our Dinner at the Battistas and One Dead Cat

"We are sorry. We tried to do something about the smell."

That was how we were greeted when we arrived for dinner at the home of Francis and Silva Battista, two of the founders of Best Friends Animal Society. Their small, two bedroom bungalow was also home to 16 dogs and 36 cats. The eye-watering ammonia smell wasn't the worst of it, or the weirdest.

"Francis has a bit of an obsession with the Stigmata," said Silva Battista as I pondered the rather gory art on the walls, depicting giant nails pounded through the palms of hands with blood flowing.

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The art, like everything else in the main rooms, was chest-level or above because, as the Silvas explained, anything lower than that would be quickly destroyed by the dogs. For that reason, we drank margaritas and ate dinner standing, taking breaks out on the back deck to give our eyes and sinuses a break from the urine stench. There was no furniture to sit on. So, standing was really the only option. My brain was whirling trying to take in the whole situation. It was just so weird.

As if sensing my discomfort, Silva explained that she and Francis do not really live there. They spent most of their time in L.A., where the money is, she explained, and using their private plane to fly back and forth. They paid care-takers to come and tend the several dozens of pets living in their home. The master bedroom had been converted into a cattery, with an attached outdoor cat space. The dogs lived in the living room. When we were there a dog was recovering from an eye-removal surgery in the kitchen, so the other dogs were not allowed in there. There was also, apparently, a small second bedroom on the other side of the kitchen that was a "no pets" zone where the Battistas slept, at least on the apparently rare occasions when they were home.

It was all so very weird. Yet, I didn't want the weirdness of it all to get in the way of my experience. Most importantly, the dogs seemed well-adjusted, if a bit unruly and poorly behaved. They had free access to a large outdoor space for play and freedom from the stench of the house. For those reasons, I tried not to judge, in spite of the fact that the Battistas had clearly made a lot of choices that I think would register on the crazy side of most peoples' decision tree.

A bit into the evening, the conversation turned to the work my staff was doing with unsocialized cats. That was the first time when Silva really lit up.

"I have a cat I would really like you to look at to see of you would consider taking." She said. Then, very politely she asked, "Would you mind taking a look?"

Of course I said I would look at the cat. How could I say no? In addition to being interested in the cat, I had not yet seen the cat area and was very curious. So I said yes and she took me into the cattery as she explained that they had a cat they had taken from Hurricane Katrina who was "mean" and "unsocial." The cat, she said, didn't get along with the other cats, hissed and bit and was generally nasty. (Note: this was a long time past Katrina)

Just inside the door to the cattery (a.k.a. "master bedroom") we found the cat she was speaking about. She was on the floor, front paws tucked inwards, eyes squinted. Her fur was thin and though I could easily see her spine, her belly looked distended.

I crouched down to pet her and Silva said, "Be careful. She is nasty. She will bite you."

I reached my hand down anyway and gently touched the top of the cat's head. She responded by pushing her head against my hand and rubbing her head and face into it.

I immediately thought, "This cat isn't unsocialized. She is sick and in pain."

"Careful! Careful!" Silva warned. But I ignored her. I slowly worked my hand back toward the cat's neck. She began purring. I could feel her dry, brittle fur. I could feel the details in the vertebrae of her neck.

As I moved my hand closer to her back she let out a little cry and then gave a gentle warning hiss. For me this was confirmation that the cat was in pain and that the pain was isolated to the area behind her head and neck.

"Has this cat been to a veterinarian?" I asked.

Silva looked shocked. "You think there is something wrong with her?" she asked.

As I started to explain what I was seeing Silva began arguing with me. And realizing that an argument was not going to help any of us, I simply paused and said, "Yes. I will take her."

I said we were leaving in the morning. Silva said we did not need to bring her with us (something I thought was odd). She said she had a friend who was traveling to Minnesota the next week and that she would send the cat with her.

A day before we expected the cat to arrive in Minnesota I got an email from Silva saying the cat had unexpectedly died. She said she was shocked. She said there were no warning signs. She said her friend got as far as Denver, got a hotel room and in the morning found the cat dead.

Silva may have been shocked. I was not. My greatest sadness was that I was not more forceful in trying to remove the cat sooner.

Best Friends Killed the No Kill Conference

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Ever wonder what happened to the No Kill Advocacy Center's highly successful No Kill Conference? The short version of the story is that Best Friends killed it. When I say "highly successful" I mean that in 2013 the conference brought together more than 900 people from all aspects of animal welfare from 44 states and 10 different nations. It covered topics from regulating animal shelters and large-scale breeding operations to enrichment of the lives of animals in shelters. In my assessment, it was hands-down the most invigorating, inspiring and energizing animal welfare event ever.

Unlike many more mundane events, the speakers were chosen based on the quality of the content of the presentations they had to offer. At many such events, the speakers list is highly influenced by sponsors of the events. They nearly always have other agendas that degrade the quality of the content.

 

No Kill Advocacy Center's focus on substance and quality of message paid off. The response from participants was palpable in the air everywhere. Rather than snoozing through painful lectures, the audience was engaged, alert and excited. The message was spot-on and motivating: We can be a No Kill nation today if we simply embrace a new way of thinking about animal sheltering, and then the lives of millions of animals annually can be saved.

The last time I saw Francis Battista, one of the founders and primary drivers of Best Friends, was at that conference. I was speaking. He was... not.

 

The response from the audience the conference was overwhelmingly excited and upbeat while Francis' response was at the opposite. He seemed grumpy, cranky and ornery. A common conversation among the speakers was, "what's up with Francis?" To be totally candid, some of the other speakers and I spoke privately about how Francis was coming into our presentations with what I called an "I smell a fart" look on his face. He would remain during the presentations, sometimes grumbling audibly with that same icky expression. After, when the other attendees would be gleeful and celebratory, he would appear to just sulk off into the hallway.

As the conference went on - a conference, it is worth nothing, that was met with multiple standing ovations, glorious applause and that should be in the history books as one of the most successful No Kill events ever - a general consensus came together among the speakers that Francis was angry that more Best Friends people (maybe himself?) were not speaking. He seemed to be expressing his "this stinks" face, either because he could not tolerate other people sharing other ideas or because he could not stand people other than Best Friends staff being recognized as experts.

The No Kill Conference was a highly unique format and in an unusual location. It was held at the GW Law School in Washington, DC and had two main tracks, one for animal sheltering/rescue and one for animal law issues. It was a unique and winning combination, in part because animal law and legislation are critical components of animal shelter reform. Whether you are wanting more transparency from animal shelters or animal welfare standards in breeding operations (a.k.a. "puppy mills") you need law and legislative reforms to help. The winning combination of law and welfare was the brain child of the No Kill Advocacy Center. The selection of the GW Law School as the venue made that combination particularly potent. It was all very, very good.

Apparently, having some other organization organizing a highly successful No Kill event that did not feature Best Friends prominently was unacceptable to Best Friends. The very next year, they spent a seemingly large pile of money advertising a conference with an identical format in the same location and recruited many of the same speakers to host a conference in that same location, within a month of the usual No Kill Conference, effectively killing the No Kill Advocacy Center's conference.

Ironically, while Best Friends seems to routinely engage in these sorts of predatory business practices, they also chastise No Kill advocates who politely request their shelters stop killing animals. They say those advocates are being "divisive" while they, themselves, are engaging in downright predatory business practices.

Dishonest Opposition to Shelter Reform and Regulation

Though Best Friends maintained a general public policy of supporting laws that allowed access to animal shelters by rescue organizations; when such laws are introduced, they frequently (nearly always) refuse to take a public position on them. At the same time, they have frequently worked secretly behind the scenes to try to kill the proposed laws. Oreo's Law in New York and the Companion Animal Protection Act in Minnesota are two examples.

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For a very long time, Best Friends has had a general, official public policy of supporting shelter access laws, like the Companion Animal Protection Act, which require animal shelters to work with rescues. When these laws are enacted, legitimate 501(c)3 animal rescues must be allowed to save animals that shelters plan to kill, unless those animals are seriously dangerous or irremediably suffering. They are good laws and are urgently needed, because many shelters refuse to work with rescues, retaliate against rescues who complain by killing animals those rescues want to save and worse. Furthermore, when these laws are enacted, killing in shelters stops or is greatly reduced. Best Friends claiming they support such laws is, therefore, a good thing. The problem is that when these laws are proposed in state and local governments across the USA, Best Friends almost never actually supports them. Even worse, they often work behind the scene to try to kill the proposed laws. I know, because I have seen it up-close and in-person.

In 2010, following the needless killing of a dog named Oreo by the ASPCA - a dog another rescue organization offered to save - a law was introduced to make it illegal for animal shelters in their state to kill animals other rescues are willing to save. The law was named Oreo's Law in honor of the dog the ASPCA killed. I and every real No Kill advocate I knew strongly supported the law. I even made a video to support it. Shortly after the video was posted, I received a phone call from Francis Battista, one of the founders of Best Friends. He requested that I remove the video and withdraw my support of Oreo's Law.

He told me that Ed Sayres (the President of the ASPCA who had ordered the killing of Oreo) was a friend of his. He said he believed the proposed law was "all political" and that people were just trying to make "Ed" and the ASPCA "look bad."

I responded by telling Francis that this was not about politics for me. It was about policy. I said I did not believe Oreo should have been killed; and regardless of the story of that specific dog, it was a proposed law that would save countless other animals, so I would not withdraw my support or remove the video.

In response, he snapped back at me, "How would you like it if I ran around telling people about the dog named Buster that you killed?"

I had to stop and catch my breath for a minute. He was referring to the dog named Buster that I wrote about earlier. He was a dog I have been begging sanctuaries to take for more than a year. He was a dog I tried to get Best Friends to take - even flying to their sanctuary to ask them in person. He was a dog they refused to take.

I paused and asked him if he was trying to compare the euthanasia of a seriously dangerous dog that no one (not even he) would take to the killing of a dog a rescue was offering to take or if he was trying to threaten me by telling my supporters I had euthanized Buster. I added that if he was trying to threaten me, it would not work, because I had blogged about Buster's story in real-time to our donors/supporters. They already knew what happened to Buster. His assumption that they didn't said a lot to me about how Best Friends operates.

When it became clear that his threat wasn't going to work on me, he abruptly ended the phone call.

Publicly, Best Friends "remained neutral" regarding Oreo's Law, even as they worked behind the scene to kill the bill. A director of a New York-based No Kill shelter wrote a letter opposing Oreo's Law. She later told me she wrote the letter at the request of Best Friends.

For years we worked to pass the Companion Animal Protection Act (CAPA) in Minnesota, with fierce opposition from Minnesota's high kill animal shelters. For most of that time, Best Friends publicly remained silent or "neutral" about CAPA. Behind the scenes however, they privately asked people to not support it.

 

As a result of Best Friend's behavior around CAPA in Minnesota, the Animal Humane Society (AHS), the leading opponent of CAPA (and the states largest killer of healthy dogs and cats) assumed Best Friends officially opposed the bill. In a mailing they sent to their members and donors trying to explain their opposition to CAPA, AHS cited Best Friends opposition to CAPA as part of their justification.

After Best Friends was inundated with complaints that came about because of the AHS mailing, they were forced to publicly take a position in support of CAPA. By then it was too late to influence the decision on the bill. Best Friend's last minute support of CAPA made AHS look really bad. What most people didn't know is that they had good reason to believe Best Friends opposed it, because they worked behind the scene to kill a bill they ended coming out to support.

Best Friends Recommended Transfer of Dog to Dog Fighter for "Training"

I transferred a dog named Bear to an out-of-state "trainer" and paid him $1,000 at the recommendation of Best Friends. Two weeks later, someone from Best Friends notified us that the trainer had been arrested for dog fighting.

We immediately began calling around, trying to find Bear. We even sent a team out to try to get him back. We never found him. We only found some paperwork saying he was "adopted" a couple of days after dropping him off. He was adopted for $25 to someone with an address that did not exist and with a phone number that was not functional. The handwriting on the adoption application for Bear matched similar adoption applications for other dogs in this "training program."

 

We assume the dogs were all killed and bogus paperwork filled out to make it look like they were adopted.