Michael Mountain steers his SUV to what looks like a small suburban enclave—a cluster of beige stucco homes amid the foothills and junipers of Utah's Angel Canyon. The lanky English native steps into one of the houses and the residents immediately gather round. There's Julius, an orange cat born with a neurological disorder that makes it impossible for him to walk a straight line. And Mandy, a paraplegic Siamese mix that sidles up to Mountain by dragging her limp body with her front legs. "They get along just fine," Mountain, 56, says of the more than 600 felines that live together in five buildings. "They can live perfectly good lives here."

Good? For its revolving population of some 1,500 animal inhabitants—cats, dogs, birds and assorted barnyard creatures—the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is a veritable five-star spa. Since 1984 Mountain and his staff, now numbering 190, have brought society's most undesirable pets to the nonprofit group's 3,000-acre haven outside the town of Kanab, 70 miles from the Grand Canyon. There they feed, medically treat and pamper the animals, and—in more than 8 out of 10 cases—send them on to new families. Mountain hopes the facility, with a strict policy of never killing an animal, will serve as a model for shelters across the country, which now euthanatize more than 4 million cats and dogs a year.

Best Friends, with a $10 million annual budget, maintains facilities such as Kittyville, where a full-time caretaker runs each of the buildings, which are equipped with kitchens, outdoor enclosures and giant communal bowls with pureed food to make digestion easier. One building includes the Fat Cat Room, where 14 obese felines live on a special, low-fat diet. "It's their own weight-watchers spa," says Mountain.

It's a couple of miles' drive from there to Dogtown, pop. 650, where Best Friends will soon open six more buildings, each for more than 50 dogs. Recently dogs arrived from a New York City shelter where they had been kept caged in a basement for years. "As soon as they got out of the truck they were walking around in circles after their tails," says Mountain. "But after three weeks of fresh air and running around they were back to normal."

Growing up in London, Mountain came by his compassion for animals early, once going "into a total panic" at 5 when he reeled in his first catch on a family fishing trip. On a personal level, he suffered painful setbacks early, losing both parents and his only sister to illnesses by the time he was 16. He lived with an aunt and uncle and then briefly attended Oxford, where Mountain found his cause when he joined friends protesting experiments on live animals. In 1967 he came to the U.S.

Mountain was living in Chicago when he remet London friend Diana Asher. They married in 1970 and had a daughter. But after two years they divorced. "When it came to love and marriage versus love and animals," says his daughter, Denver real estate broker Robin Nicholson, 31, "the love of animals won."

While working for Phoenix social service agencies in the late 1970s, Mountain began taking cats and dogs from a shelter near a Prescott, Ariz., ranch he owned with friends. Overrun with animals, he assembled a group of 20 friends to purchase the $1.1 million parcel in Kanab in 1983. When word got out, locals began showing up with litters of puppies and kittens. By 1991 Best Friends was on the verge of bankruptcy. But a letter seeking donations proved so successful that the group began aggressive fund-raising efforts, eventually attracting some 250,000 donors. Though most contribute no more than $50, the cause has also attracted Hollywood figures like Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher, who auctioned a chance to appear on his show to raise $47,000 for the cause.

While his animals may live the luxe life, Mountain's own quarters are modest. He shares a mobile home with his own two dogs and two cats. Though he does have plans to build a small house, what would really satisfy him is if shelters around the country would not kill animals. "If we can begin by showing kindness to animals," says Mountain, "we can build a better world for everyone."

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Lorenzo Benet in Kanab

  • Contributors:
  • Lorenzo Benet.