Under the heading of "who would have thunk it?" surely the success of Best Friends Animal Society has a place of honor.

Who would have ever guessed a collection of people sharing a profound love for animals, with an equally profound lack of practical knowledge, would be able to create the nation''s largest companion animal sanctuary?

In the past 25 years, Best Friends has become the touchstone for what many in the animal rescue world recognized as a "best-practices" model for such facilities, inspiring people across the country and around the world to work on behalf of homeless pets.

Best Friends has become a Mecca for animal lovers, each year attracting approximately 30,000 visitors who fill local lodging and dining establishments. The society''s animal rescue heroics in natural disasters are well documented. And its widely respected work with dogs is chronicled on the National Geographic Channel television series "DogTown."

And somewhere along the way, Best Friends become Kane County''s largest employer. Approximately 10 percent of the entire population of Kanab works at Best Friends, which each year sends millions into the local economy.

 None of it would have happened, the founders of Best Friends readily confess, if the community of Kanab had not embraced them when they needed it the most.

"When we arrived in town, we were immediately befriended by Nick Ramsay," recalls Francis Battista.  "During the summer of 1983, several of us visited the canyon to try to imagine what we could do with this mostly raw land. We were driving an early 1980s Chevy Suburban Diesel that had a habit of eating transmissions.

"I was driving and heard a disturbing whine echoing off the canyon walls. The transmission let out one last scream and died, fortunately right next to a refreshment/souvenir stand outside the east entrance to Zion. The stand was closed, but the proprietor who lived in the back let us use his phone.

"I called Nick''s Towing in Kanab and within an hour, he arrived and hitched up the big Suburban," Battista said. "He thought it was a good idea to unload one of the passengers, so I climbed into the cab of the wrecker and lo and behold, there was Nick''s infant baby daughter, Bobbie Sue, up front in a tiny car seat. "Wow," I thought, "that''s service!"  

"Nick was and is the perfect ambassador for Kanab, and, for that matter, for all of small-town America. The Ramsays have been friends of Best Friends through thick and thin-honest folks who represent all that I love about Kanab and its Utah heritage."

Gregory Castle remembers the challenge of getting basic necessities to the budding sanctuary.

"When we arrived in Kanab, there were no utilities on our land - electricity, water, or phone, except in the Welcome Center area, which at the time we didn''t own," Castle recalls. "Like the buildings and animal facilities, we were starting from scratch.

"The best we had to guide us in the way of knowledge was high-school physics, no experience, and little money to hire people to do the work.  So we had to learn. Going to school wasn''t an option, the animals couldn''t wait that long, nor could we. So we turned to a number of local individuals for expertise.

Castle said the need for fresh water was especially acute.

"I well remember an afternoon spent with Richard Cothern, examining sandstone cliffs for suitable spots to drill for water. Richard brought his somewhat rusty, but effective drilling rig and hit all the right spots, so it wasn''t long before we were able to develop our water rights and pump it to areas earmarked for animal care.

"We made plenty of mistakes. For example, we underestimated the freezing potential of Kanab area winters, which led to many hours-sometimes in the middle of the night-- repairing split PVC while the snow fell.

Garkane was also very helpful to Best Friends, Castle said.

"Electricity, of course, was a prime requirement. The folks at Garkane Power, as it was then, were wonderful mentors. Jeff Vaughn and Troy Johnson, amongst others, exhibited the patience of saints as we asked questions like: "Now amps measure current, right?  Is 500 amps a lot?"  

"The distances were so great, and we didn''t want to spoil the landscape by using overhead cables. So everywhere we ran the high voltage lines underground.  Our mentor was Clark Lamb, who taught us what it meant to ''rip in'' a cable. Clark brought his biggest cat, drove it across the sand, and gingerly fed the two-inch thick cable into the ground.  And all the while, he kept us entertained with his wry sense of humor and winsome smile."

Cyrus Mejia''s early experiences with the culinary arts are a vivid memory.

"I was the first chef at what is now The Village Cafe at Best Friends, preparing lunch every day for sanctuary staff and occasional volunteers," Mejia recalls. "Usually there were no more than 20 to 30 people, a far cry from today''s much larger numbers.  

"I made meals that were free of meat, eggs and dairy products. The folks at Honey''s Jubilee were always very helpful in stocking lots of fruits and vegetables and making special orders for things they didn''t have at the time, like tofu and other non-meat products.

One day, Mejia said, Terrell Honey approached him with an idea. It seems lots of other customers had been asking about the new products showing up on the shelves, including how to prepare foods like tofu. Some of the local doctors had been suggesting healthier diets to their patients and the new products showed up at Honey''s just in time!

"Terrell''s idea was to have me teach a vegetarian cooking class in the store," Mejia said. "A couple of evenings a week, I would set up my pots and pans in the deli section of Honey''s and teach people how to make delicious vegan meals using ''unusual'' ingredients like tofu and tempeh, along with lots of fresh fruits and veggies. We had a great time and I hope I helped lead some people to a healthier diet!"

Transportation, shelter, food, all the basic needs were provided for by the people in Kanab who opened their hearts the founders of Best Friends.  

Twenty-five years ago, it was the kindness of strangers that made all the difference. Now, the friendships forged between the "townies" and the "sanctuary crowd" continue to help make possible the miracle of caring that happens every day at Best Friends.   

"We couldn''t have built the sanctuary without help from these and many other local stalwarts," says Castle. "I''m sure they thought we were crazy, and we likely were. But we got ''er done."