Friends find their calling

Rocky Mountain News/February 28, 2004
By Lou Kilzer

One of the world's most admired animal sanctuaries has a skeleton tucked deep in its closet - one with a history worthy of its own miniseries.

The Best Friends Animal Society runs the nation's largest "no-kill" shelter in Utah and raised $19.9 million last year alone.

But more than three decades ago, its key founders formed a movement that was accused - falsely, they say - of being a satanic cult.

Best Friends President Michael Mountain, 57, says The Process, Church of the Final Judgment, was just a group of young people searching for spiritual truth in the crazy atmosphere of the late 1960s and early '70s.

Satan was one of four entities they studied - the others were Lucifer, Jehovah and Christ - says Mountain. Satan was more a metaphor for a human personality trait than a god to be worshipped, he says.

Though several of the founders have stayed together all these years, they long ago gave up their purple robes in favor of leading the charge to save American pets from destruction, Mountain says.

All the same, Mountain was not overjoyed when asked about a series of corporate records that link Best Friends to the 1967 incorporation of The Process in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

If he had it to do over again, Mountain says, he would have let The Process dissolve and incorporated Best Friends as a new nonprofit with no links to the church.

With 250 staff members and 250,000 contributors, the pre-eminent "no-kill" advocate does not need any religious bones kicking around.

No longer known as Father John, Father Aaron, Mother Ophelia and the like, many of the founders live modestly near the small town of Kanab, Utah. Mountain, who has a daughter in Denver, is divorced and lives at the sanctuary, making about $30,000 a year from the proceeds of a private business that sells Best Friends merchandise.

Gone are the days when members interviewed mass murderer Charles Manson in jail for the "death" issue of their magazine.

There's no more talk about doomsday right around the corner. No more screeds about "Satan on War."

"A lot of it was really rather juvenile," says John Fripp aka Christopher Fripp aka Father John.

Now, instead of begging for handouts in London, New York or New Orleans, Best Friends founders are as likely to attend a Hollywood fund-raiser graced by Ron Howard, Drew Barrymore, Robin Williams or Bill Maher.

A book available for $15 on one of the group's Web pages professes to be a complete history. It's called Best Friends - The True Story of the World's Most Beloved Animal Sanctuary.

It recounts how a ragtag group of animal lovers turned a canyon where the Lone Ranger was filmed into a vacation magnet for like-minded people willing to devote time to abandoned cats, dogs and rabbits.

The Process Church is never mentioned. Mountain says that was the author's choice, not an attempt to keep it quiet.

Mountain readily acknowledges the group's history when asked about it, and he seems almost anxious to give it the proper spin. After meeting with a reporter, he called together the shelter's staff to disclose the founders' history.

He says he's even considering a book that would chronicle the wacky days of this group of educated and mostly British young people whose adventures included moving to the Yucatan, surviving a hurricane, then donning capes in Louisiana, California, New York and Boston.

It is a tale of enduring friendship, growth and a search for their real goal, Mountain says, a goal they found amid 33,000 stunning red acres in southern Utah.

Headed for a hurricane

It began in the 1960s when people were dropping out and turning on.

Michael Mountain, born Hugh Mountain, was part heir to Great Britain's largest television empire when he dropped out of Oxford at age 17 to begin navigating the vast smorgasbord of counterculture offerings then available.

Disinherited for his vagabond ways, Mountain says he met a group of other young seekers of life's truths.

"We would go around and visit all of the different religious and astrological groups," Mountain says.

He even attended sessions of the Flat Earth Society. Little was off-limits.

Mountain was most taken, however, by a group organized by Robert Degrimston and his wife, Mary Ann, who had both dabbled in various movements, including Scientology.

It was not, in the beginning, religious, he says.

"These days, it would be considered a kind of cheap, out-of-date pop psychology," explains Mountain.

William Bainbridge, who is now deputy director of Information and Intelligent Systems at the National Science Foundation, joined the group in the early 1970s to study it. He chronicled the group in a 1978 book, Satan's Power: A Deviant Psychotherapy Cult.

Although little of the group's beliefs were set in stone, Degrimston believed human nature took on aspects of four deities: Lucifer, Satan, Jehovah and Christ.

Bainbridge says at times Christ was considered the synthesis of the other three.

Whatever the beliefs, the group bonded. In June 1966, members headed to the Bahamas on the first leg of a journey to seek utopia. Three months later, they were scouring Mexico's Yucatan peninsula for the right place.

They found what they were looking for at a Mayan ruin named Xtul. Nearby was a huge abandoned salt factory that the group thought could be an ideal home.

Mountain headed to a nearby village, and, in halting Spanish, telephoned the property owner.

"He said, 'I dreamt that you were coming last night. You can have it for a dollar a month,' " Mountain says.

"So if there was any time when we felt that there was probably something mystical there, that was probably it."

The church was born.

Villagers told them Xtul meant either "little rabbit" or "the end." The group's doomsday world view began to take shape, says Mountain.

The feeling would deepen when monster Hurricane Inez bore down on the Yucatan in September 1966 and residents were urged to evacuate.

Some left, but a core group stayed.

"The idea that we would abandon Xtul was out of the question," says Mountain. If the storm meant the end, so be it.

Members of what was by then called The Process sought shelter behind a wall at one end of the building.

The wall at the other end collapsed. If they had sought refuge there, "we would have all been gone," Mountain says. Inez took an estimated 1,000 lives.

The idea that they had witnessed something fundamental set in.

After helping to rebuild some of the neighboring villages, the group took off to spread their message.

In late 1967, they found their way to the French Quarter in New Orleans. There, things went from somewhat odd to outright bonkers.

A caped crusader

The group decided to incorporate as a nonprofit to handle finances.

Mountain says a rotund former lawyer for the Catholic Church was intrigued by the group and drew up the necessary papers.

Mountain showed up at his home one Sunday morning.

"I'm greeted by a completely naked lady," Mountain recalls. "And she says, 'Oh, come on in.' So there he is, an extremely large person, in bed with this cluster of equally naked ladies around, and he leaps up naked and says, 'Here are your articles of incorporation. Your church is complete.' "

And so formally began The Process, Church of the Final Judgment.

Mountain winces when he is reminded of the language in the papers repeatedly stating that the group's mission is to conduct "spiritual and occult research."

The papers declare: "The latter days are upon us for even now the Lord Christ is in the world and gods walk amongst men and there are signs and wonders foretold in prophecy in preparation for the final judgment of man."

Mountain says the lawyer supplied most of the words, but the group didn't particularly care in those days.

"We were not trying to be sensible at that point in time."

Mountain was 21.

"I was dressed in white with a purple cape with a white dog in one hand and a black dog in the other - a German shepherd."

He showed up at Louisiana State University with a message about the end of the world. Students told him to come back Tuesday.

"And when I got back there, there was this giant banner over the gate to the university, saying 'Caped crusader visits.'

"This was wonderful fun. It was nutty."

He gave a speech, the contents of which he forgot long ago, to a packed auditorium.

The satanic part of it all is a bad rap, he says. No one prayed to Satan.

Degrimston, now a business consultant in New York, declined to be interviewed. However, Mountain says the core philosophy was that Christ was the unifying element of mankind.

"In theological terms, as he explained it, the ultimate reconciliation of opposites would be a reconciliation between Christ and Satan. Christ said, 'Love your enemies.' In the end, even the most negative, the most evil can be redeemed with the power of love."

Bainbridge, who taught at Wellesley College and Harvard University before joining the National Science Foundation, agrees that the group didn't pray to Satan, who to the group bore little resemblance to the Satan of the Bible anyway.

The four deities, he says, were mostly symbolic, with God as "the totality of all four."

The group had trouble gaining traction, no matter how outrageous they acted. Mountain chalks this up to their philosophy of abstinence from sex and drugs - not overly popular notions in the 1960s.

At its height, membership ranged from 50 to 100, Mountain says.

Naturally, the group was drawn to California, where members produced magazines on fear, sex, love and death.

It was while doing the death issue that the group stumbled.

"Charles Manson had been in prison for about a year, and somebody had the bright idea that we would go in and interview Charles Manson," says Mountain. "We thought it would help sell the magazine. We didn't have much money.

"It was a mistake."

There was another reason for the visit to Manson: They thought it would put to rest rumors of their connection to him. Instead, it only stoked them.

John Fripp, who was one of the two Process members who visited Manson, says simply: "We were naïve."

Linked to Charles Manson

In 1971, a book on the Manson family's role in the 1969 Tate-LaBianca slayings speculated on Manson's possible connection to the Process Church.

The book created a sensation and gave the Process Church a permanent place in occult lore.

Mountain and others were in Britain at the time, and when they returned to the United States, Mountain went to see a Chicago lawyer. Members really didn't want to sue, but they didn't want to be called murderers, either.

The lawyer was blunt: "If you do not sue," Mountain says he told them, "you will be stuck with this for the rest of your lives."

They sued.

The publisher apologized, recalled the books and issued subsequent editions without the offending chapter.

But the toothpaste was out of the tube. And with the birth of the Internet, the legend has only grown.

Mountain says The Process essentially stopped operating in the 1970s, and many members began to go separate ways. Then Robert and Mary Ann Degrimston split up.

Mountain says members who left Robert Degrimston felt he was becoming too authoritarian and structured in his beliefs. Degrimston went to the Northeast to try to keep The Process alive.

It didn't work.

Some members of the remaining group, first known as The Foundation - Church of the Millennium, eventually gravitated to a ranch in Arizona.

Gone was all talk about the occult, but the religious part was still going strong.

The incorporation papers said the church "has been called into existence by God to be made known to all men that the Latter Days are upon us, and there are signs and wonders foretold in prophecy in preparation for the coming of the Messiah and the entry into the Millennium."

Group members kept their religious names, having abandoned all or part of their given names.

Bainbridge says the group began concentrating on one God, rather than one with four personalities. And the group discovered its mission.

Some members had been animal advocates for years, and German shepherds had been associated with them since they first left London in 1966. Mary Ann Degrimston, for one, had been active in the anti-vivisectionist movement.

Although members had worked in a variety of charities for humans, they came to realize that love of animals was one thing they all shared.

"Mahatma Gandhi had a saying," recalls Mountain: " 'A society can be judged by the way it treats its old people, its young people and its animals.' "

The group, renamed The Foundation Faith of God, began taking in strays and unwanted pets, but soon found its Arizona property too small.

Members went prospecting, researching coastal California and even visiting an island for sale off Honduras.

One day in 1982, a group founder, Francis Battista, was driving through southern Utah and happened to visit Kanab Canyon - the backdrop of several Western movies.

Battista fell in love.

Other members soon visited and agreed: This was the spot.

They sold the Arizona ranch, and, in 1984, used proceeds from the down payment on the purchase of 2,269 acres in the canyon.

The group would acquire additional land and lease some 30,000 more acres from the Bureau of Land Management.

Soon, The Foundation gave the acreage a new name: Angel Canyon.

Founder Paul Eckhoff, an architect, designed one of the first buildings - a large home outside the sanctuary.

First planned as a retreat, it has become home to Mary Ann Degrimston and her new husband, founder Gabriel DePeyer.

Located by a pond, the Lake House has become a local legend, rumored to be a religious site.

But it is only a home, says Mountain.

A movement takes off

Members began building the sanctuary on a razor-thin budget raised through various cottage industries and monthly payments from the purchaser of the Arizona ranch.

They began taking in unwanted pets, first from the Kanab area, then from around the state and region.

By 1991, the founders were swamped with animals and faced a crisis: The purchaser of the Arizona ranch had gone bankrupt and his monthly payments dried up.

"We were way in over our heads," Mountain says. "We didn't have the staff, the resources, the money to have the number of animals that were coming in."

A call went out to former members, who were by then spread across the nation.

Many came to help. Cyrus and Anne Mejia, who were running a clown ministry for children in hospitals, left for Utah from their home in Golden.

The problem wasn't complicated. The group needed money, and getting it seemed to require a certain amount of begging, which the group called "tabling."

They would go to Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, set up tables outside supermarkets and pass out brochures about the sanctuary.

People began to fall in love with the idea of the sanctuary and soon the group could barely keep track of its donors.

By 1993, Best Friends Animals Sanctuary was incorporated as a nonprofit. All religious language was removed from corporate papers. The group now includes practicing Christians, Jews and Buddhists.

Tax records show Best Friends took in $1.17 million in contributions in 1993.

And the money kept coming. In 1994, $1.8 million flowed in. The next year it was $2.7 million. In recent years, donations have grown by about $2 million to $3 million every year.

Today, about 250 full-time staff members work around the country, and one - the editor of Best Friends Magazine - works from London. Last year, 4,054 volunteers worked for Best Friends in Kanab and the nationwide volunteer network numbered more than 11,000.

There are full-time vets, spay and neuter programs in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, and plans for programs in 10 cities.

Best Friends' 2002 tax returns show it spent $10.9 million on program services, including $6 million for animal care, $1.9 million for its magazine, brochures and Internet services, and $2.9 million for outreach programs.

Another $2 million went to raise funds.

Still, Best Friends had a $5 million surplus.

The sanctuary is now built out - including modern structures with such names as WildCats Village, The Triple "R" Rabbit Retreat and Dogtown Heights, "a gated community."

There is even a pet cemetery.

The animals pretty much have the run of the place, moving at will from indoors to large outside pens.

During an interview with Mountain, a cat named Butch jumped on a reporter's scribbled notes. No one made a move to remove him.

The sanctuary houses about 1,500 animals, with no plans to go much higher. Instead, Best Friends will fund efforts to build such no-kill programs elsewhere.

In 2002, Best Friends took in 736 dogs and placed 633 in private homes. For cats, the number taken in was 558 and the number placed was 517. Only six of the 21 rabbits found new homes.

No More Homeless Pets in Utah - a Best Friends venture with Maddie's Fund, a pet rescue foundation - is spaying and neutering thousands of Utah pets and helping to find homes for thousands more.

Best Friends Network handles some 24,000 calls and e-mails a year requesting pet and animal help.

In fact, Best Friends' reach has grown so far that it renamed itself again as Best Friends Animal Society, reflecting that it is not a mere sanctuary anymore.

The 'no-kill' mission

Can no-kill zones work, or are they just the dreams of some crazy folks who have stuck together for more than 30 years?

"The big old organizations with whom we work quite closely now, in the early days said this can't be done," says Mountain.

But it can, he insists, pointing to the sharp decline in animals killed in shelters - from 17 million in 1987 to 5 million today.

"We have taken on a job that the humane movement should have been doing years ago," he says.

Best Friends, he says, has "become something of a flagship for this whole movement."

To keep the flag flying, Mountain says he needs to define Best Friends' past as well as its future - The Process church and all.

He now says he wants not only to help write a book about the affair, but to put it all on a Web page, warts and all.

Mountain says he hopes the openness might dispel rumors that a few conspiracy theorists continue to spread.

One person has been contacting Best Friends partners with tales of the group's checkered past, says Best Friends communications director Bonney Brown.

One charge is that the group was and may still be a cult - a word even Bainbridge uses to describe The Process.

Mountain doesn't agree.

"The definition of cult is something that follows a single charismatic leader telling everybody what to do, and that never happened with this. It's just the opposite," Mountain says.

"We looked into many cults and found them all to be, frankly, ridiculous."

With the past behind them, Mountain says, Best Friends has a bright future.

The $5 million surplus is good for only half a year of operating expense, he says. But it is an indication that more might be around the corner.

Says Mountain: "There is even talk of building an endowment."

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