PACIFIC PALISADES, CA—Unwanted and abused dogs, cats, and other animals in Southern California now have a sort-of-friend in actress Alicia Silverstone, who opened the well-intentioned but poorly conceived StoneHaven animal shelter on her seaside estate last November.

Alicia Siverstone

"Alicia has always cared deeply about the welfare of animals, so this shelter is the realization of a lifelong dream for her," Silverstone's publicist Wendy Epstein said Monday. "She threw it together quickly, and she's still hammering out the kinks, but she really loves animals, and it's wonderful to see someone try to make a difference."

A longtime lover of furry and feathered companions and an ardent believer in animal rights, Silverstone gladly gives tours of her animal sanctuary, which holds a diverse menagerie of more than 90 creatures.

"I've been in city-run shelters, and they're so depressing," said Silverstone, stroking a rabbit stricken with an advanced case of pinkeye. "Here, the animals have all they can eat and a cozy place to sleep, in a big home with no cages. And there is absolutely no way I would ever murder an animal because I couldn't find a home for it."

Silverstone then placed the rabbit on the floor and pulled a 3-week-old kitten from between two sofa cushions. She cooed at the kitten as it licked and rubbed against her hand.

Like many Hollywood stars, Silverstone is a vegan. Her animals are, too.

"Goats feed on grass and hay, so they instinctively understand the value of a macrobiotic diet, but getting the kids off milk is a challenge," said Silverstone, who acquired her small goat herd from a bankrupt Oxnard petting zoo. "It's strange that they're not taking to the soy milk. Maybe I should try Rice Dream."

StoneHaven, the animal shelter Alicia Silverstone (above) opened in November.

Silverstone said she noticed a marked decline in aggression among her 15 stray dogs after she put them on a meatless diet.

"When the doggies first arrived, they were always running around, jumping, and chasing each other," she said. "But after their fruit fast, they calmed right down. Now, they're so sweet and quiet. I'm sure I'll have no trouble finding homes for them."

Silverstone is determined to give her creatures a life free from human-imposed hindrances. She ordered her shelter staff to remove the horseshoes from three former carnival ponies, and she recently gave a 17-year-old housecat its "first-ever taste of freedom" by placing it in the crook of a large tree to sunbathe.

"You won't see animals wearing collars, bridles, or leashes here," Silverstone said, as she placed a calming Wolves At Night ambient-sounds CD in the shelter's sound system. "I don't even let anyone use the term 'housebreaking,' much less engage in the heartless practice."

Continued Silverstone: "Sometimes the little guys resist my attempts to free their bodies and minds. The dogs would not sit still during their peppermint aromatherapy immersion yesterday. Sort of like former prisoners, these animals need to be reconditioned. They need their natural self-esteem and body-awareness rejuvenated."

Two tireless assistants aid Silverstone in her crusade. Though they do not have veterinary degrees, both, like Silverstone, claim to have a deep affinity for all creatures.

"Animals need to be loved and touched, just like humans do," assistant Heidi Aarons said, as she attempted to massage a tense guinea pig. "We all share the cuddling, nesting instinct."

Two of StoneHaven's needy pets share a "super comfy" habitat Silverstone designed herself.

In spite of its devoted staff, Silverstone's dream project already faces challenges. The annual budget for 2004 has been exhausted on costly amenities such as bottled water, pet psychics, specially molded "soy mice" for the resident 32-foot boa constrictor, and printed programs for a "commitment ceremony" between a parrot and a ferret.

In addition, fewer than 5 percent of potential adopters have passed Silverstone's stringent screening procedure.

"After my dog died of old age, I tried to adopt a puppy from StoneHaven," Los Angeles entertainment lawyer Barry Gelman said. "In order to prove I was a worthy parent, Alicia told me I had to carry a stuffed dog around with me for a week. I was supposed to feed it with a bottle and change its diapers every three hours. She said she got the idea from an episode of Saved By The Bell."

Silverstone's resolve will be tested in the coming months. Neighbors have filed official complaints against StoneHaven regarding the noise, the stench, and the escaped animals frequently found outside its gates. Further, they claim that Silverstone's sentimental reluctance to spay, neuter, or fence in animals has caused a dramatic increase in stray dogs and cats in the area, as well as a serious pinkeye outbreak within a five-mile radius.

But Silverstone isn't giving up. The actress has big ideas for the coming year, including her plan to take in more animals that "aren't even that cute."

"See Myrlie over there?" asked Silverstone, as she pointed to a Komodo dragon sunning itself in a corner of the backyard. "In a zoo, she'd be locked in a pen all day. But here, she can roam free, eat all the grass she wants, and play with Pepper, the pot-bellied pig. Zoos and city shelters simply don't give animals this kind of friendly environment."