Part of my effort to live deliberately is to do things on my bucket list, not in a sort of maniacal crossing off of items like The Buried Life guys, but grasp the reins when the opportunity arises. This week, I did lucky number 13: Visit Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. So this is a very special Friday Five.
1. The place: The sanctuary is located just outside of Kanab, UT – population 4,000, elevation 5,000 feet. Town motto: A beautiful, but not convenient, place. When the Best Friends founders bought the land 25 years ago, the town didn’t even have a grocery store, or electricity, I hear. Now there are two stoplights, a Dollar General and a McDonald’s. The smallness isn’t as much a drawback as the remoteness. The nearest city is St. George, about 1.5 hours away.
On the uptick, the sanctuary is tucked between Zion National Park, the Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon, so the landscape is jaw-dropping, like a kid staring into the sky as the first snowflakes fall. You are never far away from yet another stunning view. One afternoon, I took little Bo on an outing (hey, sometimes even the dogs have to get away) to the Coral Pink Sand Dunes. He had fun digging for lizards and I enjoyed the quiet. Sooo quiet. If they made a soothing CD called, “Sounds of the Sand Dunes,” it would be blank.
2. The animals: Of course it’s all about the animals. Best Friends is home to about 1,700 animals at any given time. There are plenty of dogs and cats, but also horses, birds, bunnies and even a few goats, pigs and donkeys for good measure. Of the more than 1,000 requests they get each month, they can only take in about 5%. The animals they do accept are usually the most difficult cases – for medical or behavioral reasons. You may have heard of Best Friends as a result of the Michael Vick dog fighting ring. They took in 23 of the toughest dogs from that horrible situation. So you could say that the animals who land here have some of the worst luck, and some of the best. This is a no-kill shelter, so all of these animals have a home for life. (Sadly this is not true at most shelters – 4 – 5 million dogs and cats are still euthanized each year around the country.)
I volunteered with the dogs, horses and pigs during my time at the sanctuary. Part of my job with the pigs was to help fix breakfast. Like a fine dining establishment, Brandy, the pig caregiver, keeps track of how each pig likes his/her food fixed. Jack likes his lettuce whole. Sprocket likes the lettuce chopped finely. Nattue will not eat green beans, only corn. (See The Staff bel0w.) Brandy pointed out to me a few times that pigs have tested to be smarter than dogs.
It was exciting for me to visit with the horses. Margaret is the manager of that area. She’s funny and congenial and has some kind of magic to make mucking the pastures a good time. One of my favorite things was grooming Bella. A 27-year-old mare, Bella came from a loving home, so often not the case here. Her owners were elderly – in their 80’s – and could no longer manage the daily care required. They asked Best Friends to take her and they come to visit her 3-4 times per month. Now that Bella is elderly herself, she was willing to let me brush her a bit. I understand now why people are “horse people” because it’s amazing to have this sort of mutual understanding with a creature who can meet you eye to eye. Then when she was done, she put her head down and walked away.
Then I went to the dogs. You faithful readers will know that this, this is where my heart is. Most of the dogs live in large octagon structures housing about 20 dogs where each piece of the pie has a section inside and a run outside connected by a doggie door. The dogs who can get along with other dogs have carefully chosen run mates. (Interesting note: Meryl, one of the Vick dogs, lives with another dog.) I fed the dogs, washed bowls, walked dogs on some of the trails, swept the runs, got water and whatever else they needed me to do. (See Special Moments below.)
3. The volunteers: Some come for the day in between visiting the national parks and some come for a week, but since everyone travels to the sanctuary to volunteer, you end up seeing the same people and build a little rapport with them. Gretchen and her niece Lara have come every year for 5 years running. Lara is about 14 and showed me how to groom the horses. She’s an experienced horsewoman, volunteering and even competing in horse trials just outside of Pennsylvania. Hillary came from the Bay area and can’t take dogs on sleepovers because she “knows what would happen.” (And in fact Hillary and I arrived one morning to find a woman crying because she’d fallen in love with Pepsi on a sleepover, but couldn’t adopt her because Pepsi doesn’t get along with cats.) Hillary has lived all around the country, including the Navajo Reservation. Buddy came from Atlanta, so we had an immediate connection. His partner had given him this trip as a birthday present. He has two great Danes at home.
4. The staff: These are the hardest working people I’ve met in quite a while, the charming folks at the MTA notwithstanding. They are also easy-going, polite, gracious, patient, dedicated and knowledgable. They will do just about whatever it takes. I know I got in the way more than once, accidentally fed a dog food meant for another, asked too many questions and walked a dog too close to the fence (a big no-no), and no one ever raised their voice or looked remotely frustrated, even though they repeat the same instructions until they are blue, and then watch while I messed up. Special shout out: Linda, on staff at the horse area, gave me a one-on-one lesson in the finer points of Parelli training, despite my missing the class she’d organized and despite having better things to do. (Below she’s riding bareback with no harness!) Another special shout out: Betsy, caregiver at Hermosa’s Hideout in the Old Dogtown section where they keep many red collar dogs. Betsy is funny and warm and knows “her” dogs like the back of her hand. When you have a job you love and you’re contributing to the world in a positive way, it’s like some kind of nirvana. (At least so I’m told.)
5. The special moments: I took two dogs on sleepovers. It was like a big slumber party in my hotel room. We did each other’s hair and played “light as a feather, stiff as a board.” Seriously, it’s great for the dogs to get prolonged individual attention and be in a homelike environment. The first was Hollie, a 14-year-old lab mix who came to BF from a terrible hoarding situation. She was covered in fleas and emaciated. Now, except for some arthritis and a gray muzzle, you’d never know she wasn’t a spritely 10 year old. (There is a special section at the sanctuary for the “seniors.”) Next was Julep. Oh Julep. (See a video of Julep!) It’s a good thing you’re very picky about other dogs because otherwise you’d have come home with me! She was a Katrina survivor who’d been adopted into a nice home. But then her person went into a coma and died. No one in the family was able to care for her, so she came back. This dog never met a person she didn’t like and went up to everyone at the hotel for pats, her butt helicoptering from happiness.
An amazing experience from the moment I got there until the moment I left. I hope I get to go back someday. What they say is true, even though I went to give of my time and energy, I got so much more back in return.
Have an amazing weekend!