KANAB, UT - This is a two-stoplight town with a population of just over 4,000, which may not sound like much reason to visit. Until, that is, you consider its location in what’s called the Golden Circle just outside Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.
So it may seem ironic that although I’ve wanted to see these national parks, I’m not here to visit them.
Nor, I confess, do I ever set foot in them. Instead, I’ve come for another monument, so to speak, this one a giant among animal lovers. It’s here in Kanab where Best Friends, the country’s largest sanctuary housing roughly 1,700 animals of all kinds on any given day, has set up camp.
This, though, may be a bit of an understatement (yet was certainly true of its opening in 1984), given that it owns 3,700 acres, leases another 17,000 acres and lies in Angel Canyon where the main road stretches over 10 kilometres.
I’m here to volunteer, but ironically, as is with most volunteer experiences, I get more than I could possibly give. My experience starts months before the trip. During that time, I make travel arrangements and fill out paperwork, the toughest part deciding whether I want to volunteer in Cat World or DogTown, which was featured in a National Geographic series DogTown.
Though I’ve been both a cat and dog parent, I choose the latter. I’m not the only one, by the way, who ventures to Best Friends for a volunteer vacation. In 2015, almost 9,000 volunteers from around the world arrived, staying two to three days on average.
No prior experience with animals is necessary, and kids as young as 6 can volunteer. Why come here versus another volunteer destination?
Left: Animal lovers give up their vacations to hang out with pets. Right: Our own Karen Asp gives this goat some love.
“There really is no other place like Best Friends,” says Lori Bernath, manager of volunteer engagement at Best Friends. “It’s not a shelter. It’s not a roadside diversion. It’s a unique destination, which is a lifesaving haven for hundreds of adoptable animals.”
The sanctuary’s mission is to save them all, and it’s leading the no-kill movement in shelters across the country. Yet Best Friends hopes the experience doesn’t end here.
“We do our best to make sure our volunteers leave the sanctuary so inspired they want to continue the work in their own community,” Bernath says.
I feel the pull of this place the minute I arrive in Kanab, red rock stretching as far as I can see. At the sanctuary, I’m shuttled around via van on a tour of the property, which makes me think of Disney World.
No rides here, of course, but each section is themed with a catchy name. There’s Marshall’s Piggy Paradise, for instance, where I witness baby pot-bellied pigs being fed. I even step inside their pen where I give them a rub behind their shoulders, which guarantees they’ll fall over for a belly rub.
I pet horses at Horse Haven, have a bonding moment with a goat named Skid, see bunnies being clicker trained in the Bunny House, watch a cockatoo named King O dance to music at Parrot Garden, and practice my clicker training skills with cockatiels.
Then it’s onto DogTown where the first stop is Puppy PreSchool. I’ve committed to an hour of puppy training and get matched with a 16-week-old pup named Ralphie who couldn’t be more adorable.
Unfortunately, she can’t fit in my suitcase, but I love taking her through numerous socialization exercises. There’s rarely a time when puppies aren’t the hands-down favourite. Until, that is, I head to the Clubhouse at DogTown where I’ve been assigned for an afternoon.
As posh as it sounds, the Clubhouse, which requires volunteers to be 18, is where tough cases go. Here, you’ll find dogs with red collars. Best Friends uses three different colours to designate a dog’s level of safety. While green is good, purple means ask staff before interacting, and red is staff only.
I enter one of the many octagon-shaped buildings in the Clubhouse area where I meet Julius, a four-year-old dog who suffers from brain damage and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of physical abuse.
The abuse was so severe that Julius, who spends his days spinning in circles and scratching himself frequently because of stress, will never live a normal dog’s life or never know any other home outside of Best Friends.
The sanctuary offers lifetime residence for animals, which is a blessing for a dog like Julius. Yet Julius benefits by seeing people so when I’m asked to read to him, I pull a chair in front of his cage.
I can’t touch him, but I can talk to him and read from The Velveteen Rabbit. I’ve been told it’s his favourite book, although how the staff knows I have no idea, so I read it once.
Twice. Three times. And then I lose track because as I read, tears are running down my cheeks. It’s hard enough thinking about what he went through let alone seeing the consequences.
Left: Talk about puppy love. Right: The pets appreciate the tender loving care.
While Julius spends the first part of our time together spinning quickly, he eventually slows. And stops. And for that moment, I pour as much compassion into my voice as I can and give him a moment of calm. But then his world starts spinning again.
My next charge is Jazz, a Chihuahua who’s come from a hoarding situation. He shies away when people’s hands come toward him so the staff has been working around this, hand feeding him his every meal, which I do.
His approach is tentative at first. Soon, though, he warms up and begins accepting food more readily. Finally, I’m asked to walk dogs – but not just any dogs. I’m introduced to Curly and Mya, two of Best Friends’ VIP residents.
Don’t know them? I wouldn’t have either, until I was told they’re two of the “Vicktory” dogs, Best Friends’ most famous residents. (Even my van driver shares my enthusiasm, saying not many people can say they’ve walked a Vicktory dog.) When NFL player Michael Vick was busted for his dogfighting ring in 2007, Best Friends took in several of the pit bulls, including Curly and Mya. T
hey’re beautiful creatures, and as I stroke their bodies, I think about the abuse they, too, have suffered, the stories they could tell.
We don’t tell stories on our walk, though. Instead, we smell the sage bushes and make paw prints on the two-kilometre trail. These two are writing new stories for themselves, although, even with their purple colours, they might never be adoptable.
In the short time I’m at Best Friends, the place has wound itself around my heart. They say it’s in Sedona, Ariz., that many feel the vortex energy centres. I, however, disagree, as I felt nothing when I visited Sedona.
But here in Kanab, especially at Angel’s Rest, a spot nestled among the red rocks where animals are buried, I feel a deep sense of peace and a stirring to do more.
A few months later, when I begin walking dogs at my local shelter, pit bulls are the dogs I am attracted to first and I remember Bernath’s words. I, too, am on the same mission now.
Kanab is about a two-hour drive from the airport in St. George, Utah. / The town has served as the setting for numerous films and TV series, including Billy the Kid and Gunsmoke. / The Canyons Boutique Hotel and Parry Lodge, now a historic site, is where many movie stars have stayed. / Some hotels offer a Best Friends discount and participate in the sanctuary’s sleepover program where you can bring a dog, cat or sometimes, bunny into your room overnight. / For more information about volunteering at Best Friends, visit www.bestfriends.org.