My Awesome Experience Volunteering at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary: Part I
Amazing… Remarkable… Extraordinary… Superb… Unique… Noteworthy… Organized…
These are all words that describe the facilities, staff, animal care, programs and the grounds at Best Friends Animal Society/Sanctuary (BFAS) in Kanab, Utah, where about 2k rescue pets are housed and loved. (And I don’t just mean cats and dogs. Although the majority of the rescue pets there are as such, they also home parrots, owls, squirrels, pigs, horses, fox and other wildlife.)
Set amidst 3,800 acres of red rock canyon and dramatic, sweeping views of Kanab Creek and Utah’s striking natural gorge country and cave beauty, Best Friends is, well, breathtaking, and something you won’t see ANYWHERE else in this country at a rescue. To give you a better idea, it’s located at the heart of the famous and gorgeous “Golden Circle” of Zion National Park, the Grand Canyon’s North Rim (you can see the Grand Staircase Escalante), Bryce Canyon National Park, and Lake Powell.
I should start at the beginning though…
About two weeks ago, in late June, I spent four days volunteering at Best Friends. I spent my actual volunteer hours with cats and dogs only as I could not get in in enough time to schedule with wildlife.
Best Friends Animal Society, perhaps most noted for its outreach programs and for taking in and rehabbing 22 of the Michael Vick former dog-fighting pit bulls in 2009 (dubbed the “Vicktory Dogs), is called a “Society” because of said educational and outreach programs in the community. It’s also referred to as a “Sanctuary,” however, because it actually takes in animals and re-homes them. Let’s get that distinction out of the way first. (I was confused about that until my last day when one of the founders, Gabriel, came to the volunteer meet-and-greet and spoke to us – COOL!).
So I started on a Sunday. I spent Sunday morning and afternoon at orientation, lunch and then taking a tour of the grounds. I didn’t start off well as the orientation video made me cry (a good cry, not a sad one-I couldn’t help it, they showed the pitties)! After that though, we all proceeded to hop in a bus and take a dirt road tour of the barns, catteries, dog structures, farm land, and other buildings on the massive plot. Note: You cannot get around this place without a rental car, it is so huge.
On the orientation bus, we learned that the Best Friends founders, who each spent their life savings to invest in the initial amount of land, were later able to purchase a whopping 33,000 acres of land from the Bureau of Land Management around the Sanctuary as a “buffer zone.” This land acts not only as a border, keeping the animals protected from wildlife, but also gives local wildlife a safe place to live. How amazing is that?
The first volunteer day, Monday, I went to check-in at the main cat building. I was greeted by a lovely woman named Theresa who I learned suffers from one of the same medical conditions that I do. She even was kind enough to introduce me to and set up an interview for me with the one and only Animal Behaviorist on staff, Dr. Frank (Franklin McMillan, DVM). While I was chatting with Theresa, something so cool happened.
The ladies and I were standing around the speaker phone at the front desk. They were deciding on names for two sickly 5-week-old kittens in intake. One brought in was a medium-hair orange tabby and I just kinda inserted myself into their conversation and said, “How about Malcolm?”
The one lady looked at me and said, “Perfect; I love it! Malcolm it is!” This was after Theresa checked the database to make sure there were no other ‘Malcolms’ and never had been (they don’t re-use species names at BFAS, a nearly impossible feat if you ask me).
I spent the rest of the morning in a cat building called Colonel’s Barracks, which I highly suggest you visit if you ever go there. It’s where most of the shy, meek and submissive kitties are – the ones who desperately need socialization and human contact/experiences. The ones who need to learn to play with toys, etc. (I did notice the Caregivers don’t tell you a whole lot about each cat’s situation, which is probably for the better. I did hear of one hoarding situation when I was there but that was it…)
For the first time in my 32 years on this planet, and for the first time throughout almost as many years of owning pets, I WALKED A CAT. In fact, I walked three cats in one morning! It was absolutely delightful watching them on their little harnesses, sniffing around, rolling in the clay dust, sauntering through the catnip garden (which is impressive) and chasing lizards (which is prohibited but kinda hard to avoid when they see one – you have to pick them up and move them somewhere else or else they will stalk it, lol).
I fell absolutely in love with a cat named Sam, a 15-year-old gray tabby medium hair mix, who was as sweet as sugar and as sociable as ever. He loved me too, and when it came time for him to go in
from his walk he didn’t want to go: he stood at the gate watching me walk the next two cats with a watchful and jealous eye! MOL!
After that, I socialized with some kitties in one of the rooms at Colonel’s Barracks, which I believe had a total of four or five different rooms of cats. Each room has an indoor and (enclosed) outdoor area so the cats are free to roam where they please. They are awesome things for them to climb and cat beds and toys scattered about. The design of the rooms is really neat and the cats often hang out in the rafters way above your head, sleeping the day away.
It was here that I met Mikey, the orange and white diabetic cat. Mikey was pretty thin and his coat was kinda in bad shape, but he, too, was as sweet as honey and took an immediate liking to me. He would not leave my lap after the first 10 minutes!
I can’t convey one thing: how crucial it is that these guys get socialization, even if you are just sitting there with them. Even if none of them come to you. Even if you sit in
there for 90 minutes reading to them. They need to adjust to human sounds and the human presence to become adoptable pets. They will never be able to go home with a new family if they can’t adapt to humans, so although it may seem trite to you or lazy, sitting and spending time petting, loving and plain old socializing cats is one of the most crucial pieces of volunteer work that can be done. (Thanks to Heather and Jamie at Colonel’s Barracks for that information.)
The afternoon on Monday was spent with the puppies!
Oh what fun we had, although it was like 99 degrees outside (literally) and we were super-hot playing with them. We went in after only about 15 minutes because of the heat. Another volunteer and I were there together for the afternoon. We visited and played with many puppies, particularly Tina Fey, who was running free in the puppy area. The puppies also all have built-in doggie doors in their kennels so they can enjoy the outdoors if they want.
After the initial playing and socialization we got down to business with feeding time and cleaning rooms. That wasn’t as much fun, but still very rewarding. There’s definitely a routine system in place for the feeding/cleaning of these guys… As each group of puppies is eating, their cages get mopped, toys picked up, fresh blankets put down, beds cleaned, etc. Then they get put back in their large pens, all happy and full and sleepy.
It’s so funny how when you first get there they are all jumping all over the place and playing, and then after they eat, they all go to sleep! I guess it’s like we humans and our lunch or dinner comas!
I will bring you up to speed with the second half of my trip soon – stay tuned…You won’t want to miss it.
You also don’t want to miss what the Behaviorist, Dr. Frank had to say!