Labor of Love: Volunteering at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary
I grew up in a loving home, but it was sorely lacking in dogs, so one of the great joys of my adult life has been becoming a “dog mom” and entering the wonderful world of dogs. I love the way dogs spread happiness and I enjoy meeting people who know how amazing they are.
Recently I met some of the coolest dog people on the planet when I spent a week volunteering at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, which is the largest no-kill animal refuge in America. It spans nearly 3,700 acres in a red rock canyon with separate areas for different species, like Piggy Paradise, Horse Haven, Cat World, Bunny House, Parrot Garden, and Dogtown, where there are 400-500 dogs at any given time. Of course, that’s where I spent most of my week.
On my first day, I headed to Dogtown Headquarters to sign in. I got there a little early because my friends at Zuke’s loaded me up with a ton of dog treats to donate. The Best Friends crew was thrilled with the donation – perhaps that’s why one of the volunteer coordinators asked me where I’d like to spend my first shift and patiently described some of the options.
There was no question about the perfect way to kick off the experience: working with puppies!
I drove to Puppy Preschool and checked in with caregiver Elizabeth, who ushered me into the back and asked if I could take a pup named Fiddlesticks for a walk.
“Do a red light, green light – if he pulls off the trail, don’t yank on him, just stop until he gets the message.”
While I was walking, she was feeding puppies and prepping for our next big project: cleaning enclosures. Without volunteers, she’d have to do it all alone. I partnered with another volunteer named Tracey, who’s treated herself to a “vacation” volunteering at Best Friends every year for six years. We hosed and mopped enclosures and used giant squeegees to make the spaces sanitary for the “littles.” Everything needs to be squeaky clean since the puppies are more susceptible to illness, and it’s incredible how much goes into keeping the little darlings alive, let alone socialized, exercised and happy. We washed dog bowls, laundered dirty blankets and towels, and walked two little puppies named Nook and Cranny. Elizabeth dressed them in miniature jackets to protect them from the winter elements – Nook, the little girl, wore a pink jacket with skull and crossbones, but the skull had a little pink bow. Squee!
Our reward for all the cleaning was to take three 10-week-old Lab mixes into the puppy play yard. I carried out the only girl, Rizzo, who burrowed into my neck and made my heart explode. They ran around wearing collars and dragging leashes to get used to the sensation. One of the little boys grabbed Rizzo’s leash and tried to walk her. It was a lot of cute!
For my afternoon shift, I was the only volunteer assigned to help caregiver Amy in The Clubhouse, home to mainly “red collar” dogs who can only be handled by Best Friends staff since their behavior is still unpredictable (though caregivers and trainers work with all dogs to help ready them for future adoption).
Our main goal was to clean one of the “octagons,” a building where there’s a table in the center and eight dog runs spiking out. I walked in and the barking was deafening. Amy slipped into enclosures and let the dogs into their outside dog runs before locking the doggy doors so they couldn’t come in while we swept red dust into the center of the room. An energetic terrier mix named Goldilocks – a “green collar” who is safe for everyone – sprinted joyfully between us while we worked, thrilled to have the run of the place.
Amy seemed tireless as she also headed outside to scoop poop and refill water buckets while I was finishing up sweeping. At some point she looked at her watch and said, “We have to stop in five minutes and start the feeding for both buildings.” She knew all the special meals for the dogs (this one needs regular kibble with a scoop of wet, that one can only have kangaroo because of allergies, another needs medication mixed in…). While she fed the dogs, being sure to separate them to prevent fights, I washed bowls in the kitchen with a sweet old hound named Gus who loves to have his ears rubbed.
I was still cleaning as an afternoon tour bus pulled up and Amy had to do a demonstration of clicker training for the group. At the end of my shift, I needed to slip out to pick up a doggy date for the night – Best Friends has an overnight program where you can take a dog back to your hotel to help socialize them for adoption – but Amy stopped the demonstration to thank me profusely. I thanked her – I can’t believe how much she has to do every day, but how strong she is and how much she loves her work with the dogs. She’s adopted five of her charges already!
Every caregiver I met in Dogtown that week had the same passion and dedication to the dogs in their care. They know all about the personalities and needs of each dog and spend their lives making sure they are as happy and healthy as possible. Megan had spent her weekend driving eight hours each way to pick up a “chi-weenie” who needed transport from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Best Friends. Jenna told me she wants to work every single day, but Best Friends doesn’t want employees to burn out working seven days a week, so she spends her days off volunteering at an animal shelter in nearby Arizona. “With a job like mine, why would I want to be anywhere else?”
I cried when I handed in my whistle after my last shift. I am so inspired by the caregivers at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary working to “Save Them All!”
Award-winning journalist Jen Reeder is the 2017-2019 of the Dog Writers Association of America. She hopes to return many times to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.
Photos courtesy of Kurt Budde and Molly Wald of Best Friends Animal Society.