Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

A Day at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, near Kanab

Pooper Scooper It's a solitary job, this poop-scooping.

Someone has to do it, right? Someone has to do it? Hey, why don't these dogs - if they were so smart they would scoop their own stuff.

Maybe they are smart, and that's why I'm the one scooping.

My arrival at the gate is greeted by howls and dogs running back and forth at the run's gate. Eventually, they lose interest and back off. I step in, the dogs step back, and I find 'my spot' and begin the scooping.

There are dozens of pens.

A First

CatsThis is Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, tucked into a canyon above Kanab, in southern Utah, the first, the biggest and best-known no-kill animal sanctuary in America where dogs, cats, horses birds and other animals live in peace, communing with each other, volunteers and workers. About 80 percent get adopted. But no one gets 'put to sleep.'

We have this great problem in America. We have pets we can not, or will not, take care of. They are the cats who run away and breed. The dogs who are abused and then bite back. Many of them wind up in animal shelters where they arrive, are held, and often killed after just a week or so. There are still more pets who are 'problem' pets - the pets who bite, bark or chase - and have been ordered destroyed. If they can make it here, to Best Friends, they have at least life to look forward to. Others who show up.

Begun in the 1970s by a group of friends who started a no-kill shelter in Prescott, Arizona, Best Friends moved to Kanab when the 20 co-founders found enough land at a suitable price: 350 acres in beautiful red-walled Angel Canyon, just north of Kanab, a place where once movie makers had come to film cowboy-and-Indian flicks. Now dogs, horses, cats, bunnies and more come to find refuge - about 1,500 at a time. They take in about 1,000 animals each year.

Ten years ago in America 17 million homeless, abused or abandoned pets were killed while in shelters and humane societies. Today, through the work of spaying, neutering and pet guardian education, that number is below 5 million. The effort can be attributed to consciousness-raising of pet owners and shelter keepers but also to places like Best Friends, which has put the lives of animals first.

At Best Friends, animals are sent to places with alluring names like Dog Town, The Happy Herd, Bunny House, Wildcats Village and TLC Cat Club. There they have specialized food and veterinarian care (vets can perform blood work, dental work, X-rays and, of course, spays and neuterings) - along with the care of animal lovers who come daily to visit.

Dog 'Our goal is no more homeless pets,' said Cyrus Mejia, one of the founding members, over a casual vegan lunch at Best Friends a few weeks ago. 'I think it is a realistic goal. We can have no more killing with more adoptions, spaying, neutering and education all going together with creative solutions ... They stay as long as they need to.'

Such a statement is typical of animo-centric Best Friends, where humans are merely interlopers. If there were truly an Orwellian order to the world, where cats and dogs and pigs ran civilization in an Animal Farm sort of way, it would likely be here: cats have the run of the house, dogs bark orders, and horses get the pasture with the best view. And when that sad time comes, the pet cemetery, called Angel's Landing, is the most beautiful and peaceful spot in the canyon.

Of all the Articles e-mail questions and suggestions I get, Best Friends is one of the most frequent subjects. Indeed, if not just a tourist stop, Best Friends is a big draw among travelers who want to spend some of their vacation giving back; volunteers make up an integral part of the mix here in Angel Canyon. Animal lovers here can take a day off while touring the southwest's Golden Circle of parks, which includes Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion and Arches. Over 20,000 people visited Best Friends in 2002. Tours are offered daily.

It is true, said Cyrus. Visitors come from all over the world to volunteer at Best Friends. Many come for a day, like I did, taking in a tour, a lunch, and an afternoon of work (though it need not be poop-scooping). Others spend a month or more or even end up moving in permanently - with 200 employees, Cyrus said, Best Friends is the largest employer in Kane County. The sanctuary also offers workshops and intern programs where people can learn more about animal care, humane education or running a sanctuary. (Cyrus added that Best Friends is serving as a model for a nationwide network of no-kill sanctuaries.) And Best Friends is taking its message on the road: there is now an adoption center in Salt Lake City and regular adoption tours to Las Vegas, a few hours away. With the help of colorful Best Friends magazine, the sanctuary is pushing to make Utah the first no-kill state.

The Dirty Dozen

HorsesThere were about a dozen of us. A mother and two kids from Illinois. A young couple from St. Louis. A smattering of folks from Las Vegas. We took the tour and had the lunch with sanctuary employees. And after lunch, we split up. About eight of us headed for Dog Town, where upwards of 600 dogs live on a bluff overlooking Angel Canyon and the rest of the sanctuary. We got a short talk - where we could go and what dogs we could interact with. Then it was up to us: scoop, groom or walk. No one really wanted to scoop, but I volunteered along with a prosecutor from Las Vegas. All the while, storm clouds gathered.

You know, I am a dog owner, and admit to a certain affection for the beasts. The poop scooping did become smelly, though I was able to keep clean. Then, after about an hour, something unusual happened in the desert: it rained. I worked in the rain until it became unbearable, then ran for cover. It let up, and I went back to work. Then the rain came again, and I was forced to stop. Eventually, I gave up and drank coffee with a cool guy named Todd, who recently had moved back to Kanab and was building a home in a nearby box canyon. The storm let up and Todd took me around to meet his crew.

By his own admission, Todd had the toughies at Best Friends. The dogs who, for whatever reason, had a less-than-easy time getting along with humans and each other. The wolf-mixes. The biters. The dog from Oregon who chased a horse and was ordered destroyed - or sanctioned to a sanctuary.

Dogs We took them out in pairs, on leashes, and climbed up to a hill to overlook the surrounding 1,000 square miles, now brushed clean and wet by passing thunderstorms. Todd did not say a whole lot - he was here in Kanab where his parents live, seemingly not entirely happy about the situation but not unhappy enough to split. We walked about a dozen of the kids and talked about living in Kanab.

It was only 5 but most of the other volunteers split when the rain hit. Todd left, too, and for a while I wandered Dog Town, petting and taking pictures, letting a few lick my face and keeping a wide berth around the untouchables. I was filthy - muddy and face-licked.

I love dogs.

And naturally, I had a bit of explaining to do when I got home to my own.

Best Friends Basics:

Animal Cemetary Phone: (435) 644-2001
On the web: www.bestfriends.org
E-mail: info@bestfriends.org
Tours: are free: Please call 435-644-2001 ext. 4537 or visiting@bestfriends.org to book at tour
The lodge: is about five miles north of Kanab on U.S. 89; head east at the Best Friends sign - it's a mile up the canyon
Besides the tours: there is a gift shop and wonderful hummingbird-infested deck at the lodge
Accommodations: can be found in Kanab, Mt. Carmel (the Zion N.P jump-off), or in cabins at the sanctuary itself
You get to choose: what sort of animals you want to work with
Lunch: is vegan or vegetarian (naturally) and is $4
Wear: clothes suitable for outdoor work in the high desert.

A special thanks to: Kanab Best Western, a nice place in the center of town.

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