What has 600 eyes, 300 tails and 1200 legs? These overwhelming proportions belong to no single beast, but to the population of Dog Town at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. Just 20 minutes east of Zion, Best Friends is America’s largest sanctuary for abandoned and abused animals. This nationaly-reknowned no-kill animal sanctuary is home to horses, pigs, cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, goats, and a few other animals, too, a veritable Noah’s Ark for animals in need.
In 2010, Best Friends was visited by 30,000 people, helped by 8500 volunteers, and had a membership of 300,000. On my first volunteer trip, I went ready to do grunt work, clean stuff, and get dirty. I chose to work with the dogs. Upon arrival, I learned that loving dogs and walking dogs are two of the biggest ongoing contributions wanted and needed from volunteers. This seemed “too easy” at first; reluctantly, I agreed to let go of my attachment to grunt work and embrace being an animal lover. After a few minutes being gazed at, leaned on, and wagged at by several dogs, their appreciation of my effort was obvious. It made sense, and honestly made it easy for me to want to come back and volunteer more.
Today I went with two other ZAC staff members, Joanie and Shelley. We ventured to Kanab to volunteer at “Dog Town,” the canine subdivision of Best Friends. I use the word subdivision because Dog Town contains at least 18 buildings. You may know Dog Town from the television program on the National Geographic Channel, which bears the same name.
Dog Town volunteering occurs in two main timeframes, 8:15-11:30 and 1:15 to 4:00, and we chose the afternoon slot. Best Friends is conscientious about safety and quality of experience for all involved: their animals, visitors, volunteers and staff. For this reason, we participated in two helpful orientations before volunteering. First, there was a 15-minute general orientation at the Welcome Center, followed by a 20-minute orientation after we arrived at Dog Town Headquarters. These orientations helped us understand general safety, the meaning of color-coded dog collars, how to open and close gates, and other requests they ask of us for the safety of all.
Best Friends understands those who volunteer are giving their valuable time, so they are interested in helping you spend that time enjoyably. Devon at the Dog Town office gave us a choice of where we would like to volunteer within Dog Town. Did we want to spend time with puppies? Old dogs? Middle-aged dogs? We left the choice up to him, based on need, and he elected to send us to “the Garden.”
Upon arrival at the Garden, staff members Jake and Allison gave us more options about how we would spend our time. We could socialize dogs, walk dogs, scoop poop, clean facilities, or groom. Upon later conversations with Jake, he also advised me that those seeking grunt work tasks are more than welcome to help with filling holes, mending fences, and helping with facility repair. It helps the staff if you let them know enthusiastically that this is what you desire… otherwise they probably won’t ask.
Our threesome elected dog-walking. We ended up doing three rounds of walking, each about 35 minutes in length on the maze of sandy trails they have within their facility. There were three other folks volunteering with us, so in the course of three hours, all but one dog from our building got a walk!
My first walk was with an energetic black dog named Rover. I enjoyed his excitement for being outside. He gave my arm a work-out by pulling on his leash. Half-way through our walk we saw a bunny, which really wound him up. He stopped and stared into the distance, trying to discern where it went.
Zoom went out with me on my second walk. He was a bit more reserved. I noticed when we left our snowy trail and crossed a dirt road that his gait changed. He seemed more relaxed and happy. When we walked back onto the snowy trail, I put it together that he was not enjoying the snow, so we changed course, and walked the dirt road. Zoom was polite and happy. Later, I sat down on a bench and he put his head on my lap and snuggled. Soon, he was licking my face.
My final walk was with a brindle brown dog named Barlow. He had a bounciness in his walk that reminded me of my Golden Retriever, Myles. I felt like he was living adventure on his walk, looking for smells here and occasionally feeling the need to “color outside the lines” and walk off the trail. He walked a variety of speeds, and rooted around in the snow with his nose, which kept me quite entertained since I never quite knew what he would find.
Our walks ended at feeding time, and we enjoyed a little bit of petting time with some of the many dogs after their dinners.
For those who want to, Best Friends also allows many of the dogs to leave the sanctuary and travel on “outings” for hikes, visits to Kanab, or rides in your car. Kanab features many dog-friendly hotels, which make it possible for you to have a Best Friends buddy overnight for a sleepover. Inquire with their office for more details.
There are many ways we all can contribute and make a difference at Best Friends. If you are an animal lover and have an extra half-day in the Zion area, you might want to consider a Best Friends visit, whether for a tour or volunteer session. If you’re not in the Zion area, you may also wish to tune in to Dog Town on the National Geographic Channel to learn more.