Out in southern Utah, nestled in a serene desert canyon exists a vast and magical safe haven for animals big, small, healthy, or unwell. Literally described by some as “heaven on earth,” Best Friends Animal Sanctuary provides care to over 1,600 abandoned and rescued animals with the help of their animal-loving staff and eager volunteers. The sanctuary has a “no-kill” policy, meaning animals stay as long as it takes until they are adopted and move on to their forever homes.
I first learned of this amazing non-profit when I was talking with a coworker about our plans to travel the country in an RV and to do volunteer work. She immediately recommended Best Friends Animal Sanctuary and shared her experience as a volunteer. She insisted that if our RV travels brought us anywhere near Utah, we simply had to make the trip.
The sanctuary makes registering to volunteer a breeze. Those interested can visit their website, create a volunteer account, watch a short orientation video, and schedule when and where they would like to volunteer. Animal areas that accept volunteers include Dogtown, Cat World, Horse Haven, Marshall’s Piggy Paradise, Bunny House, Parrot Garden, and Wild Friends. If working directly with the animals is not your thing, volunteers are also needed to help out in the sanctuary store, at the Angels Rest pet cemetery and memorial, and with landscaping projects around the property.
There are two volunteer shifts each day from 8:15-11:30 a.m. and 1:15-4:00 p.m. We spent two days at the sanctuary and volunteered both shifts each day. We also enjoyed delicious lunches at the sanctuary’s cafe. More on that later.
On our first day, we attended a brief 15-minute registration meeting at the Welcome Center then headed off for our first shift at DogTown. The residents and caregivers from DogTown were featured in a television documentary series carrying the same name and produced by National Geographic. Our work in DogTown consisted of walking juvenile dogs out on the beautiful snowy trail. We were also able to sit in on an agility training session and a clicker training demonstration. The information was great and we learned training skills that we were able to take back and use with our own pup.
…And then it was time for that lunch I mentioned earlier. An all-you-can-eat buffet lunch is available onsite for a mere five bucks. Aligning with the sanctuary’s commitment to show kindness to all animals, the lunch is also completely vegan. I have to say how impressed we were with the quality and taste of the food, along with the ambiance of the dining room. In addition to the daily entree items, there was a full salad bar, fresh fruit, and yummy baked treats.
Since the lunch period is from 11:30 am – 1:15 pm, we had plenty of time to enjoy our meal and drive back to the RV in town to check on our little dog and take him for a quick walk. For our second shift that day we worked in Marshall’s Piggy Paradise. Working here with the piggies and their awesome caregiver turned out to be our favorite experience. We started off by scooping pig poop. That’s right, volunteers aren’t just there to pet pigs, there’s real work to be done and the job can get pretty dirty.
Scooping aside, there were many, many opportunities to pet and socialize with the pigs. One of my favorites was Papa, a very shy pig with a strong love for naps, almonds, and Fig Newtons (my spirit animal, perhaps). Papa usually shys away from people, but came out of his shell for us and even let me pet him while he got his snack on.
We also helped keep the pigs calm and distracted while their caregiver trimmed their hooves, then we helped feed the pigs their dinner. These piggies loved peas, corn, carrots, and lettuce.
Day 1 was an absolute success and we were excited to spend another day at the sanctuary. The next morning we started off in the Bunny House where we scooped poop, mopped floors, changed out soiled linens, poured fresh water for the bunnies, and reassembled their indoor living quarters.
Each bunny dorm houses two or more bunnies and must be cleaned daily. These adorable furballs poop approximately 300 times per day and their urine contains ammonia, which can be dangerous to their sensitive respiratory system and soft coat. Bunnies also love nibbling on egg cartons and wooden toys which can leave quite a mess. After we finished housekeeping duties, we switched over to room service and delivered lettuce snacks to each bunny suite.
Something I noticed right away was that everything at the sanctuary is kept very clean. All of the animal cages, play pens, and outdoor areas were well-maintained and I was happy we played a part in the upkeep. It was also clear that the sanctuary staff really want volunteers to enjoy their experience and to have fun. Volunteers should always check with the animal caregiver before pulling out a camera during a shift, but taking photographs is allowed in most animal areas and even encouraged, under safe conditions of course.
After another fantastic lunch we checked in at the Parrot Garden for our last shift of our visit. We started off by giving the indoor atrium a good ole deep cleaning. We swept, mopped, scrubbed the walls, and wiped down all surfaces in the atrium. The atrium is used heavily in the winter when the cold weather limits visits to the outdoors cages.
We also played chauffeur, carefully loading big beautiful birds onto our forearms and walking them over to spend time in the freshly-cleaned atrium. I carried LaQuita, the blue and gold, male macaw pictured below while Mitch carried his red, lady friend, Kaimi. Can you believe LaQuita is older than I am? He’s fabulous at 40-years-old!
We also spent some time with the rainforest birds where we did a bit more cleaning then showered the birds with a faux rainstorm. As soon as the hose was pointed into the cage, the birds would squawk and quickly climb their way over to the sides of the cage putting themselves directly in front of the stream. It reminded me of kids laughing and playing in the sprinklers.
Next we were tasked with preparing a large batch of bird food by following a special recipe that blends various seeds. Our kitchen duties were supervised by a sweet little birdie who recently lost his friend and has been feeling lonely. We learned that parrots bond in pairs, forming a deep connection with either another bird (like Kaimi and LaQuita) or a human caretaker. When a parrot loses or is separated from their bonded pair it can be devastating and the bird can become depressed or self-destructive. For this reason, the sanctuary tries to keep bonded pairs together while they live at the sanctuary and when they move on to their forever homes.
After our final shift we drove over to Angels Rest, the sanctuary’s animal cemetery and memorial site. Each month the sanctuary holds a special service to honor and remember the animals placed in Angels Rest. Here there are hundreds, if not thousands, of windchimes that have been dedicated to lost pets and animal lovers. When the wind blows, they play a soft, enchanting melody that fills the canyon with peace. It was beautiful and the perfect place to reflect on our visit.
We plan on volunteering again (and again) and I highly recommend the experience to others too. The sanctuary offers free, guided tours daily and their are a few options for lodging onsite, including cottages, cabins, and two full-hookup RV sites. Though onsite accommodations can fill up quickly, the town of Kanab has several hotels, RV parks, and restaurants. Groups and families are welcome to volunteer together- I can’t think of a better team bonding activity for coworkers or a cooler way to get kids involved in volunteering. Volunteers as young as 6-years-old can work in Cat World or the Bunny House when accompanied by an adult. The other animal areas have minimum age requirement for volunteers beginning at 8 years. During summer months, the sanctuary also hosts a day camp for children ages 6-9. For more information about becoming a volunteer visit https://bestfriends.org/sanctuary/volunteer. If traveling to the sanctuary in Kanab is not in the cards, there are still many other ways to help out, including sponsoring an animal, purchasing a memorial wind chime, sending an honorary or remembrance gift, or making a donation. For more information visit https://bestfriends.org/donate.
Thanks for reading!