I remember the excitement and anticipation as my three brothers and I scrambled into the station wagon, Dad behind the wheel and Mom handling the maps, luggage rack on the roof. I would look back at the horses, cows, cats, dogs, rabbits, sheep — whichever creatures happened to be inhabiting our hobby farm at the moment, some of them standing watch as the car pulled around the driveway and turned onto the rural road, carrying us to exciting new adventures and explorations.
For a week or two, I wouldn’t be petting sheep, conversing with cows, riding my pony, crawling into the straw-bedded doghouse for a snuggle with our collie, carrying cats and rabbits into my playhouse, romping through the pastures, filling the water trough, sidestepping the manure, mucking stalls, or feeling the delicious tickle of a horse’s lips taking treats from my palm.
I was privileged to grow up surrounded by animals, to learn the traits of various species, the personalities of individuals, the many ways in which animals think, feel, and express — and the ways that animals we domesticate depend upon us for their sustenance: physical, psychological, and emotional. I wish that every child could have that privilege, and that every adult who’s missed it could make up for it now. So I have a vacation suggestion: don’t travel away from the animals, as I did: travel to them!
On the southern border of Utah, just above the Arizona line, where rust red cliffs glimmer against the cerulean sky, and long stretches of open space call to mind settlers and cowboys, their horses kicking up adobe dust, sits an expansive parcel of paradise on earth. Nestled in Angel Canyon is Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, where abused, abandoned and neglected animals who have nowhere else to go find refuge and a level of compassionate care that leaves me searching for properly descriptive words. “Dedicated” is too shallow. “Heartwarming” is too trite. “Breathtaking” is barely hyperbole. Animals that would be considered hopeless elsewhere – injured, crippled, chronically diseased – and likely destined for euthanasia are instead rehabilitated to their greatest potential and given lifelong care. Or, better yet and in every instance possible, adopted out to forever homes.
Begun by a group of buddies back in the 1980’s, the 3,700 acre sanctuary’s name is a propos for both the founders and the beneficiaries of Best Friends Animal Society. It started with a few homeless dogs and cats and now, enlarged by another 17,000 acres of leased land, it includes horses, mules, goats, sheep, donkeys, pigs, rabbits, birds, and even injured and orphaned wildlife in need of care so that they can once again roam or fly free. These days, the average animal population is around 1,700 – and you are welcome to visit them, volunteer to work with them, maybe even take one (or two?) home. (Note: you do not have to personally visit the Best Friends sanctuary in order to adopt one of the animals in their care.)
Free tours are offered every day at the sanctuary, and volunteers are asked to sign up ahead of time. Care is taken to match volunteers with appropriate animals according to their interests, ages, and physical abilities. If you have the opportunity to volunteer, do! If you’ve never been truly “in touch” with animals, this can be a life-changing experience. And if you already know and care for animals, you’ll likely find new experiences. It was at Best Friends that I first walked a cat on a leash, fed a potbellied pig, and spent an entire afternoon scooping rabbit poop! You can do something as down, dirty and necessary as picking up poop, as soothing as sitting with a cat in your lap, giving him or her personal attention and petting, or as adventurous as taking a companion animal on an excursion off premises.
Staying on the sanctuary grounds enhances the experience. There are a limited number of cabins and cottages available to visitors. They are comfortable, and the scenery is awesome: the red rock mountains as background to horses playing in the pasture, the sun setting over another day of kindness. You can even enjoy a sleepover with an animal and offer your impressions of his or her personality and temperament to Best Friends staff. That helps when making adoptive matches. When I was there, a potbellied pig ambassador was eligible for sleepovers and was quite the coveted guest! If you’re staying in an RV or other accommodation, no problem. You’re welcome to share your space and affections with eligible candidates there, as well.
I was so besotted with the sanctuary that I passed on the sightseeing during my visit, but you can make this as much of a varied vacation as you want. The nearest town is Kanab, five miles away. Several lodgings — hotels, motels, private residences — are available and many offer pet friendly space with a Best Friends discount. You can visit numerous state and national parks and wilderness areas; go golfing, biking, swimming, kayaking, ATVing; explore the “Old West” areas where movies and TV shows were filmed; enjoy art galleries; attend the local theater…
But first and foremost, I hope you’ll experience the animals and soak up the elevated air of compassion and dignity for all who exist here. Introducing a child to this marvelous assortment of sentient creatures and the humans who care for them may inform that child’s sensibilities for a lifetime. Getting hands on with the animals as an adult could alter your own view – and even expand your household, should you decide to take a new best friend home.
With wishes that you’ll get to be a part of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary someday – and for safe, happy summer travels,