Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is nestled in the red cliffs of Angel Canyon. (Photo: Best Friends)
Patty Hegwood, the director of volunteer and visitor engagement at Best Friends Animal Society, is one of the best people you will ever meet. She’ll hug you the first time she lays eyes on you, and she’ll make you laugh before she’s through. Patty personally rescued more than a thousand animals during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans — don’t even get her started about the time she stole a truck to get some of those critters across the state line.
It’s Patty’s job to make sure all of the human visitors to the Best Friends Animal Society sanctuary walk away happy.
You can just bury yourself in a pile of puppies here. (Photo: Best Friends)
Best Friends is the happiest place on earth
Return visitors to the Best Friends Animal Society sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, refer to it as Disney World for animal lovers — and almost everyone here becomes a return visitor. The animals make their way into your heart, and the red dirt of the nearby cliffs gets in your veins. In fact, visitors will hear over and over again stories of people who came once and then just stayed.
After spending three days at the sanctuary, nestled in picturesque Angel Canyon in Southern Utah, I dare say it might be more fun than Disney.
The trend of taking a vacation that allows you to do a little bit of service, voluntourism, is continuing to pick up steam. Travelers go to build wells in Kenya or schools in Guatemala. At Best Friends, they help care for more than 1,700 animals in need of homes. Some of them are ill, some have been neglected or abused and all of them are homeless. The Best Friends mission is a lofty one — to reach a time when there are no more homeless pets.
Back in 1984, when the founders of Best Friends first came across the plot of land in Kanab, there wasn’t much around but a few ranch houses and the remains of movie sets used in Westerns like “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and Jodie Foster’s first film, “One Little Indian.”
“When we found this place, it was a dream come true. It was raw land. We had very little money and very little sense,” Francis Battista, Best Friends co-founder, explained. “We had no business plan and no model. The locals thought we were a bunch of remnants of ’60s idealists puttering around in the high desert.”
Star is so ready for a close-up. (Photo: Best Friends)
With no money to hire contractors, they built the buildings themselves with do-it-yourself books.
Today Best Friends volunteers take over the two stoplight town of Kanab for most of the year. Volunteers can also stay right on the Best Friends property in cabins or cottages. Visitors should be sure to bring a car, since the property loop stretches more than six miles through windy roads.
Getting up close and personal with some furry friends
At Best Friends, instead of Disney’s Tomorrowland or Fantasyland you have Dogtown, Cat World, and Horse Haven. There are two volunteer shifts each day, and guests can choose to work with dogs, cats, pigs, horses, goats, sheep, rabbits, or birds. You get your hands dirty here — literally. Volunteers do everything from walking puppies, goats, or cats (almost everyone at Best Friends can walk on a leash) to weeding dog runs, to cleaning up rabbit poop, to helping train the goats to shake hands. I bet you’ve never seen a goat shake hands.
Jo gets photo-bombed by Billy the goat. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
I overheard one volunteer cry out with joy during her vegetarian lunch ($5 per person) at the Angel Village cafe.
“I walked two cats on a leash today. ON A LEASH!”
While I personally can never get enough of puppies and kittens, the pigs really became a favorite of mine. Best Friends is home to more than 27 pigs, most of which were seized from a polygamist colony 39 miles away in Colorado City. It never stops being wonderful in piggy heaven as the little ones wiggle on top of one another to try to get your attention, and Jack, the big old hog, pitches his entire body weight in your direction to have his belly rubbed. At feeding time everyone literally goes hog-wild. Volunteers get right in the middle of this melee.
Hiking with a shelter dog in the nearby creek. (Photo: Best Friends)
You may have heard of Best Friends already. They’ve made headlines in the past decade, first for rescuing more than 6,000 animals during hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. And then, in 2007, they advocated for the Michael Vick Dogs, or as they have renamed them, the Victory Dogs. Of the nearly 50 fighting dogs seized in the Vick raid, 22 of the most problematic went to Best Friends for long-term rehabilitation or court-ordered permanent Sanctuary placement.
I met up with two of the Victory Dogs during my own volunteering session in Dogtown. Both Mya and Curly are still shy around strangers, but Curly was a ham for the camera and sweet once he got to know a person.
But one of the best things about a Best Friends stay is that you can sign out an overnight companion, either a dog or a cat. (Best Friends used to do pig sleepovers, but the pigs quickly informed their caretakers “that they were not enjoying it one bit,” Media Relations Manager Barbara Williamson told me.)
Fun fact: Pigs love having their bellies rubbed. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
You can take your companion animal on a hike or just bring it home for a snuggle.
I chose Lucky, one of the Old Friends. Best Friends has between 100 and 120 older dogs at any given time, and they have a highly successful adoption rate. Still, because most volunteers fawn all over the puppies, the old friends need a little extra love.
Lucky adores hitting the red dirt trails. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
Lucky is a 10-year-old Lab-husky mix with the demeanor of a puppy. He can do 3- to 5-mile hikes, no problem, and he has a penchant for chasing lizards. Lucky and I have a lot in common that way. We also share a love of getting cozy in bed and sleeping. So for me, he was the perfect sleepover companion. He is what Best Friends call a “bomb-proof” dog. Nothing spooks him.
Having a sleepover with a cat isn’t always so peaceful.
“It really is more of a slumber party than a sleepover. No one gets much sleep, because the cats are so excited,” co-founder Faith Maloney told me. “We give everyone an emergency number to call, and we’ve had to activate it with a few of the cats.”
It’s pretty hard to get anything done when there are kittens around. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
As for Lucky, he was recommended to me by Kathleen Handley, a preternaturally cheery staffer at Dogtown Headquarters.
WATCH: Jo’s Sleepover With Lucky
To start our evening together, Lucky and I drove the two miles into town for dinner. Restaurants in Kanab love the Best Friends dogs almost as much as the staff, and at the Mexican joint Escobar’s and the trendy art café the Rocking V, Best Friends dogs are welcomed with pats and treats.
Lucky squatted on my lap in the car’s passenger seat the entire way home. Afterward, we strolled under the kinds of stars you see only out in the desert before we headed to bed, both of us exhausted. Polite to a fault, Lucky wouldn’t get on the bed until I was ready to climb under the covers.
Lucky is available for adoption. You can contact Best Friends through its website. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
Enjoying everything the area has to offer
It’s best to bookend a vacation with volunteer stints at Best Friends, with some hiking and sightseeing in the middle, and Kanab as your central location.
Accommodations on the Best Friends grounds are humble but functional with a fridge and a microwave in addition to a doggy door leading to an outdoor pen. During the summer months the cabins and cottages can book up almost two years in advance, but in the winter the sanctuary offers deeply discounted packages for volunteers. Cabins comfortably sleep two while the cottages have two queen beds and a pull-out couch. There are also two RV parking spots.
Though the animal sanctuary is a big draw, the small town of Kanab isn’t without an indelible charm. Along with a Family Dollar Store, a thrift shop, a couple of pawn shops, and a few gas stations, there’s also the Crescent Moon movie theater, which shows old Westerns every night at 7, and the Willow Canyon store that sells everything from hiking gear to books to some of the best espresso I have had outside of Italy. Ask for Charlie there. He will tell you everything you need to know about the town. There’s also a watering hole called the Buckskin across the border with Arizona that boasts the longest bar in the state. (“We can get you a man there,” Patty told me.)
Kanab hasn’t been taken over by big-box stores or tourists. You can take rappelling lessons for just under 80 bucks or meet up with a local astronomer for free for a late-night star talk. Kanab Western Adventures offers off-road adventures starting at $85, and Seldom Seen Adventures will take you on a variety of off-the-grid excursions for reasonable rates. The area is also centrally located for some of Southern Utah’s best outdoor offerings. Zion National Park is just 41 miles away, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (in my opinion, the superior rim) just 80, Bryce Canyon 72, and Lake Powell 70.
This is what it actually looks like. #NoFilter. (Photo: Best Friends)
As for Angel Canyon, it is one of the few places that looks better in person than in the brochure or on the website. The red and white cliffs change color hourly and each curve in the road presents a startling new terrain. There are dozens of hiking trails on the property, most of which you can take a dog companion along on.
Usually I have a hard time going into animal shelters. I hate seeing animals in pain and I want to be able to save them all. Best Friends doesn’t leave you with that guilty taste in your mouth. The animals here are a truly happy bunch, being cared for by an army of folks who truly love animals. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to find a forever family, but it does mean that you can enjoy volunteering with them without having trouble sleeping at night, especially when you get to do it with a furry friend.