Regular PRiME readers know about my love of travel around the U.S. and particularly in the Southwest. Last summer I had the chance for a special, if all too brief, stop in southern Utah. It was an experience I thought immediately of sharing with you all. I’m convinced there must be many among PRiME’s readership who have strong feelings for and commitments to animals of all sorts, so if you haven’t been aware of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary and its work before, you’ll be as excited as I was to learn more about it and even consider a visit yourself.
Best Friends was founded in 1984 by a group of thirty-one friends looking to make the world a better place by living the “Golden Rule.” They declared their incredibly profound, simple and ambitious mission directed at the animals in our lives, summarized in their motto: “Save Them All.” This sounds unbelievably idealistic and naïve, doesn’t it? But through the years, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary has backed its mission with effective actions, in Utah and beyond. They encourage adoptions of rescues; enhance foster programs that ready animals for their “Forever Homes;” educate people about unfairly stigmatized breeds; and facilitate trap, neuter and return of feral cats. This is only a selection of their many campaigns, truly making “Saving Them All” a reality.
Their successes are spreading. For example, in the last five years they have been instrumental in bringing the euthanasia rate of cats and dogs at Los Angeles animal shelters from 43% down to 18%, with one result being the city’s commitment to eventually becoming entirely no-kill. To date, 420 U.S. cities have adopted no-kill policies, including cities as large as Austin and San Francisco. This year, Best Friends has rushed its manpower and expertise to aid local shelters in Texas and Florida in relocating their shelter residents to safety, saving homeless companion animals and reuniting pets with owners following the storms.
And these are the brave and wise people who spoke out for the fighting dogs impounded in the 2007 Michael Vick case, fighting to keep them from being put down. Contradicting even other animal welfare organizations who argued the dogs were inherently too vicious to live, Best Friends and their legal allies made the case to give these exploited and stigmatized animals a chance. Many ended up finding loving family homes while twenty-two others, too emotionally scarred initially to live in private homes, came to the Best Friends animal sanctuary in Utah to be lovingly cared for throughout their remaining years. If you haven’t seen “The Champions,” seek it out on Netflix—but have tissues ready.
Besides programs that ally with shelters and rescue programs throughout the country, and now their own shelters in Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York City and Salt Lake City, Best Friends maintains its original animal sanctuary in Angel’s Canyon, just north of Kanab, Utah. With nearly 3,700 acres of their own land addended by 17,000 acres leased from the state and federal governments, Angel’s Canyon has plenty of room for approximately: 1,600 dogs, cats, horses, pigs, bunnies and parrots; a visitors’ center; a first-rate animal hospital; and there is even room for you. Modest cabins and cottages, with rates that max out at $140, are available to rent for a night or more.
On our visit we enjoyed a cottage with two double beds, a modern bathroom, and a separate living and kitchen area with a pull-out couch, TV, small fridge, hot plate, and microwave. The only inefficiency I could detect in the whole operation was that ridiculous ice maker, which produced about six cubes in the space of half an hour. The cottage was not fancy, but it was comfortable and clean, and it boasted a deck area that looked right out onto the horse corral. There are also smaller cabins and a few RV hookups available.
We only had a day to enjoy and explore, so we drove the loop around the canyon, making frequent stops, taking photos and walking the peaceful meditation labyrinth before retiring for the night. In the morning we were delighted by horse trainer Ann Hepworth’s demonstration of the Pirelli technique with Felix, one of Horse Haven’s equine residents. Completely non-coercive, this technique depends on building trust and communicating with horses on their level.
We found ourselves pondering the world from a horse’s and by extension other beings’ points of view. If we’d had longer, we could have taken an in-depth, two-hour tour or experienced other demonstrations. Visitors can also schedule in advance to be trained in volunteer care specific to one of the animal areas and then fulfill a shift—given several days, you could contribute to several areas.
I ran into a few people who said they came regularly from out of town to volunteer; one person even confided she’d packed up her business and moved to Kanab from an east coast city, having found the experience so fulfilling. With a day’s work in Dogtown (or a handful of other areas) comes the right to a “sleepover” back at your cottage with one of the residents, a great way to give them extra attention and better socialize them for future adoption. I’m guessing a fair number of visitors who participate in this unique opportunity end up going home with a new family member.
Of course, the “Humanimals” at work throughout the animal sanctuary are a kind bunch, anxious to give directions or suggestions when they’re not too busy caring for the facility and its important charges, many of whom are special-needs individuals. The evening we were there, we drank beer on our cottage porch while watching a blind horse, Helen, and her constant companion and seeing-eye-horse, Cassia, calmly peruse their space.
Before we departed the next day we had a yummy Vegan lunch, with salad, “sausage” sandwich, chips, cookie and a drink for only $5 from the food truck outside the Welcome Center, also the meeting place for tours and the site of a gift shop overflowing with pet treats and Best Friends “gear.” There are also $5 vegetarian lunches available at their Village Cafe. For other meals, bring your own fare from Honey’s Supermarket in town or drop by one of Kanab’s restaurants for breakfast or dinner. The only place we had time to try was Escobar’s Mexican, where we found tasty and filling burritos and friendly service.
Best Friends and Kanab are a good four hours to the Las Vegas airport, and a little over five and a half to Phoenix, but you can combine your visit to Best Friends with time at either of these cities or at Zion, Bryce, or Grand Canyon National Parks (26, 72, and 214 miles away respectively). There’s also a smaller airport at St. George, Utah less than two hours away. If lodging within the sanctuary is booked, Kanab offers several of the major chains, some highly rated BnB’s, and the Parry Lodge, where the likes of John Wayne and Frank Sinatra stayed during the town’s Western TV and film glory days.
If you can, stay within the canyon for an especially meaningful experience. Toward sunset after our arrival, we drove to the solemn and magical Angel’s Rest and above it, Angel’s Overlook. Here are the resting places of approximately 8,500 companion animals, both sanctuary residents and well-wishers’ and supporters’ pets, as well as memorial plaques, stones and windchimes dedicated to many more. I was immediately and profoundly moved by the sight of all these symbols of love and remembrance for all those little souls, and the gentle sounds of the chimes spoke of both joy and loss, carrying with them the determination that every animal deserved to be cared for and, upon passing, honored in such a way.
Around or on most of the stones, people had placed small tokens, such as colorful rocks or toys or tiny food bowls. I began thinking of how such a tribute to my own furry family members might console me as it also provided funds to the animal sanctuary to continue its work. Later that night, we walked out beyond our cottage to take in the endless stars above the canyon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many. We were sad to say goodbye the next day, heading out in time to reach Sedona before nightfall, but the beauty and the peace of the place have stayed with me, making it, at a mere twenty-four hours, one of the most memorable sojourns of my life.