Nestled in Angel Canyon, at the heart of the Grand Canyon North Rim, Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, is one of the country’s most sacred and timeless places. It is also the home of Best Friends Animal Society, a postcard-perfect haven for the injured and homeless pets of America.

Best Friends, the country’s largest no-kill shelter, sprawls over 33,000 acres of majestic red rock in southwest Utah. Aside from the breathtaking landscape that surrounds the sanctuary, Best Friends is a slice of heaven on earth for those who love animals and nature. There are never fewer than 2,000 dogs, cats, horses, birds, bunnies, burros, sheep and pot-bellied pigs that call Best Friends home. In this tranquil setting, thousands of animals that have seen hard times are given a second chance at a good life.

The sanctuary rescues abused and abandoned pets and either finds new homes for them or cares for them at Best Friends for the remainder of their lives. Although there is a staff of about 400, the shelter eagerly welcomes animal lovers and families from all over the country to help with myriad chores in caring for such a diverse menagerie. Best Friends is a great destination for those travelers who want to spend some of their vacation giving back. [img_assist|nid=1112|title=|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=250|height=333]

All the rescued animals at the sanctuary are spayed or neutered, and nearly three out of every four are eventually adopted into homes. Until they are permanently placed with their forever families, animals live in neighborhoods with alluring names like Dog Town, Piggy Paradise, Feathered Friends, Horse Haven and TLC Cat Club. There they have specialized food and top-notch veterinarian care coupled with the personal attention from animal lovers who visit daily.

After taking a tour of the grounds, visitors can choose to volunteer with just about any type of animal living at the sanctuary. They can also opt to volunteer for just a few hours or dedicate an entire week rotating among the different critters. The two most popular venues for volunteering at Best Friends are Kittyville and Dog Town.

In Kittyville, colonies of cats live in climate-controlled, screened, indoor-outdoor habitats full of colorful nooks and crannies to hide in, wood posts to scratch on and a plethora of toys to play with. A typical day volunteering in this area consists of sweeping and mopping floors, changing the bedding and cleaning out litter boxes all the while surrounded by inquisitive cats rubbing your legs or wanting to closely inspect the work being done. Once the chores are completed and the cats are fed, play time is highly encouraged with the resident felines. Volunteers can socialize, pet and brush dozens of affectionate cats that never seem to tire of a new lap in which to curl up. There are separate facilities within Kittyville for kittens as well as for cats that have chronic ailments or physical handicaps. There’s also housing for feral cats that have lived on their own for too long and have minimal chances of being domesticated into a household pet.

Across the sanctuary at Dog Town, the atmosphere is quite different. Arriving at the front gate, visitors are greeted by howls and yaps from dogs of all sizes, colors and shapes. All the facilities within Dog Town are octagon-shaped buildings that have individual fenced-in runs extending from the sides of the building. Several dogs live within each run and each run has a doggie dog that allows Fido free access both inside (which is climate controlled year-round) and out. Tasks at Dog Town may vary from helping to socialize a litter of abandoned puppies to cleaning dog runs and picking up toys. Dog walking on the nearby trails is also a favorite activity for canines and volunteers alike. Dogs are housed based on their temperament and special requirements. Each dog wears a collar that tells a different story: yellow, special needs; purple, not good with kids; red, staff only; and green, good to go.

Although there are plenty of bed-and-breakfast inns and motels in nearby Kanab, which is five miles from the shelter, guests can stay in charming cottages and cabins located on the sanctuary property. One of the biggest benefits to staying on site – especially for those who want more individual time with the animals – is that volunteers can take a sanctuary dog for a sleepover. The "checking out" of a dog overnight helps the staff assess the animal’s social skills and spot any problems that might occur when the dog is out in the real world. Best Friends’ philosophy is that the more they can learn about an animal, the quicker they can place it in the right home.

Both Kittyville and Dog Town recognize that as animals get older, their needs change. Cat World and Old Friends are separate facilities within these two neighborhoods that cater to the senior citizens of the group. Typically, the pace is a little slower and things are quieter here but by no means are these golden residents lacking for anything. Volunteers who work in these areas can expect a lot of one-on-one time with some very special and appreciative animals.

And when the time comes that an animal passes over the Rainbow Bridge while living at Best Friends, they are laid to rest at Angels Rest, one of the most picturesque and serene spots in the canyon. Beyond the arched gates that are adorned with a frolicking cat and dog, animals are buried among juniper trees, sagebrush and hundreds of wind chimes that offer a melodic backdrop. Each grave is identified with a marker and many are decorated with toys, collars and other mementos that honor the passing of their lives.

One of the added benefits of volunteering at Best Friends is the chance to meet fellow animal-lovers from all parts of the country. Midday, volunteers can congregate for lunch at the Best Friends’ village café, which sits atop of a bluff overlooking Angel Canyon and part of the sanctuary. Lunch is vegan or vegetarian (naturally) and costs only $4. It’s also not unusual to meet some of the original founders of the sanctuary during lunch, especially on Thursdays, when they give a weekly wrap-up of the events and goings-on at the sanctuary.

For some, spending precious vacation time grooming horses, cleaning rabbit cages or feeding pigs doesn’t sound like much of a respite. But for many of the visitors who turn their vacations into annual pilgrimages, Best Friends is as much a sanctuary for people as it is for pets, paws down.

Sidebar:
Best Friends Animal Society
5001 Angel Canyon Road
Kanab, UT 84741
(435) 644-2001
www.bestfriends.org

Bio: Meredith Wargo is an award-winning freelance writer in Houston, Texas. Her byline has appeared in Dog World, Dog Fancy and Texas Highways. She is also the recipient of the 2008 Dog Writers Association of America’s annual writing competition in Magazine Series for her work "Kids Can Do It," Dogs for Kids. For more information, please visit www.meredithwargo.com.