One Catster’s Visit to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary


The following is an account of a trip that Catster member Heather made to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah, which included a doggie sleepover! (Yes, cat sleepovers are also available.) I visited Best Friends about 12 years ago, and heartily concur with Heather’s observation that it is an incredibly serene and special place. Here’s her report:

We were supposed to arrive at Best Friends by 9:30, and we ended up arriving 45 minutes early! We were able to check in and do our volunteer orientation early, giving us some time to walk around Horse Haven. I got to see Riley, the horse who had one of her legs amputated and walks with a prosthesis! I also got to meet Grandpa Bernie, the sweet old burro born in 1975. We saw some pot bellied pigs and some goats too, not to mention several other horses like Waco and Mente.

Best Friends horse, Riley, an amputee with a prosthesis

At 10:00, it was time to watch a video, and it was a special one about the 25th anniversary of Best Friends. I’d actually seen some of it on their Facebook page! After the video, we went on the 1.5 hour tour. We rode around part of the 38,000 acres in a van with our tour guide and her golden, Abby (one of the perks of working there – well behaved dogs get to come to work with their pawrents!). Most of the tour took place in the van. We rode by bunches of horses on our way to Angel’s Rest, which we just drove by (and I swear, I was already fighting back tears just seeing it). Then, we drove past part of Dogtown on our way to Cat World, our first stop! We got to go in one of the ten cat buildings, Casa de Calmar. We went in an FeLV room. All the kitties were happy and the place was just amazing. There were cubbyholes, cat trees and scratching posts and kitty beds everywhere. In each room, there are cat doors leading to a covered outdoor enclosure complete with more cat trees, beds, and best of all, branches and rafters for the cats to climb on. We weren’t supposed to pick any cats up, but that didn’t stop the cats from climbing on us! I had a cat in my lap pretty much the whole 10 minutes that we got to stay in Casa de Calmar.

We then drove past the bunny area and Feathered Friends on our way to none other than the one, the only Dogtown!! The dog buildings are called octagons because they are 8-sided. Each has runs in which two-four dogs live, and there are doggy doors leading to outdoor enclosures. We passed by Rhonda, the octagon in which the Vicktory dogs live! We saw several pit bulls out in the outdoor part of their homes, and I guess some of them may have been the very dogs themselves! That area is off-limits to volunteers as far as I could tell, and I was just grateful to have been able to see it.

These are some of the dogs rescued from Michael Vick. 22 dogs were brought to Best Friends, where they have a forever home, even if they are not able to be rehabilitated to the point that it would be safe for them to be adopted out.

We stopped at Jethro, one of two octagons that comprises The Garden. There were some volunteers there, and they had a big black lab out; we got to pet him. His name was Big Guy, and he sure was a Big Guy!

After the tour, we had a vegetarian lunch at Angel Village, the on-site cafeteria. It happens to sit atop a cliff overlooking yet another amazing view. We ate outside facing that view.

Next came volunteering with the kitties! We signed in at Cat Headquarters, and I was asked if there was a specific location I wanted to volunteer. I told the coordinator that I’d requested to meet Scooter and Thumper, and she said, “OK, Kitty Motel it is!” This was yet another dream come true for me. I finally knew for sure that I’d meet my sweet Scooter and Thumper. I’ve read so much about those cats and sponsored them so much in the past, but I never really thought I’d get to meet them. It occurred to me that it might be upsetting to really see them – Scooter was born with no back legs and Thumper was attacked by a dog, leaving her paralyzed. Kitty Motel is the area where the special needs kitties (those with deformities, the geriatrics, the incontinent kitties, and those with FIV) live. Those with the severe deformities like Scooter and Thumper live in the lobby. We walked to Kitty Motel and opened the door. All of a sudden a herd of kitties headed our way! Some walked or ran; others dragged themselves. The very first one I saw was Scooter, scooting my way. It’s true what it says on his sponsorship page on Best Friends that he is always the first to greet visitors! There were many kitties there I’d never known anything about.

Scooter and Thumper were every bit as perfect as I’d imagined them to be. Thumper has the sweetest little face, and she really enjoys getting attention. So does Scooter, but I think he prefers treats even more than petting. One of the people who works at Kitty Motel, Frank, threw some treats on the floor. Scooter, with his two legs, got most of the treats. He beat out able-bodied kitties and paralyzed kitties alike! It was pretty neat. Pokey was a very sweet kitty, kind of like Thumper – paralyzed back legs. It’s very surprising how well kitties like that can get around. Dancer and Mouse live in the lobby of Kitty Motel; they both have neurological disorders making it hard for them to control their movements. It’s hard for them to get around and their movements must be very deliberate. Mouse has to be hand-fed (her head has to even be held still so she can eat). Smokey was probably the one that upset me the most, simply because her past had been so tragic and unnecessary. She’d been deliberately injured by an evil child with a firecracker. She was left incontinent and needing a surgery to fuse the bones of one of her legs together. Charlotte was another who lives there; she was born with Manx syndrome and also had to have leg bones fused. Jessica was also in the lobby, and there’s nothing wrong with her; she just likes to be there because lots of volunteers come to Kitty Motel and she loves the attention! I met Mystery, one of the cats from the Pahrump, Nevada rescue (a hoarding situation – a rescue had something like 800 cats living in awful conditions and Best Friends came to the rescue).

In the geriatric room, my two favorite kitties were Mittens and Carolina. They are soooooooooooo incredibly sweet! I hated to leave both of them. Midnight was another precious one from Geriatrics.

I met lots of awesome kitties in the FIV room as well. Tom is the one who stands out in my memory. He was an attention hound!

The thing about all these cats is . . . even though most of them have serious problems like paralysis, neurological disorders, abusive pasts, etc, they are HAPPY. That’s why I didn’t shed a single tear for any of them. I was afraid I would weep for Scooter, unable to run or jump. Or Thumper, who has to drag her hind end. But those are some of the most content cats I’ve ever seen, and it’s evident they are loved. So what would, in any other circumstances, be a sad situation, is simply not sad.

Our time at Kitty Motel ended all too soon, and then we were off to Dogtown to request a dog for a sleepover.

At Dog Headquarters, we were asked if we had any preferences, and when we said no, we were assigned a dog in need of a sleepover . . . and that happened to be none other than Big Guy, the only dog we had met earlier! It was so cool that we ended up with him. We were given some of his toys, a water bowl, a blanket, a rag, and some treats. We were informed that Big Guy had already been adopted but was still at Best Friends because he had to have surgery on his leg (he tore his knee). He was on anti-inflammatories and pain meds, and we were told we could, and should, walk him, and not to baby him!

We stayed in Cabin 9. Best Friends has only three cabins; I still can’t believe I managed to get one. After stopping by our cabin (at the foot of a mountain – another amazing view), we took Big Guy to Zion National Park. It was about a 30 mile drive from the sanctuary. We stopped several times and walked BG around. And of course we took tons of pictures.

Here I am with BG outside of our cabin. There are only THREE cabins at Best Friends, and they are almost always booked months in advance. Somehow, I managed to reserve this one just two days before our arrival thanks to a cancellation! The cabins come complete with a small fenced-in area and a doggy door!

When we got back to the cabin, we noticed the guest journal. It stays there for all who stay there to write about their experiences. I took pictures of all the pages so I’d be able to have them forever, and I also wrote two pages about my experiences. The time we spent with BG in the cabin was so much fun. The only bad thing was that there was no internet access or cell phone coverage, but even that wasn’t so bad. It was kind of nice being isolated. No worries (truly, Best Friends is the most peaceful place I’ve ever been).

Big Guy is Pooped Guy after an action-packed day with Heather.

Tuesday morning, we got up early and returned BG to Jethro. Then we went to Dog Headquarters to return his things. National Geographic was there filming for DogTown. It was so neat! I even saw Michelle Besmehn, the lady who is on most of the episodes!

We had one last stop before leaving Best Friends, and that was Angel’s Rest. I just couldn’t go to the sanctuary without visiting that beautiful resting place. I was crying before I even opened the gate. I knew it would happen but I just had to go there. It’s overwhelming seeing all those graves, all those markers, all those memorials. And the wind chimes. They are placed in memory of member pets. All was still when we were there, but I can only imagine the sound as a gentle breeze flows through the sacred land.

Chimes at Angel’s Rest

I wandered around crying for a little while, and then I started to get things back under control. The tears weren’t even really that much for sadness but for gratefulness that those animals felt love and are remembered. While at Angel’s Rest, we met the caretaker. He told us that he knows where every single marker is in that whole place and that he also remembers where new markers are placed. He explained that some of the animals are from the sanctuary, and others are brought there by their owners to be laid to rest. He then said that it was time for him to feed “his kids.” We asked if we could come along, and he let us. There is a secluded trail behind the cemetery, and he walks it every day, throwing out feed for all the little critters that live out there: antelope squirrels, wild turkeys, rock squirrels, quail, blue jays, bunnies, etc.). He always takes the trail one way then goes back to the cemetery a different way, so that the animals are used to his presence and know that once he walks by, he won’t return and they’re free to eat. So we walked with him, turning around to see dozens of little critters enjoying their breakfast.

That was the end of our Best Friends trip, and I was so sad to leave it. I really want to return. And I will, someday. I think everyone should go to Best Friends at least once. It’s a healing place.

Heather’s right; everyone should visit at least once. You can volunteer at Best Friends, or just drop by for a tour. The closest major airport is Las Vegas, and it’s near Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

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