By: Michelle Hardy
For many, spring break is a week spent sitting around the house, watching Netflix, eating junk food and putting off homework and other responsibilities. This is how I typically spent my spring break, anyway. However, this year, I decided to branch out and to do something different and for my week off. I applied for an Alternative Break service trip to Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. Along with a group of 10 other University of Wyoming students, I was able to volunteer at this amazing sanctuary—the largest in the United States—over the course of one week. The following is a personal reflection of my time volunteering at Best Friends: the things I did, the friends I made, and how this trip has affected my plans for the future.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect as we loaded up the two rental Suburbans at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning. Aside from my good friend Kiana, I didn’t really know anyone else going on the trip and had only met them a couple times in preliminary group meetings. Everyone had different majors, hometowns, backgrounds and interests. However, we had lots of time to get to know each other, including the entire day Sunday, which we spent hiking and exploring in nearby Zion National Park. In addition to Sunday, we were able to spend evenings throughout the week together, which really helped us all bond. It wasn't long before we were adding eachother on social media and showing one another our favorite memes and YouTube videos.
Monday was exciting because it was our very first day at Best Friends. I had visited their website and had some idea of what to expect, but I was definitely not prepared for how big the sanctuary actually is. As the largest animal sanctuary in the United States, Best Friends lies on 3,700 acres of land and is home to around 1,500 animals; including dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, horses, donkeys, pigs, goats, sheep, and even some wild and exotic animals. The property is separated into sections specific to each animal type and each of these areas have different names, such as Dog Town, Cat World, Horse Haven and Piggy Paradise. There is also a welcome center, an animal clinic, and an expansive cemetery called Angel’s Rest which is exclusive to animals who lived their lives at the sanctuary or those who were adopted and whose owners chose to lay them to rest at Best Friends.
We spent the morning watching an orientation video and meeting our group leader, Marsha, as well as other members of BFAS’ staff. We went on a short hike to a hidden lake on the property and really got a glimpse of how expansive the property is. Formerly owned by ranchers, Best Friends purchased the land in 1984 after searching the country for a place to start the sanctuary. Long before that, the land was home to Native Americans. Ancient Puebloan ruins and petroglyphs can be found all over the area.
Throughout our week at Best Friends, lunch was served in the on-site Village Café which overlooks the canyon and is entirely vegetarian—much to my delight! It was the perfect place to relax and to meet staff and other volunteers: There were at least three other volunteer groups from different schools across the country at the same time we were there. There were also sometimes short presentations during lunchtime, including one that explained Best Friends’ amazing Community Cat program. We even got to meet one of the founders of Best Friends!
The second half of Monday was spent helping out in Cat World, which has eight buildings alone dedicated entirely to cats. We were assigned to Benton’s Place, a building that houses many of the cats at Best Friends with health issues or neurological disorders. We folded laundry, brushed off blankets, swept and mopped and interacted with many of the kitties in their large indoor-outdoor enclosures. We even got to take a few of the cats out for a walk, or, for those who couldn’t walk, for a stroll in a cat stroller! Kiana and I got to walk Patrix, a.k.a Skippy, a diabetic kitty whose treatment includes a daily walk. I have never attempted to walk a cat before, so this was definitely a new experience for me! I was impressed by how much personal attention and care each of the cats received from the staff in Cat World. Each person knew about the cat’s likes, dislikes, health issues and care regimen. It was clear that these cats are well taken care of!
Each day of the week, we were assigned to a different location and given various tasks to complete there. On Tuesday, we spent the morning painting boards for a new fence in Dog Town; on Wednesday, we learned about Breed Specific Legislation and took a pit bull named Lottie for a hike. We also worked in the Bunny House, where I learned that rabbits love cilantro and that they bond for life! On Thursday, we were assigned to Deja’s House in Dog Town, where we filled holes, picked up trash, and spent some time with a few amazing and adoptable dogs. In the latter part of the day, we went to Angel’s Rest and brushed dust and debris off some of the memorials there. I thought being there would make me sad, but it was actually a very peaceful place, especially when surrounded by the sound of the windchimes and the beautiful Utah sun. Afterwards, we took a dog named Google for a short hike to a hidden waterfall.
On Friday, our last day at Best Friends, we spent the morning with the hooved animals in Horse Haven, where we raked hay in the goat barn and watched an amazing demonstration of the Parelli Natural Horsemanship method of horse training, which I would definitely recommend looking up on YouTube. After lunch, we headed into the town of Kanab to the Best Friends building located there for a reflection and group thank you for volunteers. We ate cake and talked about our experiences: what we liked, what we would change, and what we will take away most from our time at the sanctuary.
For me, the trip to Best Friends really solidified that working with animals is my passion and is something I need to work into my future career. My ultimate goal is to find a job in which I can use my journalism and public relations education to improve the lives of animals, and a place like Best Friends would allow me to do just that. Luckily for me, Best Friends offers a variety of both animal care and non-animal care careers and internships, which I am already working on applying for. I will be graduating this May, and I really feel like this trip came at the perfect time for me and helped guide me to the next step and to a career working in animal welfare. This trip also introduced me to a wonderful group of fellow students who I would most likely never have met otherwise and who I am so thankful I got to share this experience with.
Whether or not I end up with a job at Best Friends, just being able to visit the sanctuary and meet the incredible people that work tirelessly to “Save Them All” was absolutely a life changing experience, and I am so thankful to UW and the Alternative Breaks program for making something like this possible for students like me.
Want to spend your break doing something awesome like I did? Apply for an Alternative Break trip today!