I’m finally back from vacation, and we had a great time. We went to a few national parks out west (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Canyonlands), and also had the opportunity to visit Best Friends Animal Sanctuary while we were out there. I found out we were staying 12 miles from the sanctuary while on our trip, and convinced my family to take a tour. We got to see a short film that showed what Best Friends is all about, and then took a 90 minute tour of the facilities. The place is pretty amazing – they are the largest no-kill shelter in the country – they currently have around 1,800 animals, and each of those animals is guaranteed to have a place there forever if they are not adopted. The sanctuary has a mobile adoption team that takes animals to many of the large cities out west – Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, etc. to try to find them homes. The shelter has dogs, cats, horses, birds, pot-bellied pigs, rabbits, and more. They’re located on a few thousand acres of land, and they lease 30,000 additional acres which is used as a wildlife refuge. They also do wildlife rehabilitation. For those of you who are interested, keep reading to find out more details of my trip to Best Friends. Otherwise, just skip to the end. :-)
As we drove up into Angel Canyon where the sanctuary is located, we went past several horse pastures, to the parking lot where the welcome center was. It’s a beautiful place – the welcome center is surrounded by flowers, has a pond with goldfish and many hummingbirds were buzzing around the feeders on the outdoor patio. Inside was a small gift shop and a welcome area. There was also a video room where we watched the introductory video. Then we were loaded into vans and drove down the road to begin the tour. We drove past more horse pastures as our guide began to tell us about the sanctuary and answer our many questions. We passed the animal cemetery with a walking path and wind chimes – a very peaceful place. Our first stop was at Dogtown. The dogs live in these octagonal buildings, with eight separate “rooms” in each one. Each room has between one and four dogs in it, and each room also has two separate dog doors that lead to the outside runs. The dogs all had comfortable dog beds, a lot of dog toys, and large outdoor areas to run and play. The newer buildings have overhead skylights to let the light in, ceiling fans to keep them cool, and heated floors – these dogs have it made! Senior dogs are in these newest buildings, to make sure they are as comfortable as possible. My biggest disappointment during this stop was that we were not able to actually visit or pet any of the dogs. The next stop was in the cat area. We started in one of the cat buildings that was set aside for cats who were FIV positive. Cats with feline leukemia also had their own area, as did cats with incontinence issues (they stayed in the Incontinental Suite.) After a short visit with these cats, we moved on to another building and visited the cats that were not FIV or FeLV positive. All of the cats had a great set-up – they could stay indoors, or go outside into large screened-in porches. They have approximately 10-20 cats in each room, and the cats had plenty of room to roam and toys to play with. They could even climb up into the rafters, where they had their own cat beds and litter box, and stay up there until they felt safe enough to come down. There were climbing trees and cat beds galore. The place was very clean and all of the cats were well-cared for. Although they did offer tours of the bird and rabbit houses, our schedule did not allow us time to take those tours. After completing the tour, we were taken back to the visitor center. I enjoyed it so much, that I decided I wanted to volunteer there if time allowed. So two days later I returned and signed up to volunteer in the dog area for the morning.
Volunteering gave me a great opportunity to ask even more questions, not to mention actually pet some dogs! We started off with a quick safety video, and then headed to puppy socialization class. They have a fenced-in, paved area, about the size of a basketball court, that is surrounded by gravel. They found that surrounding it with gravel allows them to combat parvo better. They were unable to bleach grass, but they can bleach gravel which kills the parvo virus – a common virus that puppies are most susceptible to. This area is right outside the puppy area, where all of the puppies are kept until they are old enough to be adopted. We went through our bleach shoe wash (stepping in a litter box with bleach water to kill any virus we may have picked up on our shoes) and stepped into the enclosed area. They brought out three puppies, two cute black scruffy ones that reminded me of Taz (one of our current Heartland dogs) and one little hound dog – white with brown spots. Their names were Cedar and Cypress (the black puppies) and the hound dog puppy was named Harvey. The employee leading the puppy class was very nice. He explained why we were having this class. He said before they started these classes, about 35% of the puppies that were adopted out of Best Friends were returned. The main reason for this high rate of return was because the puppies were not socialized – they didn’t know how to act, and didn’t understand all the new experiences they had in their new home. They would go to the groomer or the vet, and when that person tried to clip their nails or look at their ears, they’d bite! It was all new to them and they didn’t know any better, but many people didn’t want a puppy that would bite, so they returned the dogs. After starting these socialization classes two years ago, the employee said the rate of return on puppies dropped from 35% to 0% - not one puppy returned since then! He had us play with the puppies – pick them up and play with their feet and their ears, and turn them on their backs, and give them treats so they learned to associate being handled with good things like food and petting. He also brought out an umbrella, and opened it in their face – things like that, to help them get used to new experiences. We also taught them their names, by saying their name and immediately giving them a treat. Do this 10-15 times, twice a day, and within a week they will know their name and respond to it! This is good to know if you decide to adopt a dog and change his or her name – it works no matter how old the dog is.
After puppy socialization class, I was assigned to one of the dog buildings to help walk dogs. I teamed up with the dog caretaker for that building, and we started walking the dogs. This is where I learned the most – basically that they have the same problems that most rescue groups do – too many animals and not enough help. They had one caretaker for that building – I have no idea how they can manage with so few employees per dogs – and always new volunteers that have to be taught and usually hinder more than they help. Dogs are assigned and tracked by volunteer through their collar color. Dogs with a yellow collar can’t be walked for medical reasons. Green collars can be walked by all volunteers, while purple collars are for volunteers over 18 and red collars are for staff only. Many of the dogs in this building, and probably in the entire facility, had red collars. A lot of the dogs had a history of biting, which is probably how they ended up at Best Friends in the first place. They can still be adopted out, and sometimes are, as the staff works hard to try to get them to become more adoptable. However, due to the limited staff, the dogs cannot be walked every day, and often can’t be worked with at all because of time constraints. Some dogs are adopted out and returned over and over, always hoping that the next family is the right one for them. While the sanctuary is a great place, better than any shelter I can imagine, it is still not a home, and I believe almost every dog there would rather live in worse conditions if it meant having a home with a family to call their own. Its what everyone there works for, and through education and training, its what they hope to someday accomplish.
Overall, I was very impressed with the sanctuary, and hope that someday when Heartland gets their own shelter, we can emulate some of the ideas that Best Friends has put into practice.