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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Take a volunteer vacation at Best Friends' animal sanctuary

Aug 23, 2021 11:53AM ● By Dee Gagnon
Dee Gagnon holding a container of supplements while Clancy horse eats

Dee Gagnon makes sure that Clancy eats all his supplements without interruption.

I first learned about Best Friends Animal Sanctuary over a decade ago, so this year I decided it was high time I check it out. I was delighted when I was able to volunteer there in mid-March. 

Nestled in the breathtaking landscape of Utah’s Angel Canyon, Best Friends is the nation’s largest no-kill animal sanctuary. It was founded in 1984 by a group of friends with a shared love for animals. As leaders in the animal welfare community, the organization’s leadership acts firmly on the belief that there are no unadoptable animals. They also provide behavioral training, medical intervention and education for the general public. 

I volunteered for three days during COVID-19, so I was limited to volunteering in only two areas. I chose to volunteer with horses and “wild friends.”

I spent a lot of quality time with the horses while cleaning up a day’s worth of their manure and feeding a select few their specially fortified breakfast portions. Some of the horses are recovering from injuries or have medical conditions; others came to Best Friends as strays or feral.

The first horse to catch my eye was Helen, a delicately built reddish mare who was completely blind. Her paddock mate, Snickers, was a former fair pony with marks around his withers from an ill-fitting saddle. And due to a rare medical condition, Curly Sue had a tight, curly coat that resembled the fur of a labradoodle.

For my last half hour of volunteer time with the horses, I got to brush two lucky brown steeds. Their caregiver told me, “These two will stand there all day for it,” and she was right. No halters in sight. Grooming a horse was one of my favorite duties, therefore, it was a highlight of my experience.

Because of staff shortages, I also worked with goats and at least a dozen pigs that were available for adoption. A hopeful pig trotted over and plunked down beside me to present her belly, which I rubbed as she groaned with a big grin. Some of the pigs were discovered fending for themselves in the Arizona desert. Fortunately, they were found and rescued, hopefully joining their forever home soon.

Wild friends

Great horned owls live in large enclosures after serious injuries left them unable to regain their ability to fly or hunt.


My duties for the sanctuary’s wild friends varied. With the help of the licensed wildlife rehabilitator, we drained and cleaned three cement swimming pools for the resident ducks and seagulls. I chopped a large amount of salad greens for tortoises and birds, replaced the straw in over 100 nesting boxes, and was privy to a physical therapy session for Polly, a chicken hatched with deformed legs. 

As I watched staff feed great horned owls and a barn owl, I learned that many birds are discovered injured on roadsides. I observed Jeff,  a golden mantle ground squirrel, and caught a glimpse of a new arrival on quarantine—a female chinchilla.

I was the only volunteer with the wild friends for all of my sessions, and the staff leader made me feel much appreciated.

A volunteer vacation

Best Friends touches the hearts of humans who truly care. From the dedicated staff to the daily roster of volunteers who come to help, the shelter resonated with hope.

The staff I spent time with came from diverse backgrounds. One woman had left Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and a career in engineering to work in the desert with Best Friends a few years ago. Going on 50, she’s happy with the change. The bubbly young staff leader at Wild Friends, on the other hand, was excited about furthering her career with animals. I left there with a firm desire to give myself a volunteer vacation at Best Friends every year.

There’s limited lodging right within the sanctuary, which I opted for due to the convenience. Other options include RV hook-ups in the gorgeous canyon. I stayed in a clean room with a kitchenette and even a doggie door! People may bring their own dog or even have a “sleepover” with a dog, cat or bunny from Best Friends if planned in advance. Additionally, there are several nearby motels/hotels that offer discounts to Best Friends visitors or volunteers. Some even welcome “sleepovers.”

Best Friends Animal Sanctuary offers free tours daily. Register in advance at or by phone at 435-644-2001, ext. 4537. Best Friends is located five miles north of downtown Kanab, Utah, close to the Arizona state line. For animal lovers like me, it’s well worth the drive!

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