What I Learned Volunteering at America’s Largest No-Kill Animal Sanctuary

The puppies are all over us, wagging, kissing and peeing. They’re being exposed to things like doorbells, vacuum cleaners and cameras so they’ll learn to deal with novelty confidently. It’s healthy. Plus, an adaptable dog is an adoptable dog.


This is Puppy Preschool at the nonprofit Best Friends Animal Society, America’s largest no-kill animal sanctuary, located in Angel Canyon, just outside Kanab, Utah. Their motto, “Save Them All,” springs from the ongoing evolution of how our culture views homeless pets.

Set in the rocky, red heart of the American West (where many movies and TV shows were filmed, including, appropriately, “Lassie"), Best Friends has a tranquil vibe. It’s hard to be tense in this scenery, especially when you walk in the lobby to find a cat in a stroller, ready for a walk.

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Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is located in Angel Canyon, just outside Kanab, Utah. (image: Liz Langley)

It doesn’t surprise me that people want to volunteer here, helping out among the kittens, cockatoos and canyons. America, after all, is a pet-loving country. According to the ASPCA, Americans own as many as 80 million dogs and 96 million cats. The New York Times reports that, in 2010, a recession year, we spent $55 billion on our pets.

For some 1,700 animals, Best Friends is home—either temporarily or forever. Like the little budgie who’s so overbred he’s blinded by his feathers. Or the big pig who noisily protests the fact that it’s not time for his walk yet at Marshall’s Piggy Paradise. This sprawling place feels like a utopian vision and offers consistently disarming surprises at every turn.

The long road home

It may seem strange to talk about the utopian vision of a place some have described as an orphanage, but Best Friends is truly an exceptional place, emblematic of the change that has been happening in the last two decades in how we view homeless animals.

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Doody, left, is a little budgie who is so overbred he can't see through his feathers. (image: Liz Langley)

One clear change is the fact that we can see these animals without visiting them, from the comfort of our homes. Animal shelters now have online profiles for their residents just like dating sites do (though the pictures are cuter). Best Friends even offers advice on how to write great profiles.

Anyone who has gone out for coffee and found themselves wanting a Labrador instead of a latte knows that mobile adoptions are also taking shelter pets out of anonymity. At one group of New York shelters, reports the New York Times’ Andy Newman, adoptions are up and euthanizing is down, thanks to ideas like supervised dog playgroups, which make calmer, healthier dogs, and admission counselors who help owners find ways to keep the pets they adopt.

Helping animals stay in their new homes is another facet for consideration in getting shelter pets placed. Things like puppy socialization and clicker training. (Who could resist a bunny trained to give kisses?) 

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Clicker-trained cockatiels in Parrot Garden at Best Friends. (image: Liz Langley)

“Mr. Big is going home. He just got adopted yesterday,” says Jacqueline Johnson, manager of Best Friends’ Parrot Garden, which houses a jungle’s worth of adoptable birds. His new owners are “bird-savvy” folks whose longtime pet passed away. “If I sent Mr. Big home with someone who never had a bird before he’d be back in a week,” Johnson says.

Over in the senior citizen section of Dogtown, where I’ve chosen to volunteer for the afternoon, there are two diabetic dogs, Frido and Spirit, and both are spoken for by prospective adopters. I would have thought it would be harder to find them homes, but people who have had a diabetic dog and know how to care for them will often adopt another diabetic dog. As my friend Susan likes to say when the right matches come together, “There’s a lid for every pot.”

Still a long way to go

In the 19th century, dogs faced an all-kill policy in New York, where as Jennifer 8. Lee writes in the New York Times, strays were drowned in the East River. In 1894, the ASPCA started holding strays “for redemption” and by the 20th century, there were many animal protection groups, as well as ideologies regarding homeless animals, including “no-kill,” which advocates against killing any shelter animal who is not painfully or terminally ill.

But there’s still a long way to go. The ASPCA estimates that 7.6 million pets enter shelters annually and nearly 2.73 million are euthanized. That’s a lot of lids without pots. But are shelters evolving for the better?

“It is certainly true that the public expectation of shelters has been raised in keeping with the elevation of the status of pets in our society and some shelters have evolved for the better, notably those that have made a commitment to the no-kill philosophy,” says Best Friends co-founder Francis Battista.

But the nature of shelters as we know them, he says “is inherently inconsistent with what the general public regards as acceptable treatment for homeless pets." 

“Many people don't realize that the standard protocol for most shelters is to kill animals in their care for more than a set amount of time as a method of population control,” Battista says.

NPR’s Greg Allen, reporting on the successes and controversies of the no-kill movement in 2014, pointed out that while the county-run Miami shelter has vastly improved its save rate since resolving to become no-kill, animals were still euthanized, with a director pointing out space issues.

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Pima learns about cameras from Melissa Miller in puppy socialization class. (image: Liz Langley)

Allen reports that in the 20 years since the no-kill concept took hold, the number of animals killed has dropped from 20 million to 3 million.

Best Friends’ “Save Them All” goal may sound huge, but partnering with animal rescues, shelters and spay-and-neuter programs across the country helps. So do companies looking to support nonprofits like Best Friends, which runs entirely on private donations. A partnership with Zappos over the 2015 Black Friday weekend found homes for 6,200 animals.

Animal magnetism

I’ve heard that in the West, people take things easier. Perhaps. Or maybe it was the scenery, the chilled-out cats in Cat World, the new foal named Prince who charmed everyone with his sprints and leaps, and of course, the “puppy high.”

About those puppies. When asked their breed, Dogtown behavior consultant Glenn Pierce says, “What if I told you they were 75% pit bull?” It makes me feel embarrassed, especially in front of my friends who own and love these dogs, but I have reacted differently to hearing pit bull than I have other breeds. Best Friends has made huge strides in changing the negative public perception of these dogs, most of whom are goofy lovebugs. 

In 2007, when Michael Vick’s dog fighting compound was exposed, it was common to euthanize fighting dogs, who were believed to be too traumatized or vicious to save. Advocates from many groups, including Battista at Best Friends, successfully lobbied to get them a second chance, and the Vick dogs were all evaluated individually. The sanctuary took 22 of the worst cases. The Vicktory dogs, as they’re now known, not only overcame their horrible past, but many were adopted, some even becoming service and therapy dogs.

Then there’s Bubba, the personal pet pit bull of Jacqueline, the Parrot Garden expert. Bubba was found in a dumpster, with scalp lacerations. He has no ears, but can still hear, is strong and healthy, and though he seems far less interested in us than in the lizards running around, he calmly puts up with eight humans wanting to pet him—including, happily, me.

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Bubba was found in a Denver dumpster in terrible shape. Today, he is a healthy, handsome guy, owned by Best Friends' Jacqueline Johnson. (image: Liz Langley)

Many, if not all of us, have at some point worried that we’re not lovable, not worth helping or won’t get a chance to show we’re still good. So while it may have been the altitude, I think what I experienced at the sanctuary was the empathy. “Save Them All” is the kind of audacious compassion that energizes Best Friends, similar to that experienced by anyone who takes the time to help homeless dogs or cats or birds or rabbits or horses. It can make you feel like anything is possible.

The Best Friends Animal Sanctuary's high adoption rate helps buoy their audacious compassion: Approximately 75 percent of the dogs and cats in their care find adoptive homes. For some, that’s about as good a high as there is. Well, that and puppies. And old dogs. And cats. And birds. Oh heck, just love—and save—them all.

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