KANAB — Three women stand beside a van. They’re rooting around inside the crates that housed three peacocks and one peahen. One of the women collects the peafowls’ scat.
As she carefully places the scat into vials that will be sent off to an avian and exotics lab for analysis, the woman smiles beneath her black mask and says to her companion: “Don’t worry, I’m a professional.”
This is Brianna Vlach. Technically, she is a professional. At Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, she’s known as a “Lifesaving & Care Specialist.”
You could join Vlach, as Best Friends in Kanab has eight openings for Lifesaving & Care Specialists right now and a total of 36 openings in various positions all across the U.S. The positions are best suited for those with a passion for Best Friend’s mission to make sure that all shelters across the U.S. are “no kill” shelters by 2025 and a knack for listening to an animal’s needs.
It may also be helpful if you have a burning need to reinvent yourself.
“I packed everything into a U-Haul and drove from Florida to Utah.”
Many of the team-leaders that spoke with St. George News had come from unrelated professions before finding work at Best Friends.
Amy Kohlbecker, senior manager of Cat World, was a teacher in Florida before she joined Best Friends.
“I’m an animal lover,” Kohlbecker said, sipping coffee from a white cup with an orange Best Friends logo stamped on the side. “I saw Dog Town on T.V. and applied to Best Friends. I’d almost forgot I did when I got the call a month later.”
Kohlbecker loaded her belongings into a little U-Haul trailer and hitched it to her Camry before hitting the road.
“My family thought I was crazy,” Kohlbecker said. “I had five cats and one dog in the car. I didn’t have a bed, but I had a cat tree.”
During her time at the Harris County Animal Shelter in Houston, the save rate shot up from 60% to 90%. Though save rates have been rising across the country since Best Friends began advocating for every shelter to become a no-kill shelter by 2025, that’s no small feat.
Among the challenges that stand between Best Friends and completing their mission — which include increasing education and outreach and securing funding to ensure that animals may be cared for rather than euthanized — transparency is one of the most difficult to overcome.
“It’s hard to get shelters to be transparent,” Chief Mission Officer Holly Sizemore said. “These shelters are in communities where transparency means that they will have to share some uncomfortable facts about what happens in shelters.”
Sizemore said this makes it harder to hold those shelters accountable. It also creates challenges in getting the funding these shelters need to implement sustainable change.
“Often times, when they’re brave enough to be transparent, they increase awareness and access to resources,” Sizemore said. “The catch is: They have to ask the community for help, even though they may be vilified by the public.”
Sizemore added that “no kill” doesn’t necessarily mean that no animal is ever euthanized.
“We’re striving for 90% save rates,” Sizemore said. “We still recognize that some animals — such as those with irremediable suffering and those that are too aggressive — will have to be euthanized.”
That puts Kohlbecker’s achievement into perspective. With the help of shelter staff and administration, she helped transform a shelter in Houston that had a 60% save rate into a no kill shelter. Texas led the nation in most animals killed in 2018. The state slid to second in 2019.
“I used language to manage financial expectations: It’s less finance, more empathy”
After spending ten years as a trial attorney, five writing for T.V., and 20 as a financial manager, Layne Dicker found his way to Kanab. Though he grew up in Los Angeles, he seemed at ease standing before the expanse of Kanab wilderness spread out behind him.
He handled the finances of some wealthy people in the entertainment industry before moving to Kanab.
“You’ve heard of all of my clients, but I can’t name them,” Dicker told St. George News. “I can tell you that they don’t like to hear the word ‘no.'”
Dicker and his wife, Sally, visited Kanab for the first time nine years ago. Around the same time, they were volunteering at the Best Friends Animal Society in Los Angeles.
“We took care of a litter of sick kittens,” Dicker said. “They needed to be bottle-fed. We almost kept all four but wound up with two. One of them still sleeps on top of me to this day.”
Dicker credits his wife, who died 18 months ago, with getting him involved.
“Sally was the salt-of-the-earth,” Dicker said. “She valued volunteerism. I was raised around wealth and privilege. I was on the path to adopting those values, until I met her. I was buying islands and Ferraris for my clients during the day. Then I’d go home to bottle-feed kittens.”
This created a crisis of conscience for Dicker, as he struggled to reconcile the values he and his wife shared with those of some of his clients and community. But Dicker’s passion for animals and his ability to communicate eventually landed him a job in Kanab.
“Now, I’m the senior manager of internal communications and messaging,” Dicker said. “In my old job, I used language to manage financial expectations: It’s less finance, more empathy. Best Friends helped me identify my real skillset and gave me the opportunity to use it. I feel incredibly fortunate.”
“It’s better than the real world.”
Before stepping foot into the Bunny House, you’ve got to switch out your shoes for a pair of white Crocs. Just as humans are threatened by viruses, Best Friends’ bunnies are threatened by a hemorrhagic disease spread by wild rabbits.
“The bunnies are mad at us right now, because they’ve been inside for so long,” Bunny House team lead Christ Ratches said.
Ratches was an engineer for 25 years before moving to Kanab.
“My mom brought me here,” Ratches said. “I was like, ‘Really?'”
But it didn’t take long for Ratches to see the virtues of spending time caring for the animals.
“I fell in love with the bunnies,” Ratches said. “They’re not a starter pet. Kids can’t carry them because their backs are sensitive. They’re prey animals, so they don’t really want to hang out all that much. And they can live up to 12 years. That’s a real commitment.”
Ratches said that everybody who spends time with the bunnies eventually wants to take them home for a sleepover.
“You just really fall in love with them,” Ratches said.
When asked about why people want to work at Best Friends, Ratches offered a simple response: “It’s better than the real world.”
“If you bring it in, we will help it.”
“We used to be called caregivers,” Vlach said as she labeled and stored the vials of bird refuse for transport. “That’s really what we do. We care for the animals. I’m a caregiver at heart.”
Vlach has been part of the team for two years, caring for various animals at Wild Friends Headquarters. When St. George News visited, she had two Mohave tortoises, a golden mantle ground squirrel and a crow.
She calls the animals “kids.” And, like a doting aunt, she showers them with compliments when talking to or about them.
Vlach’s love for her “kids” isn’t perfunctory. She’s keen enough to understand each animal’s unique personality and its specific needs.
“Annabelle is so beautiful,” Vlach said, describing a crow who has called the sanctuary home for the past 20 years. “She came here with a bad leg injury. Because the people who found her waited too long to bring her in, she could live here the rest of her life. That’s not good, as crows don’t do well in captivity. She may live for 50-70 years.”
Vlach’s companion, Corine “Ren” Blossfeld, is a licensed rehabilitator. Together, they ensure that wild animals of all sizes and species who are brought in may one day return to the wild.
“I love animals,” Vlach said. “I adhere to the ‘save them all’ philosophy. Whether it’s a mouse or a golden eagle, if you bring it in, we will help it.”
For career opportunities, visit the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary website.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.