Best Friends Animal Sanctuary makes a difference one animal at a time

Melody (right) and Rosie take in the first nice day in Southern Utah at the Best Friends Sanctuary following a long, cold winter. Kanab, Utah, April 27, 2023 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Summer’s nearly here and with it families across America making hotel reservations, packing up the car with everything but the kitchen sink and hitting the road on the quintessential summer vacation.

For many, Utah is a no-brainer.

The Beehive State is awash in tourist destinations that showcase its natural beauty.

Vacationers have the pick of the litter in awe-inspiring state and national parks such as Arches, Zion and Bryce Canyon to choose to visit.

While most people pick a day hike, an extended stay in a campground, or glamping for the first time, for 30 years Best Friends Sanctuary near Kanab has enticed increasing numbers of visitors looking for an up close and personal experience with a myriad of animals.

“I’ve known about Best Friends Sanctuary for a long time,” said California resident Darlan McFarlan. “My father once shared with me that he would have liked to visit the sanctuary before it became not possible, but he never made it.”

McFarlan said it was important to make the trip her father dreamed of making.

“It’s been a fabulous visit,” McFarlan said as she stood in line for the sanctuary’s $5 vegan lunch buffet. “Having places like this should be very important to everyone. This is a place of kindness and love. Unfortunately, you don’t see that happening much in society anymore.”

“Strut Your Mutt” fundraiser at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Kanab, Utah, Sept. 27, 2014 | Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society, St. George News

More than 30,000 people visit the sanctuary each year – there’s even a camp for kids.

For that “something a little bit more,” there are overnight lodging options available where visitors can invite an adoptable dog or cat for a sleepover. In addition to the cats and dogs, both pigs and bunnies are welcome to spend the night with what could become their forever friend.

The sanctuary has a number of lodging options on its property, including guest cottages that accommodate up to six people, smaller cabins and fully equipped RV sites. There are a number of overnight off-site options including the Best Friends Roadhouse and Mercantile.

The Best Friends Network comprises thousands of public and private shelters, rescue groups, spay/neuter organizations and other animal welfare groups across all 50 states. Best Friends’ flagship enterprise is a commitment to fostering no-kill programs across the nation. Targeting cats and dogs, Best Friends’ goal is to achieve that goal by 2025.

At the forefront of this movement is the 3,700-acre sanctuary.

The role of the sanctuary is to deliver support to shelters that have not yet achieved no-kill status – those facilities that have a 90% or better save rate – as well as serving a variety of animals in a way that a sanctuary is uniquely positioned to accomplish.

On any given day the sanctuary offers a safe place for care and convalescing to 1,600 dogs, cats, birds, bunnies, horses, pigs and other animals. To date, it is the largest sanctuary of its kind in the U.S. and has become the heart of a collaborative no-kill movement and model for the future of animal welfare.

An indispensable prong to the work Best Friends Sanctuary accomplishes is done through a core group of dedicated and passionate volunteers.

Chicago resident Michayla Groh (left) feeds Ella, a potbelly pig, her breakfast as Best Friends Sanctuary volunteer Jeanine Courtney-Clark lends some words of encouragement on proper feeding techniques, although breakfast did wind up on Ella’s head. Kanab, Utah, April 27, 2023 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

“It’s amazing to see the beautiful scenery, the beautiful animals and join the marvelous staff, even for a couple of days,” said Chicago resident Michayla Groh, volunteering at the sanctuary during this year’s family vacation. “It seems there aren’t too many places like this anywhere, so for me, Utah was the best place to come.”

Currently, there are more than 7,000 volunteers who spend one day, part of the week, provide seasonal care or offer a year-round commitment to the sanctuary’s menagerie of critters. In 2022, Best Friends volunteers gave more than 430,000 hours of their time to help the animals. That level of service was valued at more than $12.8 million.

Along with its volunteers, the sanctuary relies on its permanent and seasonal staff to get the daily chores done.

While mucking out a horse corral isn’t that exciting for everyone who calls Best Friends Sanctuary home, it’s an “awesome” place to work.

Several of the dogs from Deming, New Mexico, relax at Dogtown located in Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Kanab, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society, St. George News

“I love my job and being outside with the animals recharges my battery. If I’m having a stressful day, I go rub a pig belly and I’m good to face the rest of the day,” said Kristie Gerard, supervisor of Horse Haven. “It’s encouraging to work at the sanctuary and make a difference in an innocent animal’s life.”

Best Friends Sanctuary is the second-largest animal rehabilitation center in Utah.

“The animals that we work with, a lot of them would have nowhere else to go for care,” Gerard said. “We bring them in – through various ways – and work to get them ready for adoption and a human companion who will love them forever. It’s very rewarding to play a part in that process. It’s about seeing the connection made with another living being. That’s priceless.”

One species that develops a connection between human and animal relatively easily are horses.

Considered a beautiful and noble animal by many, an animal that embodies the pioneering spirit of the West, with a lineage on the North American mainland dating to Spanish explorers in 1519, modern-day horses roaming free on open rangeland have become a political football.

Hailey Adams (right), a Best Friends staff member, feeds Calvin, one of the sanctuary’s four-legged friends. Kanab, Utah, April 27, 2023 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

While Best Friends Sanctuary receives the vast majority of its horses from law enforcement seizure cases, staff at the sanctuary is keenly aware of herd management challenges facing the federal government and wild horse advocates.

“The challenges in dealing with wild horses are like handling a nest of snakes. For me, there are things that could absolutely be addressed differently to manage them as a truly wild population,” said Jen Reid, manager of Horse Haven. “If we are not willing to do even the basics, such as augmenting the availability of food and water during times of drought, we will still find ourselves back here having to manage the wild horse populations somehow.”

Reid added it’s “frustrating” watching both sides of the wild horse argument not listening to one another and realizing that the endpoint – the care of wild horses and burros – is the same.

According to the Bureau of Land Management, wild horses and burros have virtually no natural predators and their herd sizes can double about every four years.

Bell sticks her tongue out at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Best Friends Animal Society, St. George News

The BLM estimates that more than 50,000 wild horses and burros occupy 42 million acres of federally managed rangeland in 10 Western states. In Utah, BLM manages 19 wild horse and burro herd management areas on nearly 2.4 million acres.

As of Aug. 21, 2021, Utah held approximately 1,910 animals – 1,799 horses and 111 burros – in its corrals with contracted off-range pastures caring for approximately 490 more horses near Fountain Green, Utah.

The total lifetime cost of caring for an animal that is removed from the range is approximately $50,000 per animal. With almost 50,000 horses and burros already held off range in corrals and pastures, BLM will spend more than $1 billion to care for and feed these animals over the remainder of their lives.

“I would say that I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic given the current politics on everything,” Reid said. “As with many things there aren’t easy solutions and wild horse management isn’t any different. Until people stop looking for an easy solution, stop talking in absolutes and step back from the politics and rhetoric the challenges of wild horse management will remain a reality. Right now, the country is not at its best in terms of cooperation and collaboration, but we can also do amazing things. If we keep trying to make a difference and not demonize the other side, trying to be open and listen to one another I don’t know why we couldn’t amaze ourselves at what we could accomplish.”

Bradley Kay, supervisor of Wild Friends enjoys her time with Louise, a smart-as-a-whip 1-year-old chinchilla. Kanab, Utah, April 27, 2023 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

Bradley Kay, supervisor of Wild Friends, the sanctuary’s home for exotic animals, reptiles, amphibians, tortoises, chameleons, chinchillas, squirrels, and a gaggle of different bird species agrees every life is important.

The biggest challenge, she said, is meeting the needs of her exotic friends and balancing that with the realities of captivity.

“At their core, they are still wild animals. It’s hard to look at their life in captivity and what they would have had living in the wild. It’s hard knowing that we can’t give them that kind of life,” Kay added. “Even though they are cared for we can never fully replicate life in the wild. It’s always a continual challenge to figure out what is the best for these animals.”

One species facing an uphill battle against exploitation and forced captivity for its fir is the mink. The sanctuary is home to Astraea a 1-year-old precocious North American mink that is smart as a whip and a great ambassador for fun.

“You think fir is a thing of the past because there’s been so much backlash against its use, but as an industry, it’s, unfortunately, going strong,” Kay said.

According to the Animal Welfare Institute, about 85% of the fur used in coats, scarves, wraps, and other fashion items such as fake eyelashes, is derived from animals in fur farms, primarily from the mink.

Like other industrial animal operations, mink farms typically involve thousands of animals intensively confined in long rows of adjacent barren pens barely large enough for the animals to move around.

What a hard-knock-life for Astraea, a 1-year-old North American Mink, who loves to play, eat, sleep and most of all play. Kanab, Utah, date undefined | Photo courtesy Best Friends Sanctuary, St. George News

In the United States, many types of fur-bearing species are raised for their pelts, including foxes, rabbits and chinchillas. Mink, however, is the most commonly raised furbearer.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, in 2017, there were 236 mink operations that produced about 3.3 million pelts at farms primarily in Utah, Wisconsin, Idaho, Oregon and Minnesota. At the time, fir farms generated approximately $120 million in revenue.

It’s great rehabilitating animals for adoption, Kay said, but the “biggest satisfaction” is to rehabilitate an animal for release into the wild.

“Animals can be so resilient,” Kay added. “We get animals suffering through tough situations and it amazes me how often they make a 180-degree turn to become a healthy, vibrant animal in spite of what they’ve been through. Yes, there are challenges, but there is always a reason for optimism.”

To find assistance for a wildlife emergency or conflict visit Animal Help Now – Emergency Resource (

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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