By Jennifer Merrick
When it comes to vacationing, a sure-fire way to boost levels of serotonin and dopamine, the so-called happiness hormones, is to ‘do good.’
And judging by the smiles of everyone I met at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the pleasure centers in their brains were fired up. Mine certainly was.
My Volunteer Vacation at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary
Located just outside Kanab, in southern Utah, this animal rescue shelter has been helping our four-legged friends since 1984. Volunteer opportunities on this 3,700-acre no-kill facility include socializing puppies, walking a dog, hosting a sleepover, helping with housekeeping tasks and even taking a pig for an outing (which I was surprised to learn involves dropping a trail of almonds that the pig happily follows).
I signed up to volunteer with cats. Joyce and Abigail welcomed me when I checked in for my shift. Joyce was the volunteer coordinator who gave me a name tag, and Abigail was one of the residents. This friendly feline that greeted me with a purring leg rub had been so covered with sores when she arrived that she was given the nickname ‘Scabagail’ by her previous shelter. Now perfectly healthy, she’s one of the approximately 550 cats in the 11 buildings that made up Cat World. Dogtown, Horse Haven, Parrot Garden, Bunny House and Marshall’s Piggy Paradise were other areas volunteers could work in.
I would spend my morning at Morgaine’s House, the ‘mild’ sick building for felines with special needs. It was my first time volunteering at Best Friends, but many helpers were regulars who spent their precious vacation time at the sanctuary year after year.
At Morgaine House, I met Annabel, a staff member who had volunteered for six months before deciding to take a full-time job here, and asked what she needed me to do. She assigned some housekeeping tasks and told me that petting and playing with cats were also strongly encouraged for socialization. I bonded with Noelle, a tabby who was a little shy but seemed to take to me, and Mosby, an especially affectionate feline who followed me as I changed bedding, refilled water and did general cleaning.
The three-hour shift flew by, and it was with some reluctance that I said goodbye to new acquaintances, both two-legged and four-legged. At the on-site restaurant, Angel Village Café, I lined up with other volunteers, visitors and staff.
A conversation ensued, and once again, I couldn’t help but notice people’s genuineness and cheerfulness. The five-dollar vegetarian lunch consisted of mushroom stroganoff, fruit and vegetables, rolls, salad bar and dessert. Not only did I get a tasty meal at that very reasonable price, but I also enjoyed a phenomenal view.
The dining room and outdoor patio overlooked Angel Canyon, which showed off the quintessential scenery southern Utah is famous for with its red rocks, pink-tinged peaks and the white cliffs in the distance. The stream at the bottom flows to the Colorado River and ends at the Grand Canyon, about 130 km away.
After lunch, I hiked the Water Canyon Trail to see the stream and ran into Janet, a volunteer walking an energetic terrier. She was staying at one of the cottages for a week, her second volunteer vacation at Best Friends.
“I’ve just already booked another week six months from now,” she told me.
What does she like about it?
Janet explained that she couldn’t pinpoint one particular aspect, but it was a combination of the beauty, the animals and a feeling of being far away from her stressful job.
I knew exactly what she meant because even though I had only been there a day, I felt calmer than I had for a while.
There was no doubt those happiness hormones were doing their job during this volunteer vacation.
Tell me more. Where can I stay?
I lodged at the Best Friends Roadhouse, a pet-centric accommodation connected to the sanctuary but located in nearby Kanab. This modern hotel takes pet-friendly to a new level with a fenced-in dog park, washing station, slide-out pet beds, pet s’mores kits and a blank chalkboard above the food and water bowls to write your pet’s name. Pets obviously love it, judging by the tongue-in-cheek reviews from four-legged guests in the hotel lobby restrooms.
“More fun than chasing my tail,” writes Mika.
The 40-room hotel is equally comfortable for human guests with its open concept, automatic controls for blinds and lights, seating area, and coffeemaker, as well as complimentary continental breakfast. Guests also receive a free lunch coupon for Angel Villa Café at the sanctuary.
On-site accommodation at Best Friends includes cabins, cottages and an RV site. Pets are encouraged at all the accommodations and if you can’t bring your own, hosting a dog, cat or bunny from the sanctuary for a sleepover and cuddle time is a rewarding option.
How do I volunteer or arrange a sleepover vacation?
Sign up on their website at bestfriends.org/volunteer/animal-areas. Book in advance as some positions fill up quickly. But even last minute, it’s worth contacting the organization as slots open up due to cancellations.
What else can I do at Best Friends when/if I’m not volunteering?
General tours run daily on a first-come basis, and specialty tours of animal care areas can be booked in advance. Hiking trails include the Water Canyon Trail and Angel’s overlook, a 2.5 km path with beautiful canyon vistas.
What else can I do in Kanab, Utah?
This desert town, the set of more than 100 western movies and TV shows, has both a traditional side and an artsy, eccentric element. Its scenery and close proximately to Zion National Park, the Grand Canyon’s North Rim and Bryce Canyon are its most famous draws.
Lesser known but worthwhile attractions include Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Cottonwood Canyon Road, Toadstool Hoodoos and Moqui Caves. Just driving in this region is a road-tripper’s dream come true with its towering sandstone cliffs, sculpted pink and red rocks and vistas of sagebrush and desert vegetation set against the bluest of skies.
Off-roading is another fun and scenic option, and Kanab Adventure Tour Company has local guides that offer several excursions, including a tour of the awe-inspiring Peekaboo Slot Canyon. And finally, take the time to enjoy a well-deserved meal at restaurants like Wild Thyme Café, Rocking V Café and Kanab Creek Bakery.
Jennifer Merrick is an award-winning, Toronto-based freelance travel writer, ESL teacher and self-confessed travel addict.
Her stories have appeared in 30+ print and online outlets, including Canadian World Traveller, Toronto Star and Buffalo Spree.
You can follow her on Instagram @JenniferMerrick3.