New Mexico's Pet Resource WINTER 2005


A Place of Refuge and Protection

text and photos by Greta Gardner

Once upon a time, there was a heavenly place where all of God’s creatures were well cared for and lived in peace…never to fear abuse or starvation. This may sound like a fairytale, but it is a true story—the story of an animal sanctuary in southern Utah known as Best Friends.

You may have heard of Best Friends. It has an international reputation, with members located all over the globe. They publish their own award-winning magazine and have a weekly radio show. Even Hollywood throws an annual star-studded fundraising party for the sanctuary. But it was not always this well-known.

In the early 1980s, a group of animal lovers from Arizona pooled their resources and purchased 3,000 acres of undeveloped land outside the small town of Kanab, Utah. A picturesque area, it had once been known as “little Hollywood” because of the large number of movies (mostly Westerns) that were filmed there. The friends renamed their land Angel Canyon and began building an animal sanctuary which they called Best Friends.

Over 20 years later, Best Friends is the nation’s largest sanctuary for abused and abandoned animals. Approximately 1,600 animals reside there at any one time. Dogs and cats make up most of the residents but there are also horses, bunnies, pigs, birds, sheep, goats and chickens. Over 200 employees feed and care for the animals and work hard to locate loving, adoptive homes for them. In addition to the original 3,000 acres of land, the sanctuary leases another 30,000 surrounding acres from the Bureau of Land Management, making the sanctuary equivalent to the size of Manhattan.

Best Friends sponsors countrywide spay/neuter programs and adoptathons. Their ultimate goal is to see a time when there are no more homeless pets. Not all of the animals at the sanctuary are adoptable. Some have been severely abused, require extra medical attention or have other special needs. These animals find a forever home at Best Friends. They are cared for with kindness and will live out their remaining years in peace within the walls of Angel Canyon.

Nearly 20,000 people visit Best Friends each year. The Welcome Center is open every day except Christmas. So it was with great anticipation that I paid my first visit to Best Friends in October of 2004. I have been an active member and supporter of the sanctuary for years. My two canine companions joined me on our road trip to Kanab, Utah—approximately an 8-hour drive from Albuquerque. It was late October and the trees in Angel Canyon displayed their autumn brilliance. As I pulled into the parking lot, I was amazed at the number of cars. The license plates announced visitors from all over America; there was even a car from Rhode Island. I signed up for a 90-minute tour of the sanctuary and watched a short video on how Best Friends came to be.

The tour was enlightening. A large van shuttled us through the different areas of the sanctuary. Our tour guide shared some of the touching stories of the animal residents and pointed out locations used for some famous Hollywood movies. We stopped a couple of times to visit with the animals. The guide knew most of the animals’ names. If she spotted someone she did not recognize, she would ask a staff member the name of the new resident. Both the dogs and the cats have dual indoor/outdoor accommodations. The cats’ outdoor play area has wire mesh to prevent wild animals from accessing them at night. The animals are divided into groups based on personality and temperament. There are separate living quarters for the elderly and those needing special medical attention or with incontinence issues.

After the tour, I asked to volunteer to work with the animals. Some visitors come for a day, a week or even a month to volunteer at the sanctuary. Countless others return year after year to help out in any way they can. Our volunteer group received some basic instructions before setting out on our assignments. I was asked to report to Dogtown. Because of recent heavy rains, a lot of the dogs had been cooped up inside so we took the dogs out in small groups for long trail walks around the sanctuary. In the meantime, the employees cleaned nonstop. I’m ashamed to say that a sanctuary with 1,600 animals is cleaner than my own home! Later that afternoon, I visited “Old Friends” and spent some quieter, less rambunctious time with the elderly dog residents. Finally, I visited Angel Rest cemetery and read some of the loving inscriptions to those who had departed this world but are still remembered.

As the day drew to a close, I took my own two furry companions for a hike on a short trail in Angel Canyon. An autumn sunset in Utah is a beautiful thing. I paused to reflect on all I had seen that day. Sally—a 10-year-old Dalmatian with the sweetest personality wearing a pretty blue sweater that kept the chill away from her old bones. Flopsy and Mopsy—two cats with a neurological disorder that causes them to walk funny but does not keep them from greeting each and every visitor to their home. Dee—the 43-year-old horse who was almost starved to death 20 years ago by his owner but who now spends his retirement years in a lovely pasture with plenty to eat. The couple who traveled across the country to adopt a chocolate lab, bathing him at the visitor center before departing for his new forever home. The family from Australia who was so intrigued with the story of Best Friends that they crossed the ocean to take a tour and see it for themselves.

The Best Friends Animal Sanctuary likes to say that they are the place where all of the animals “live happily ever after,” a true-life fairytale. Kanab, Utah may have been known at one time as “little Hollywood”, but these days the spotlight is firmly fixed on those most deserving—our animal companions.

For more information on the Best Friends Animal Society, visit their website at:

Greta Gardner works for a national insurance company and shares her life with two wonderfully social dogs and two homebody cats.

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