“Save Them All” is the ambitious mission of the hardworking and heartwarming Best Friends Animal Society and Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah.
From a base padded with pinyon and juniper, the Vermillion Cliffs rise in blushed sandstone glory, wrapping protectively around Kanab, Utah’s hidden treasure, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. The mountainous scarlet landscape fills the eyes and heart with inspiration — so too the kindness and dedication of the people who power the nonprofit Best Friends Animal Society and care for its pets at this home-between-homes.
The dream of Best Friends Animal Society came to life in 1984, when a group of founders banded together in hopes of ending the killing of more than 17 million animals a year in the nation’s shelters. They made the bold decision to purchase 3,000 acres of land in the ancient petrified sand dunes of the Vermillion Cliffs, and with only $5,000 down, began building the first facilities of their animal safe haven from the ground up with their own hands.
Today, in addition to the sanctuary, there are four Best Friends Lifesaving Centers spread throughout the United States from Los Angeles to New York City to Atlanta, as well as programs in Houston and northwest Arkansas, along with nearly 3,100 other animal welfare groups within its network. Thanks largely to the work of Best Friends and its allies, that 17 million has been reduced by more than 16 million, to 625,000. The mission to “Save Them All” guides the ultimate goal of ending the killing of pets in shelters across the country by 2025.
More than 1,600 homeless animals — most from Best Friends Network partners across the country — live at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary at any given time, housed happily across 3,700 acres of land in sections like Dogtown, Cat World, Horse Haven, Piggy Paradise, Bunny House, Parrot Garden, and Wild Friends for as long as it takes them to find loving homes for them. For animals who’ve crossed the rainbow bridge, there’s Angel’s Rest on the grounds, and for those who need their checkups, vaccinations, and other vet care, there’s a clinic. For human visitors — some 38,000 in 2019 — there’s a welcome center. And now there’s a new phenomenal place to stay.
To support the droves of animal lovers who come to see the operation and the animals and often stay to volunteer, Best Friends recently added accommodations, a café, and a store to its animal kingdom. Revamping a ’70s motel, they opened the brand-new — and, of course, uber pet-friendly — 40-room midcentury-modern Roadhouse and Mercantile 5 miles from the sanctuary property, in the heart of downtown Kanab. Also known as “Little Hollywood” for the many westerns filmed here, Kanab takes pride in being “the perfect base camp for adventure” owing to five national monuments, two state parks, two national forests, three national parks, and one of the largest national recreation areas in the country.
A visit to Best Friends is an altogether different kind of Kanab adventure. One of the society’s guiding principles is the Golden Rule: to treat all living things as we ourselves would wish to be treated. The philosophy certainly translates to the guest experience at its stunning new hotel. Designed by WOW Atelier architects of Salt Lake City and Jillian Kliewer and clad in lots of handcrafted alder wood, the Best Friends Roadhouse and Mercantile inhabit five simple low-slung high-design structures, which blend unobtrusively with the rosy Canyon Country landscape.
In the Roadhouse, the well-thought-out rooms fall comfortably on the luxurious-inviting continuum — for people and their pets. From the charming two-door entry (perfect for ensuring your pet won’t slip out) to the room furnishings built 18 inches or higher to avoid pet entrapment, and, finally, to the cruelty-free bathroom amenities, no detail has been overlooked, down to the welcoming lobby made cozy by a crackling fireplace (and continuous supply of complimentary vegan cookies), pet mural created by artist Benjamin Wiemeyer of Salt Lake City adorning the entire back wall of the Roadhouse, and, in the courtyard, the immense bronze of a dog created and donated by sculptor Dale Rogers of Chicago.
Each room was named for a beloved Best Friends animal alum and decorated with gallery-style photos of an adopted pet — above my headboard peered the eager face of an adorable shepherd named Tobin. Under comfy, immaculately made beds, there were smartly designed pet-sized versions to be pulled out like miniature trundle beds. Two dog bowls sat at the ready. Behind the Roadhouse two fenced-in play areas — one for small dogs and one for big — received canine frolickers.
Next door at the Mercantile, photo profiles of adopted animals lined the walls. Between reading those and shopping for Best Friends merchandise, you could spend many contented hours. Naturally, everything at the Best Friends Roadhouse and Mercantile — from the dog and cat treats to the complimentary continental breakfasts for guests — is cruelty- and animal-product-free.
As impressive and inviting as the accommodations are, and as caring and capable as the hospitality is, it’s the work Best Friends does on behalf of animals that provides the true attraction and soul of the place. One of the founders, Cyrus Mejia, played gracious host to my group, chauffeuring us through the sanctuary in one of the tour vans named after the 22 dogs Best Friends rescued from Michael Vick. (Best Friends was also the first animal-welfare rescue group on the scene and last to leave when Katrina struck in 2005 and spent more than nine months in New Orleans, saving approximately 6,000 animals.)
Mejia introduced us to some of the rowdy 150-pound potbellies enjoying life at the Piggy Paradise and shuttled us to the vast Angels Landing amphitheater that overlooked a canyon made familiar to generations of Americans by the many episodes of The Lone Ranger TV series with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels filmed there. At the Angels Rest pet cemetery, where 8,000-plus animals have been laid to rest, we fell quietly into our own memories of pets we’ve loved and lost. But joy returned easily when we stopped by the Puppy Preschool to get in some cuddle time with the newly adoptable Challah and other squirming balls of fur.
I spent an afternoon sprucing up the Bunny House and falling in love with new arrival Hope, who was too shy to even let me pet her but eventually, and reluctantly, ate banana chips and lettuce from my hand. Hanging out with the bunny crew, I learned facts I’d never known. Did you know, for instance, that bunnies can have litters of four to 12 babies, every 30 days, and can become pregnant again as soon as one day after giving birth?
The bulk of my volunteering time found me at the Old Friends dog facility. There I was taken not only with the animals but also with their reticent caretaker, Tim. Every person interacts with animals differently: Some squeal with excitement, others speak in a baby voice (guilty), and some are content to communicate silently. As I learned from Tim, words do not always convey the love and compassion a person can hold in their heart.
A quiet man, he moved swiftly among the different dog kennels, making sure all the animals were thoroughly cared for, as our group of volunteers took his guidance and helped wherever we could in his wake. Most of the dogs were bouncing with excitement for dinnertime, but Kit and Kaboodle were not. These two neurologically disabled sisters lay on their sides, squirming and flopping around uncontrollably like fish out of water, their legs ramrod straight, their feet unnaturally pointed every which way. They floundered in excitement as Tim came with their dinner, gently tucking each of them into a pillow-padded corner, soothing each of them as he spread out their kibble. Not a word was said, and it didn’t need to be. I was overwhelmed with emotion.
But don’t feel bad for Kit and Kaboodle — they are very loved and well cared for. Because when Best Friends says “Save Them All,” they mean it. And as everyone who loves and cares for animals knows, the salvation and best friendship go both ways.
Want to be a Best Friend? For more information on visiting, volunteering, adopting, and donating, visit bestfriends.org.
Photography: Images courtesy Best Friends Animal Sanctuary
From our October 2020 issue.