Behind the scenes at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary


The 2000-acre Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is just outside of Kanab, the southernmost part of Utah, a beautiful landscape of red rock desert canyons, breathtaking rivers and lush greenery.  Best Friends cares for dogs, horses, goats, cats, birds, burros, rabbits and a few farm animals.  The staff cares for an average of 1700 animals each day, working tirelessly to uphold the sanctuary’s gold star standard. 

Started by a group of animal lovers in the ‘70s, a handful of founders still reside at and operate some of Best Friends’ programs.  It’s a deeply-rooted community of animal advocates, and I was honored to be part of it for two weeks.  In fact, I’ve been fortunate to travel to Best Friends for a handful of opportunities. 

It all started with a phone call to the director of the Northwest School of Animal Massage; I’d hoped to hire her for a mentorship in Seattle.  She called right back, and proposed we do the mentorship at Best Friends!  What a thing, if I could actually pull it off. Leaving my clients in Portland for two weeks sounded huge, but it was worth trying to make this happen.  Everyone I talked with was positive and understanding.

One client/friend kindly sponsored my flight and joined in for part of the time there.  She rented a dog-friendly house in Kanab so we were able to take dogs from the sanctuary home for the night.  It was wonderful for the dogs to have a warm bed, and of course it was great for us to have a dog in the house! 

The sanctuary’s setup has horses separated in huge pastures, dogs in octagonal kennel/outdoor areas, cats in amazing indoor-outdoor catteries, birds in their own part of the sanctuary, and the pigs and farm animals in their own special space as well.  The sanctuary is so large, you get to each area by car, or the Best Friends shuttle.


Four on-staff veterinarians care for the animals (Dr. Mike is from Portland!). The visitor’s center and cafeteria were always buzzing with activity.  Best Friends Society also holds workshops around the country. 

My first week there was dedicated to a half day for my mentoring and the other half volunteering.  Volunteering was so much fun!  Once the office directors learned I was an Animal Massage Therapist they happily showed me which animals could use my help.  I massaged three pigs (Jeffrey, Jack and Arnold), Emily the goat, Lambert (pronounced “Laaambert”) the sheep, a horse named Curly Sue, and multiple dogs, including Alfie and Rhubarb.  Alfie had both distemper and parvo at birth, leaving him quite debilitated.  I was thrilled to learn he was recently adopted!  Rhubarb uses a full cart to get around as he has little to no muscle tone; he’s also getting hydrotherapy to help with that.

After the first week of getting acquainted, I’d already fallen in love with a few of the animals.  I knew I couldn’t take any home — three dogs and two cats await my return!  But I thought maybe if I helped spread the word about Rhubarb and a goat named Emily, someone with room in their family might fall in love too.  These sweeties love their massage work!  

As a volunteer, I also mucked out stalls, fed horses and pigs, and walked dogs and pigs.  Yes, I did say walked pigs . . . this was hilarious since pigs are very stubborn and smart.  Many volunteers (including myself) had a hard time getting the pigs to go where you wanted them to.  Instead of a leash we used dehydrated fruit treats to lure them in the desired direction.

The second weekof the trip was dedicated to teaching.  We taught two certification courses, plus a day-long workshop for Best Friends staff, interns and volunteers.  Both classes were successful, and we plan to do it again next year.  


The variety of animals is amazing, and it’s perfect for teaching classes. The staff at Best Friends was unfailingly patient and helpful, and everything ran smoothly between transportation and logistics.  We couldn’t have done it without them, and their dedication to the sanctuary is awe-inspiring.

If you ever get a chance to visit Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, take it!  It’s amazing, and a big part of it is the dedication of staff and volunteers.  I had a fabulous time and highly recommend the experience for any animal lover.  

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Rubi Sullivan is the proprietor of Heal Animal Massage and an instructor with the Northwest School of Animal Massage. She lives in Portland with her three amazing dogs, Thor, Sacha and Kai, two snuggly cats, Captain Trout and Lily, and one very tolerant husband, Dwayne.