Dogs of the Desert: Best Friends Animal Society

My first visit to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary was an impulsive solo trip in 2015. My family had been going to northern Utah for as long as I could remember. It was a place of immense joy for me and I felt compelled to explore the wild expanses of the state's southern tip. On an August morning, I flew out to Salt Lake City as I had done many times before. I arrived at my family's house flooded by both the familiar happiness of the place, and the unfamiliar excitement of being totally alone. My first stop was the garage where our enormous twelve-year-old SUV sat, shrouded in the dust of too much downtime. I held my breath as I plunged the key into the ignition and waited for the pile of metal to lurch back to life. It did.

 

The drive to southern Utah took about 6 hours, 7 if you counted the gas stops and bathroom breaks. I watched — barely able to keep my eyes on the road — as the scenery changed from lush greens to dry golds, reds, and yellows, and from dramatic peaks to vast plains and spectacular deep river canyons. As the sun sank to half mast, I arrived in the sleepy desert town of Kanab — dubbed “little Hollywood” by the locals following its proud debut as a 1920s western film hub. My AirBnB was quaint and perfectly suitable, despite no inside door lock (“More likely to get a cougar through the window than a burglar through the door!” the owner reassured me). 

 

The next morning, I arrived early to check in at the sanctuary, eager to start my first shift. The registration process was painless, and I was soon off to “Dog Town” where hundreds of dogs lived in spacious octagonal structures — with indoor and outdoor space for running, sleeping, and playing. My morning was busy and filled with child-like elation. I leashed up and walked nearly a dozen dogs around the sanctuary trails. Some pulled me energetically around this way and that, others stubbornly planted themselves under the meager shade of shrubs, only rising when my hand emerged from my pocket with treats.

 

At lunch time, I washed the sand and dirt from my face and hands and wandered into the cafeteria, finding a seat at an empty table in the corner. The room was filled with the happy chatter of families and groups of friends. I suddenly felt like a nervous middle schooler, alone and exposed in a boisterous lunchroom. As if I had publicly declared my discomfort, an elderly gentleman at a nearby table leaned over to me and yelled out, "Over here! Come join us!". His name was John and he was sitting with his wife, Celeste. They were English with a stereotypically dry British wit that had me collapsing in laughter — so much so that I nearly missed my afternoon shift. John and Celeste, I later learned, were two of the founders of Best Friends. And each day after that, they invited me to sit with them at lunch.

 

The trip ended a short week later — leaving me hungry to return again and inspired by the possibility of eventually transitioning my career into animal welfare. I kept in touch with Celeste and John, emailing back and forth with occasional updates, wry pokes, and funny stories. About a year and a half ago, I sent them a picture and note recounting my time at a Best Friends event in New York City. A long, heavy, and unusual silence followed. A few weeks later, I received a dreaded note from Celeste — John had passed away. Tears flooded my keyboard. 

 

In the years since then, I've kept in touch with Celeste, though she's recently retired from email. I’ve visited the sanctuary twice more, most recently with my fiancé, Tim. On this trip, Celeste invited us over to her charming desert home, sharing whimsical stories about John's life. As we pulled out of her sandy driveway, I was gripped by a deep affection for the wonderful old woman waiving us goodbye and for the place she had helped bring to life.

 

Best Friends Animal Sanctuary — the place and the people — have been a huge inspiration for me as I’ve embarked on the business adventure of building VOKE. Much like my first trip out there, this adventure will start as a solo one. But, if I’m lucky, it too will connect me to kind and passionate people who share my love for this world and its creatures.

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