My story: Best Friends volunteer Kat Weixel

For the people who’ve experienced it — those who have walked in its red dirt, taken in its majestic beauty and touched the lives of its animals — Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is much more than a place where animal lovers go to work and play. There’s a certain magic in the air and in those unforgettable moments when someone makes a heartfelt connection with a rescued dog, cat, bird, bunny or barnyard animal.

The Sanctuary, located in Kanab, Utah, is nestled between the sprawling red rocks of Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks. But above all, it is an animal-lovers’ paradise. People come from all over the country, and the world, to volunteer with the animals at Best Friends, and we’ve caught up with few of them for a chance to share their stories and experiences from the heart.

In the following interview, Kat Weixel of Derwood, Maryland (a suburb of Washington, D.C.), tells us what she loved most about her time at Best Friends.

Volunteer at the Sanctuary

Kat Weixel volunteering at Dogtown

Where did you volunteer?

I volunteered with the dogs, pigs and bunnies in November, 2016. I returned with my husband, Dwayne, in January of 2017 and we volunteered with the dogs, cats, pigs and horses.

What made you want to come back after your first visit?

I was amazed by everything and everyone when I came in November. It’s so hard to describe. It’s like being in the best club in the world, and everyone is your friend from day one. It’s a stunningly beautiful place. Every staff member is kind and funny and wonderful and every animal is so well cared for and loved. It’s just like being in the middle of the best dream you ever had. I don’t want to wake up, so I think I will just keep coming back for more.

During your visits, what was your job?

I worked in lots of areas, but I was primarily in Dogtown for both visits. I got to do so many different things. I did lots of dog walking, trips to the dog park, helped with dishes, sweeping and cleaning, puppy socialization, giving treats to shy dogs ― even reading to the dogs. There is so much care and enrichment planned for each individual animal, and we volunteers are lucky to be involved in so much of it.

Which volunteer job was your favorite?

Oh, that’s really hard. I loved all the dog walking, but hand-feeding some dogs was so much fun, and reading to the dogs was a really cool experience. Also, the sleepovers were great. Getting to spend an entire night loving on one dog is just awesome! But I don’t want to leave out the other animals. I loved feeding the horses and bunnies and brushing the pigs, and it was fun having cats climb on me while I cleaned their room. Can I just say that I loved every minute of all of it?

Kat Weixel volunteering at Cat World

Was there a favorite animal you met or worked with?

Really, there are so many who touch your heart and make you want to either stay with them or take them home. During our past visit, we took Clank, a Chihuahua mix, on his first sleepover experience. Dwayne said, “Maybe we can take him every night!” We had sleepovers with Caffrey and Doc, two absolutely wonderful dogs, but for our fourth and final night, we requested Clank again. We just couldn’t stop thinking about him. In fact, we talked for a week after we returned home and decided to adopt Clank! He got home to us on February 10, and we have been loving every minute of our time with him. He's blending right in with our other dogs and has charmed us all.

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Kat and Dwayne loved the sleepovers with Clank the Chihuahua mix so much, they adopted him

Do you volunteer anywhere else?

Yes, I have been volunteering at a wonderful sanctuary for over five years, and it is one of the Best Friends No More Homeless Pets Network partners. House with a Heart Senior Pet Sanctuary in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is a permanent home for senior dogs and cats, and while I have done many different volunteer jobs for them over the years, I am currently the medication-prep lady and a 911 volunteer. Since the animals are either seniors or have serious medical needs, we have lots of medications to manage. I am also on a rotating schedule (the 911 list) for taking animals to the emergency vet after hours when needed.

I recently signed on as a volunteer to walk dogs at Montgomery County Animal Services (our county shelter in Derwood), and I look forward to working with the wide variety of dogs that come through their doors.

I do like humans, too, and so I’ve been volunteering for Montgomery Hospice for the past three years. I spend Sunday nights at their in-patient hospice facility. I visit hospice patients and offer them and their families hand massages and “comfort touch” massages, a special type of compression-based massage designed specifically for the sick and elderly.

Kat makes a new canine friend

What are you doing when you’re not volunteering?

I love spending time with my dogs and my husband, and I also have gotten really into running, biking and swimming over the past several years. I have done three marathons now and a few small triathlons, too. I became a vegan three years ago and love finding good restaurants, recipes and products to try. Oh, and I do actually have a paying job: I am the intranet manager at the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. I get to work with lots of wonderful people there and I benefit from a flexible schedule and a short commute.

What does volunteering mean to you and why do you do it?

Volunteering is my way to do exactly what I love to do and what I’m most passionate about. I always am looking for what feeds my soul and makes me happy, and I try to avoid the things that tire me emotionally and bring me down. As I learn what those good things are, I find them, volunteer for them, and it leaves very little room for me to be drained or sad. I feel like I get just as much, if not more, out of my volunteer work than I put into it.

Kat and Dwayne enjoy a walk with Doc

What are the most rewarding and difficult parts about volunteering with animals?

The most rewarding part is being able to see an improvement in their lives and to know you are helping to make that positive difference. That, and petting them. That’s always the best payment around.

The most difficult part is knowing you can’t fix everything. Sometimes “doing your best” feels so insignificant when the problems are overwhelming. Self-care is such an important thing for all volunteers, and that sometimes needs to include stepping back, focusing on your own needs and trying to recognize all of your accomplishments so you don’t burn out.

Is there anything we didn't ask about your volunteer experience with Best Friends that you'd like to add?

There is just no place like this that I’ve ever seen. Each animal is treated as an individual, and each need is considered for feeding, therapy, socialization, training, exercise and enrichment. Each animal deserves a loving home, and if it can’t be someone’s house, Best Friends is the best home an animal could have. It was just such a gift to be able to spend time there and feed my soul with all that goodness!

Volunteer at the Sanctuary

Photos courtesy of Kat and Dwayne Donley