My story: Sanctuary volunteer Hailey Shah

For the people who’ve experienced it, 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 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-lover’s paradise.

People come from all over the country and around the world to volunteer with the animals at Best Friends, and we’ve caught up with few of them who share their stories and experiences from the heart.

Here, 16-year-old Hailey Shah of Chicago talks about her unforgettable time with her family at Best Friends.

Volunteer at the Sanctuary

Where you have volunteered with Best Friends — in what cities, programs or areas of the Sanctuary?

Two years ago, I found Best Friends Animal Sanctuary online and convinced my family to cancel an already planned trip to Europe and instead spend a week volunteering at Best Friends. That week, we had the privilege of spending quality time giving stroller rides to cats with special needs and partaking in an eye-opening experience in Piggy Paradise. It was an experience that taught me in a few hours more about pigs, about their extreme intelligence and about their complex social worlds than I could ever learn in a lifetime. Those unforgettable experiences made such an impact on our family that we resolved to make our next year’s vacation another trip to the sanctuary.

When you volunteered with Best Friends, what was your job?

Our second trip included volunteering again at Cat World and also in Dogtown, Parrot Garden, Piggy Paradise and Horse Haven. We socialized cats, helped with the rehabilitation of two pit bull terriers rescued from a dogfighting ring, prepared diet-specific meals for pigs and helped socialize birds in Parrot Garden.

Volunteer Hailey Shah at Horse Haven

Which volunteer job is your favorite, and why?

Each experience was so unique and special that it’s hard to determine a favorite. However, the most gratifying job was my work with pigs, because it allowed me a glimpse of an often mischaracterized, uncommon pet and farm animal.

Tell us about your favorite volunteer experience with Best Friends.

We took an overnight guest to stay with us. From the moment that the adorable, nine-year-old Great Dane mix Rosebud clamored into the back seat of our car, to her successful attempts to cram herself in between my brother and me on the couch to watch TV with us, she was the definite highlight of our trip. She was such good company that we had her over a second night. For me, it was this sleepover that really underscored how much true love and companionship that all of the Sanctuary animals have to offer any potential adopter.

Volunteer Hailey Shah enjoying time with her family at Dogtown

What’s the most difficult part of volunteering?

It was walking away from animals with whom I started to form a mutual bond. Knowing that my family’s schedule will probably never be conducive to having a dog as a pet, I’ll never forget waving goodbye to Rosebud as we drove away.

Was there a favorite animal you met or worked with while volunteering?

While working at Cat World headquarters, my mom and brother discovered a young apricot-colored kitten named Weston, who immediately stood out as the perfect addition to our family. In the days since he arrived at our home last month, he has proven to be everything that a first impression suggested and more. The joy and the life he adds to our house each day is amazing.

Hailey Shah volunteering at Cat World

What’s the most rewarding part of volunteering?

I used to have a quote stenciled above my bed that read: “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” For me, interacting with loving, trusting shelter and sanctuary animals enriches the soul in a way that words really can’t describe.

Plan your next trip to Best Friends

Photos by Molly Wald and courtesy of Hailey Shah