An extra special Christmas for the animals at Best Friends

Christmas morning at the Sanctuary is pretty much picture perfect. The excitement that swirls through the air is sometimes accompanied by a few welcome snowflakes. Caregivers buzz around even faster than usual, volunteers join in the fun, and the animals — even those who haven’t experienced Christmas at the Sanctuary before — sense that something wonderful is about to happen.

Christmas morning at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is pretty much picture perfect

That’s because in the days and weeks leading up to the holiday, kind people have been generously donating Christmas gifts to the animals to make sure the day is extra special. As toys, treats and wish list items flow in, offices across the Sanctuary become mini Santa workshops where Best Friends staffers sort through all the donated items and set them aside for the big day.

When the animals wake up on Christmas day, a festive celebration awaits. Toys are piled sky-high, and there’s a wonderful aroma of freshly baked treats for both the animals and the people caring for them that day. Everyone hits the ground running, with spreading holiday cheer the main priority.

Santa’s sleigh, Dogtown-style

At Dogtown, toys, blankets, dog beds, bones and treats are loaded into a big wagon pulled by a vehicle that makes the rounds, stopping outside each area to deliver the presents. It’s Dogtown’s version of Santa’s sleigh, and when it pulls up to each building, caregivers rush to pick out special gifts for the dogs in their care. Better yet, they’ll bring out one or two lucky dogs who get to leap (or be lifted) up into the sleigh to choose their own toys.

Domingo the dog is on the wagon that delivers all the toys, blankets, dog beds, bones and treats

Some of the dogs invited into the sleigh have special needs, while others deserve an extra reward for their hard work overcoming physical or behavioral challenges. Then there are the dogs who just bounce around on top of the mountain of presents and have an absolute blast doing it.

“Christmas in Dogtown is unlike anything you've ever seen,” says Dogtown team lead Tierney Sain. “It's my favorite day of the year for the dogs.”

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Christmas magic for cats

Meanwhile, a large room in Cat World headquarters is brimming with treats, toys, cat trees, beds and scratching boards. Caregivers line up to gather armfuls of these goodies to bring to the cats in their care.

A large room in Cat World headquarters is filled with holiday treats, toys, cat trees, beds and scratching boards

There’s always plenty to go around, and no cat is ever left out of the giving spree, but caregivers still make a mad dash back to their buildings to see the reactions of the cats. Their eyes widen as they come to check everything out and explore their rooms, which are transformed into playgrounds full of new things to investigate and play with.

Haley the cat in Christmas holiday decorationsCatnip is also a huge hit, says caregiver Kandice Sessions: “They get really excited for it. There can be a lot of shy cats in a room, but when that catnip comes out they aren't so shy anymore.”

The Christmas magic at Cat World isn’t only about brand-new cat trees and a year’s supply of favorite treats. It’s also about all the extra play and snuggle time they get with caregivers and volunteers. Christmas day is specially arranged to allow as much play and cuddle time as possible. Projects that can wait until the next day are put on hold, so everyone has even more time to give love to their favorite kitties.

Full bellies and fun for feathered friends

Meanwhile, the festivities are in full swing across the Sanctuary, bringing joy to all the animals who call it home. The birds in Parrot Garden are treated to specially baked holiday birdie bread. It’s like fruitcake, only tastier and prepared specifically with delicacies that birds love: pomegranate seeds, cranberries and walnuts. And that’s just the appetizer.

After feasting, the birds move on to the “main” Christmas course — when all Parrot Garden residents get to unwrap their own special packages.

Donated gifts, stockpiled since November, are lovingly wrapped by volunteers in plain brown bird-safe paper and twine. When Christmas day comes, the birds, with their bellies full of birdie bread, peel back the paper to unveil fun, new wood-and-rope toys.

Feasts for wild birds and ‘beasts’

There’s always a bountiful Christmas feast at Wild Friends. Everyone cashes in on Christmas morning — from the adoptable animals to those in state and federally licensed rehabilitation and education programs. Even the wild songbirds and turkeys, who roam free at the Sanctuary and only drop by for an occasional visit, receive a special treat.

In preparation for the holiday, Wild Friends manager Carmen Smith makes specially prepared stuffing (minus the dangerous ingredients such as onions) for the birds who eat it, “Many of our residents get stuffing, cranberries and squash, which they love,” Carmen says.

Pigeons and doves also enjoy tree-shaped treats with green peppers and halved cherry tomatoes. Tortoises munch on freshly chopped salads with parsley, cilantro, collard greens, bite-size fruits, and cactus paddles (with the thorns removed, of course). Other menu items include roasted sweet potatoes, pumpkin and whole-grain wheat rolls with millet. Apricots, apples and dates are the “frosting on the cake.”

​A present for every bunny

Parrots aren’t the only Sanctuary animals who get to unwrap presents. The bunnies do, too. Weeks in advance, Bunny House volunteers wrap up hay, carrots, dehydrated fruit treats, warm bedding and toys in bunny-safe brown paper. Each paper-wrapped package has holes punched in it, so the rabbits can peek in, smell the treats and get excited about what’s inside.

There’s a present for every rabbit, and Melissa Krepfle, Bunny House team lead, says the bunnies get excited about anything new. “I have a feeling they'll go pretty crazy for it,” she says. But if some bunnies aren’t into opening the gifts, that’s OK, too. There are plenty of (unwrapped) new tunnels and hay mats to explore. And, just as in Cat World, staff members and volunteers spend extra time to make sure the animals enjoy fun activities, such as playing in the large grassy enclosures (if the weather is nice).

The potbellied pigs receive plenty of dehydrated fruits, fig cookies, almonds and extra salad greens

The holiday ‘wrapup’

A few miles away from the bunnies in lower Angel Canyon is where the horses, pigs and other barnyard pals reign. Santa has stopped at Horse Haven and Marshall’s Piggy Paradise, too, leaving plenty of dehydrated fruits, fig cookies, almonds and extra salad greens for the pigs. Some of these tasty treats will be “wrapped up” in food puzzles for the piggies. And the horses? They get a rare treat indeed: tiny, delicious pieces of peppermint candy canes sprinkled onto their food. It’s a treat that even Felix (a horse who can only eat mushy foods because of an old injury to his esophagus) can eat.

Falcor is all smiles because all the horses get tiny, delicious pieces of peppermint candy canes sprinkled onto their food

In every corner of the Sanctuary, all the animals and people get something special. Whether it’s hot chocolate and baked goods for all the caregivers on duty or paper-wrapped presents for birds and bunnies, one thing’s for sure: If the animals can’t be in their forever homes in time for the holidays, Best Friends is the very best place to be.

Make the holidays merry and bright by giving to the animals

Betty the dog revels in the wagon of Christmas gift toys to the Sanctuary animals

Photos by MollyWald