Finding calm while volunteering at Best Friends

For the people who’ve experienced Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, it's much more than a place where animal lovers go to work and play. There’s a certain magic in the air, as well as in those unforgettable moments when someone makes a heartfelt connection with a rescued dog, cat, bird, bunny or barnyard animal.

Located in Kanab, Utah, the Sanctuary 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 the world to volunteer with the animals at Best Friends, and we’ve caught up with a few of them and asked them to share their stories and experiences from the heart.

As the executive director of a government agency, Leila Botsford of Sandwich, Massachusetts, located on Cape Cod, lives a hectic life full of responsibilities. She needed a vacation that would give her a break from daily pressures and get her mind off work. Since she grew up on a small farm and has always loved animals, she thought volunteering at Best Friends would be a great vacation and a way to give back. In the following interview, Leila tells us what she loved most about her time at Best Friends.

Visit the Sanctuary

Was this your first trip to the Sanctuary?

I have volunteered twice. My first trip was in 2017, and then I returned in late 2018.

What made you want to come back to Best Friends?

As soon as I got back from my first trip, I made plans for my next one. It was such a relaxing vacation in an area that I had never visited. The surroundings are absolutely beautiful, and so are the animals. I felt good while at Best Friends. It’s hard to describe where that feeling came from, but it was one I wanted to have again. When I returned, the feeling came back immediately, and I had another wonderful time.

During your volunteer visit, what was your job?

I had many jobs and I tried to spread out my volunteering into different sections of the Sanctuary. My passion has always been dogs, so I spent a lot of time in Dogtown with puppies, senior dogs and dogs with special medical needs. I loved them all.

I also spent time at the Bunny House, and at the end of my first trip decided to work at Marshall’s Piggy Paradise. I absolutely fell in love with the pigs. I loved their personalities and how smart they are. I loved walking them and feeding

them and even cleaning up after them. When I was growing up on a small farm, we didn’t have a lot of money. Our animals, which I helped care for, were mostly a source of food for our family, so other than the dogs and cats I never gave myself the opportunity to get to know the other animals and certainly did not bond with them. Now, I’ll never forget how much I cared for the pigs at the Sanctuary, and I haven’t eaten pork since that first visit. During my last visit I also got to spend some time with the horses and the goats in Horse Haven. I learned so much.

Which volunteer job was your favorite?

I have to say it’s a toss-up. I really love dogs and I have a special place in my heart for pit bull terriers, but I fell in love with the pigs, too. I got to spend some time with the goats, which I also loved. Both the pigs and the goats have such personalities. I enjoyed walking the pigs and the dogs the most, I think.

Volunteer Leila Botsford's hand holding a goat hoof

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

I don’t have a lot of time to volunteer, because I have such a busy work life. So, when I do volunteer, I try to pick something that is really helpful, means a lot to whom I’m helping and can somehow make a difference. I am so saddened about the amount of unnecessary killing of dogs and cats happening in this country. I have two rescued pit bull terriers, and I want to see an end to dog breed discrimination.

Help end dog breed discrimination

Tell us about your favorite volunteer moment.

During my first visit I met Grayson, a deaf dog with a very sad story. He had been run over by a farm tractor and was in bad shape when he got to Best Friends. He had surgery at the clinic and has since recovered, but his story touched me so much that I really wanted to take him home with me. I thought of him all year long and wondered when he would find a home. My favorite volunteer moment was when I returned a year later to find out that he had just been adopted. I felt my heart literally swell.

During my second visit, I met a pit bull terrier named Audrey who was incontinent and needed to be bathed regularly. While I helped give her a bath, she looked right at me and gave my face a big lick as if to say, “Thanks for cleaning me up.” She is so sweet.

Volunteer Leila Botsford petting Petunia the pigWas there a favorite animal you met while volunteering?

Grayson was one of my favorite animals that first year. When I returned this year, Harrison the goat really made an impression on me. He was very loving and we seemed to bond. Petunia the pig also was very special to me, as well as Kevin with his beautiful blonde eyelashes.

This year was the first time that I took a dog on a sleepover. I took Rad, and she was amazing. She takes medication for a heart condition, but her behavior is perfect. We hiked together and went for short walks, and she hopped on the bed with me at night to snuggle.

What’s the most rewarding part of volunteering?

Feeling like you’re helping to make an animal’s time at Best Friends more enjoyable, no matter what you are doing (walking them, feeding them, playing with them or cleaning up after them).

What’s the most difficult part?

Not being able to take any animals home.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about your volunteer experience with Best Friends?

I really can’t explain how calm and at ease I feel at Best Friends. I suffer from anxiety, PTSD and depression, and being there is the only time that I don’t experience any panic attacks. Southern Utah is absolutely beautiful, the people are nice, and life is slower, calmer and seems much more meaningful. I can’t wait to return again this year.

You make the magic possible when you give to Best Friends

Photos courtesy of Leila Botsford