My story: Jen Reeder

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, especially 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 the world to volunteer with the animals at Best Friends, and we’ve caught up with a few of them for a chance to share their stories and experiences from the heart.

Jen Reeder of Denver, Colorado, is a freelance journalist and president of the Dog Writers Association of America. Jen knew about Best Friends through her work, and once she experienced the Sanctuary for herself, she also knew she had to return so she could share it with her family. In the following interview, she tells us what she loved most about her time at Best Friends.

Visit the Sanctuary

Where did you volunteer?

Primarily Dogtown, but also the Bunny House, Marshall’s Piggy Paradise, Parrot Garden and Cat World.

Jen, Bryan, Ashley and Maddy posting for a photo at the Best Friends Visitor's Center with a dog

What made you want to volunteer and what made you want to come back?

I wrote an article several years ago about “voluntourism” for a pet magazine and included Best Friends, and that’s when I knew I really wanted to experience it for myself.

I volunteered solo in December of 2016 and was so inspired by all the employees and animals that I cried when I turned in my (safety) whistle after my last shift. Deb in Dogtown said, “You’ll just have to come back.” The chance to return with my husband, Bryan Fryklund, and two of our nieces, Ashley Elvidge and Maddy Rose, was incredibly exciting!

Read Ashley’s story here

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

Cleaning, preparing and distributing meals, walking dogs, showering parrots, filling mud baths for pigs, practicing training exercises with dogs and giving the animals love.

Which volunteer job is your favorite?

Walking dogs or socializing with them is always a highlight. Showering parrots was super fun. I love the way some of them dance with pleasure. I also love taking dogs on sleepovers to help prepare them for forever homes.

Jen and her family with a dog at Angels Landing

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

It’s so easy to get caught up in day-to-day stresses. Volunteering at Best Friends is wonderful because the focus is just on helping caregivers keep the animals comfortable and healthy and to provide them with enrichment they need to have a great quality of life while they wait for their forever homes. It’s an inspiring experience and helps keep things in perspective.

Tell us about your favorite volunteer moment.

In 2016, my most intense experience was bathing two tiny puppies with a neurological condition. Kit and Caboodle had just arrived at the Sanctuary. They couldn’t hold up their heads or walk, and they were so scared and cried when separated from one another. My heart broke after hearing that they’d been abandoned and left in a box. After bathing them and trying to hold them in a way that would help them build muscle memory, I sat on the floor and held them in towels to dry them, one in each arm, and they fell asleep cuddling.

During my recent visit, while volunteering at Dogtown, we got two buggies to walk Kit and Caboodle. I was so curious to see them again. “Can they hold their heads up?” I asked. Caregiver Jaquie said, “Yes, they can!” Suddenly there they were, wagging their tails and bursting with excitement to head out in their special buggies. Ashley and Maddy walked them side by side so they’d get practice holding their heads up to look at one another. At one point, Caboodle stuck his head out of the “sunroof” in his stroller, and we all cheered. Later, we cleaned their specially padded enclosure and then got to pet them for about 20 minutes. I cried a lot to see how much they’ve improved and how happy they are. I’m so grateful to Best Friends for going to extraordinary efforts to save these two and to give them a happy life despite their physical challenges.

Jen, Ashley, Maddy and a brown dog at the Best Friends Visitor's Center

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

When I was scooping poop in Marshall’s Piggy Paradise, caregiver Rosalie said it was fine to socialize with the pigs. I found the “sweet spot” for a pig named Kennedy (his front armpit) and he flopped onto his side in complete bliss. Making pigs flop over for belly rubs is my new favorite pastime!

What’s the most rewarding part of volunteering?

Connecting with animals and witnessing the incredible dedication of the caregivers.

What’s the most difficult part?

Seeing dogs who’ve been affected by former abuse or neglect.

Is there anything else you'd like to share about your visit to Best Friends or your volunteer experience?

We had a sleepover with a dog named Suri who was sweet couch potato. We all just loved her. Two days later, the lovely ladies at Dogtown headquarters told us she’d been adopted. We were so thrilled by the news!

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Ashley, Maddy, Bryan and Chinook the dog at Angels Landing

Photos courtesy of Jen Reeder