Meet Mike Bricker, new animal care operations director at the Sanctuary

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Mike Bricker holding a puppy in front of a Best Friends van
Get an inside look and hear what’s on the horizon at the Sanctuary.
By Kelli Harmon

Mike Bricker has always loved working with animals. He started years ago as an employee at a PetSmart and at the time had never heard of Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. In fact, he never imagined that such a place even existed, much less that one day he would move his family to southern Utah and step into the role of overseeing the Sanctuary animal care team.

There were many stops along the way from Mike’s first role working with animals and today as operations director at the Sanctuary. His first plunge into animal welfare began at his local municipal shelter in Camden County, New Jersey, where he led the team that took the shelter’s save rate from around 55% to more than 90% to reach the no-kill benchmark.

Those familiar with Best Friends’ work in recent years will recognize the names of some projects Mike either worked on or spearheaded, such as embeds at Palm Valley Animal Society and Abilene Animal Services.

We asked Mike what it’s been like to move to rural Utah from the big city, what he’s most excited about in his new role, what challenges he hopes to help overcome and, perhaps most important of all, about his office pet. – kelli

What are your responsibilities as animal care operations director?

I oversee the directors and managers in our animal care departments — so, dogs, cats, wild friends, bunnies, horses, goats and pigs, as well as the foster and transport teams. Each of these leaders has set goals for lifesaving and other things, and my responsibility is to help them reach those goals and make new ones. It’s all about saving (as many animals as) possible through the Sanctuary.

What made you want to take on this position?

Well first, I just can't think of a more amazing role. When I was interviewing, I felt like this was written for me. I did get to spend some time here (previously), but not a lot. Every time I was here, I just didn't want to leave. I wanted to do more here. Julie Castle speaks about the Sanctuary as the heart of best friends, and the chance to help with the heart of an organization that I care for so much is something I couldn't pass up.

[Making a better world through kindness to animals]

What are some not-so-well-known things about the Sanctuary that you'd like people to know?

Well, there's a ton that I didn't know, so I can start there. I’m not sure if a lot of people understand just how big of an operation this is. When you take the guided tour of the Sanctuary, you only see a couple of the buildings in Dogtown, maybe one or two buildings in Cat World.

You don't see the animals we’re caring for at Wild Friends, for example. So, I think it would surprise people if they really were able to spend a day here and look at everything. We have tons of spaces for so many different kinds of animals, and most of the work takes place behind the scenes.

Just a couple days ago, an eagle came in with a bone lodged in his throat. It would have been much easier to euthanize him. But of course, that wasn't even in the thoughts of any of our veterinarians. One of them jumped in to do the surgery to remove the bone and that eagle is doing amazing. We have a large recovery area where he’s staying until we’re sure he’s able to fly and find prey and all that kind of stuff before we release him. (State and federally licensed wildlife rehabbers on staff at Wild Friends oversee this.) And he's about to be released. So, there are just so many amazing things that happen here every single day for animals.

Since you began your new role, what has surprised you the most about the Sanctuary?

I worked for Best Friends before, but in remote positions in Texas, so I was I was pretty far away from the Sanctuary. I think what surprised me the most is that when I got here everybody was just so happy that I was here. It was almost overwhelming.

Best Friends is an organization that truly lives and breathes its mission and values. I mean, kindness is all over this place. Although I had a feeling it was like this, it was definitely surprising to see it in action.

What challenges are you hoping to overcome or help?

Well, I think the Sanctuary is much like many other organizations with (respect to) COVID-19. I was mentioning just how big of an area this is, and one of the challenges is how spread out our teams are. Throughout COVID-19, people were even more separated from each other because they had to be for safety. Our goal is bringing teams back together as much as possible so we can save as many animals as possible — not only the animals here, but the animals that need us outside of the Sanctuary.

[It’s time we have a conversation about pay]

Another challenge that’s also a problem everywhere is staying fully staffed. Organizations and businesses are faced with this, and we haven’t been immune to it here. It’s always been a unique situation to recruit people here. It’s a small town (the population is less than 5,000 people) and while we have a lot of local employees who have lived here their whole lives, most come from other places, like me coming from New Jersey.

We're really looking for people around the country who want to come and join these amazing teams. The opportunities here are unlike anywhere else in the country.

What new projects at the Sanctuary are you most excited about?

Definitely some of our newer projects like the Shipley Dog Lodges, which will be so amazing for dogs in Dogtown. I’m also excited to reinvigorate our foster program. I've always worked in or around bigger cities, where finding fosters and volunteers is way easier than (it is) living in a small rural town. If we can figure out how to get enough foster volunteers here, we’ll have tips and tricks that will help other foster programs around the country, because we share what we know.

All right, super important: Tell us about your office pet.

His name is Cleo. He’s an Amazon parrot born around 1997, and he is so cool. He’s very, very talkative, but he’s not overly loud. He had been in Parrot Garden for a while before coming here. Plus, he was in a couple different homes where they said he wasn’t the biggest fan of women. When I got here and walked through Parrot Garden, obviously, I talked to all the parrots.

This little guy came right up to the front and he was begging for my attention; so, I started talking and talking to him. I hung out with him for a while, and one of the caregivers came over and told me his story. He said that he’s doing fine here, obviously, but he would love to be in an area with a guy. All our Parrot Garden employees at the present time are women. So, they really laid it on thick. When I finally got here to work, one of the caregivers mentioned that we can have office pets. And she said Cleo would be the perfect office pet. And she was right.

[This adopter’s home is for the birds — literally]

He talks when you talk to him. He actually keeps his area pretty clean. He's really, really cool. He's definitely a little worried about stepping up onto your hand. He’ll do it, but he grips really hard. He's just a little nervous. But I bring him out all the time and he loves to be cuddled. If you bring him in close for a hug, he literally just will cuddle up in your neck. And he wants to be petted and he wants his neck rubbed and all that kind of stuff.

He's the best. He's definitely my friend. When I’m not here over the weekend, someone from Parrot Garden comes over to hang out with him and take care of him. But I don't think there's been a day that I haven't popped up just to see him and just to give him a couple of treats. So even on Saturdays and Sundays (or if I have a different day off), I'm popping up to see him.

How has it been settling into small southern Utah town?

Honestly, way easier than I thought. We were living 15 minutes from Philadelphia and went to the city often. So, we worried about whether there’d be enough things to do — enough restaurants, all those things. But it’s been amazing. The stores here have everything we need, and sometimes we go to neighboring larger Utah cities like St. George or Cedar City, but we haven’t needed to very often. There is just so much to do here and it's just so beautiful. My drive to work is the one of the most beautiful drives I've ever taken. The canyons look different every day.

Anything else you'd like to share?

We want the Sanctuary to continue to be a big part of the 2025 puzzle. We want to keep the same feeling the Sanctuary has always had, while also maximizing the support we can give to shelters around us and to the animals needing the most help.

In a recent 10-day period, Dogtown took in about 130 dogs. That’s a big deal and we're taking in all these animals from partners that truly need the help. The teams are just jumping in and getting it done to save those lives. It’s not just the people here, either. Our teams in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, plus our regional teams (are identifying) rescue partners (so we can) transfer more animals out. So. there is a lot going on and it’s really exciting.

If you haven't been to the Sanctuary, you definitely need to come. It's an experience all in itself.