My story: Best Friends volunteer Billie Johnson

From Villa Park, Illinois, Billie Johnson shares her experience of volunteering at the Sanctuary and working for a no-kill society by 2025.
By Christelle L. Del Prete

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 and 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 around 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.

Here, Billie Johnson from Villa Park, Illinois, tells us what she loved most about the time she spent at Best Friends.

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Where did you volunteer?

This was my first time volunteering at the Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, and I worked at Dogtown, Cat World, Horse Haven and Marshall’s Piggy Paradise.

What made you want to volunteer with Best Friends?

Well, this all started with a mailing that I received from Best Friends Animal Society. At that point I had not heard of Best Friends. I opened the envelope and inside was a small poster with an example of a day in Dogtown. I was fascinated and wanted to know more. I looked Best Friends up and fell in love even more. To end the killing of dogs and cats in America's shelters by 2025? Sign me up please! I became a member right away. I also donated twice and was contacted both times by co-founder Gabriel de Peyer. I was blown away that a co-founder would take the time to thank me for my donations.

Volunteer Billie Johnson makes a friend with Azeala the dog

I didn’t know that volunteers from all over the country and the world volunteer at the Sanctuary, so I contacted Best Friends and asked if people ever come and volunteer from out of town. I was sent all sorts of helpful information on volunteering, and this is how it all started. Two years later, my love of animals and Best Friends were united.

So, long story short, my love for animals and Best Friends’ mission and amazing staff are what made me want to volunteer.

What was your job when you volunteered with Best Friends?

In Dogtown, I took dogs on walks, cleaned dog rooms and yards (including the single dog areas in the original part of Dogtown that has a lot more sand), washed dishes, prepared meals and socialized with the dogs. Oh, and I helped give some new puppies a bath. (Well, I dried while the other volunteer got all wet. What a trooper!)

In Cat World, I cleaned rooms, brushed off the cat beds and furniture and socialized with the cats. In Marshall’s Piggy Paradise, I poop scooped, brushed pigs and took a few of them on walks. And in Horse Haven I helped to feed and socialize the horses and to muck pastures.

Which volunteer job was your favorite?

I really can’t decide! My heart will always be with the dogs. I loved everything about Dogtown, and the staff just blew me away. To see how happy the dogs are there shows how well they are treated and taken care of.

I really enjoyed the quiet and laid-back feeling with the cats. I was also fascinated watching the horses and being able to feed and pet them.

Volunteer Billie Johnson takes a walk with some potbellied pigs at Piggy ParadiseI can’t even express how cool it was to walk pigs. I never knew that pigs went on walks or that they have such personalities. I would say that I learned the most at Marshall’s Piggy Paradise. I really had no idea about potbellied pigs and how much false information is out there and that most small or “teacup” potbellied pigs are small due to malnutrition. I had no idea that there were so many types of pigs and that they are actually very clean animals who love to be petted and brushed. I can’t single out any staff in any area, because all the staff were super knowledgeable and had an endless amount of patience for my nonstop questions.

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

Volunteering to me means making a difference. It’s doing what you can do to help impact the world and its inhabitants, in any way you possibly can, for the better. Yes, one person can make a difference. Yes, we can educate each other and have a ripple effect. Volunteering makes me feel hopeful that we can create a better world where we treat each other and animals with love and respect — no more cruelty, no more needlessly putting animals down or unnecessary animal testing. The list goes on and on. I volunteer because I see, hope and reach for a better tomorrow for all of us.

Tell us about your favorite volunteer moment.

It was with horses, while I was helping to muck a pasture. The horses were doing their own thing, except for one horse who kept messing with the golf cart and our jackets. The horse that I had my moment with was a bigger version of the nosey one. His name was Red. I turned around with a rake full of poop and boom, there was a big horse right behind me. I had no idea if he was friendly or not. I set the rake down and put my hand up to his nose. He didn’t pull back. I gently placed my hand on his nose and started petting him. He put his head down and partially in to my chest. I put my arms on both sides of his neck and gave him lots of love for a few minutes. He then looked at me and walked away. That was such a tender and unexpected moment that I will treasure and will never forget. I had many other touching moments with dogs, cats and pigs, but I would say this moment with Red stands out the most.

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

It’s so hard to choose, but it had to be Nuece. He lives at Old Friends in Dogtown, and he was my first adoptable animal sleepover. He has so much love! We had so much cuddle time, and I actually wanted to adopt him; however, I live in the Chicago area and already have two dogs. I found out that Nuece is picky with his dog friends, so I couldn’t chance driving him across country and them possibly not getting along. I truly hope he gets adopted soon. He is such a love. The way he looks at you will just melt you. It’s impossible not to smile while you’re with Neuce. He was my first sleepover and is still my favorite.

Volunteer Billie Johnson enjoys a adoptable animal sleepover with Nuece the dog

What’s the most rewarding part of volunteering?

Feeling like I made an impact and helped in some way.

What’s the most difficult part?

Having to leave, knowing there is so much work to do and so many animals who need loving forever homes.

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

I drove almost 3,000 miles to volunteer at Best Friends, and it was so worth it. I had a car full of donations from myself, friends and coworkers. I also set up a donation page for Best Friends. To see the staff members’ faces when I arrived with all my donations will always stay in my heart. They were so thankful, so friendly and even stayed a few minutes late to help me unload my car. I cannot say enough good things about Best Friends, the staff, the mission, the endless hard work, dedication and commitment. You renew my faith in humanity and give me hope that we can indeed be a no-kill society.

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Volunteer Billie Johnson gives a potbellied pig a brushing bellyrub

Photos courtesy of Billie Johnson