My story: Best Friends volunteer Chelsea Eng
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. Besides being an animal lover’s paradise, 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.
Chelsea Eng, who was born and raised in San Francisco, California, is a professional dancer who for more than 20 years has taught the Argentine tango. She’s also a longtime member of Best Friends. At home in the San Francisco Bay area, she volunteers as a caregiver for two rescued rabbits who live at an assisted living facility. Eight years ago, she started an annual dance fundraiser for animal rescue with colleagues and students in the dance department at City College of San Francisco, where she serves on the dance faculty.
“As a professional dancer and a lifelong animal lover, I have sought for some time to build bridges between dance and animal welfare,” Chelsea explains. “It’s not always the most logical bridge, but sometimes it works. When my longtime tango mentor and colleague, Marcos Questas, was brainstorming with me about his new Los Angeles-based tango festival, the International Tango Summit (ITS), I urged him to contact Best Friends in Los Angeles. He and his partner, Ruta Maria, did just that.”
Because of Chelsea’s efforts, there is a link to No-Kill Los Angeles (NKLA) on the ITS website with the heading “Tango Helping Animals,” that includes a charitable component that benefits NKLA. “This bridge will help inspire partner dance enthusiasts to Save Them All,” she says. “I will be performing and teaching at ITS and am excited to share my love of animals and Best Friends with the Argentine tango community.”
In the following interview, Chelsea shares her experiences from the heart and explains what she loves most about her time at the Sanctuary.
Where did you volunteer?
At the Sanctuary I did volunteer shifts in all of the animal areas except Parrot Garden, though I took the Parrot Garden tour. This year I volunteered at the Bunny House, at Quincy House (the building that houses cats with special needs) at Cat World and at Wild Friends.
I also volunteered for Strut Your Mutt in San Francisco in 2016, the Best Friends Pet Adoption Center in New York in July 2017 and a Best Friends adoption pop-up in New York City a few summers ago.
When I attended the Best Friends National Conference in Atlantic City in 2017, I won a $500 Maddie’s Fund spin-the-wheel grant. Courtney Hatt, whose cat cafe “KitTea” works with Wonder Cat Rescue in San Francisco, helped me to direct those funds to that rescue.
What made you want to volunteer with Best Friends and what made you want to come back?
I believe strongly in the Best Friends teaching of “a better world through kindness to animals.” It syncs with a concept I love in Judaism: tikkun olam (loosely translated as "We must take action to repair or heal the world"). Best Friends’ treatment of each animal as an individual extends to the organization’s treatment of volunteers as individuals. The staff is gracious and welcoming. They greet tens of thousands of visitors per year, and they personalize the interaction with each one.
When you volunteered, what was your job?
Cleaning duck ponds and raking all manner of droppings, feathers and straw in Wild Friends, folding laundry and cleaning runs at the Bunny House, washing dishes and cleaning rooms in Cat World.
Which volunteer job is your favorite?
My favorite volunteer job is helping powerhouse caregiver Darrell Bush in Wild Friends. Darrell’s commitment, stamina and sense of humor inspires me. I like being the only volunteer. Wild Friends only has one available spot per volunteer shift. And I enjoyed having one-to-one time with him and a host of animals — mink, for example — an animal I would not normally have a chance to see.
During my volunteer shift, Darrell left me on my own to clean duck ponds (after he gave me detailed instructions). Hose in hand I warned him: “I’m a very unskilled pond-cleaner.” And he answered: “Have the office call me if there’s a pond-cleaning catastrophe. I have faith in you,” before golf-carting off to his next task on a super long to-do list. The ducks kept me company while I cleaned, and all went well. Wild Friends rocks!
What does volunteering mean to you and why do you do it?
Animals have enriched my life beyond measure, and I owe them a debt of gratitude. Volunteering helps align my hands with my heart where animals are concerned. As I overheard Best Friends founder Faith Maloney saying so beautifully to a young child at a Best Friends Welcome Waggin’ (a social gathering where Sanctuary volunteers enjoy fun activities and enlightening talks by founders and senior staff members): “Animals are our friends, and they need our help.”
Tell us about your favorite volunteer moment.
One morning I found myself alone and scraping droppings in the sunlit pigeon aviary in Wild Friends. The birds were cooing. I had just seen my first wild jackrabbit and turkey roamed past. Amidst straw and feathers, I was very remote from my city-girl life in San Francisco. I couldn’t believe I was so happy scooping poop! Most importantly, I was reminded just how great these often-undervalued birds are.
Was there a favorite animal you met or worked with while volunteering?
Quincy House caregivers introduced me to Logan, a male cat who has feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). He was new to Cat World and still unsure about people. Hunkered down in a cat tower, Logan shot me a look of terror and hissed. Baby food in hand, I followed his caregivers’ instructions and fed him — first with a spoon, then from my finger. I talked to Logan in a soft tone and asked his permission to pet him. Lo and behold, he let me pet him for about five minutes! His surprised caregivers thought this was possibly a first. I was so touched that Logan let me in, if for a brief window of time.
What’s the most rewarding part of volunteering?
On a grander scale, the most rewarding part of volunteering is feeling part of the Save Them All movement. In the immediate moment, it is feeling useful to particular animals. When, for example, you’ve just cleaned a bunny room, and the rabbit who occupies it returns to find clean fleece blankies and fresh water, you feel you had a part in helping that rabbit. It’s a good feeling!
What’s the most difficult part?
The most difficult part is leaving the Sanctuary, the caregivers, the animals, the friends I’ve made, both old and new, the stunning red rock canyons and the tranquil energy of Kanab, Utah.
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
On this and past trips to Best Friends I felt fortunate to meet and learn from the founders, who are generous with their wisdom. For example, over lunch at the Village café with Silva Battista, I said, “I feel the ground is fertile for various projects linking my work in dance with animal welfare, but I don’t yet know exactly where I am going with this.”
She replied, “You don’t have to know. We didn’t know at the outset how this (she gestured to the Sanctuary) was going to turn out. You just keep doing the right thing and the next right thing and be willing to change when necessary.”
When I asked her if, in the course of Best Friends’ history, obstacles had ever tempted her to give up, she said, “As individuals we may have had ups and downs along the way, but we had a focused mission with the animals, and we had each other to keep the momentum going.”
For me, the takeaway is to let go of the need to know how it all turns out and to ally myself with fellow artists and animal advocates who share the same North Star. The moving forward, then, would be akin to what in Argentine tango performance I sometimes refer to as a “chor-prov,” a hybrid of choreography and improvisation — a determination tempered with the flexibility to change course as needed.
Photos courtesy of Chelsea Eng