Nearly 2 decades of volunteering with Best Friends

Volunteers Russ and Elizabeth Duszak in front of a display at the Best Friends Pet Resource Center in Northwest Arkansas
Russ Duszak, a commercial pilot, and his wife, Elizabeth, have volunteered in animal care, done transports, worked events, and fostered kittens for 17 years.
By John Polis

Russ Duszak has logged hundreds of thousands of miles in his 14 years as a commercial pilot. But all those flights for his day job have nothing on the road trips from his Salt Lake City home to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. And even though Russ and his wife, Elizabeth, recently moved to Houston and the commute is a bit longer, volunteering at the Sanctuary is still on their to-do list.

From the day he picked up a Best Friends magazine in an airport, Russ became interested in Best Friends’ lifesaving work and wanted to know what he and Elizabeth could do to help. “I was flipping through the pages, and, oh my gosh, I noticed there’s so much to this place,” he says. “It was much more than one building in one place, but it was a whole location that we could visit. I knew I had to go check it out.”

Since 2006, Russ estimates he’s done the four-and-a-half-hour, Salt Lake City-to-Kanab drive (and back) a couple dozen times, with Elizabeth accompanying him on at least half of them. In addition to their work at the Sanctuary, they have volunteered at Best Friends in Salt Lake City transporting animals, caring for cats and dogs, working events, caring for newborn kittens, engaging with the public, and fostering at home.

Last summer, they transported 20 cats and four dogs from Houston to Minneapolis, a drive of 2,200 miles in four days. “It was a lot, but it was so rewarding,” says Russ. One of the drop-off points for animals was in Northwest Arkansas, where they got to see the new Best Friends Pet Resource Center, which at the time was still under construction.

What motivates the couple to donate so much time to the animals? Russ ponders a moment, then answers: “It probably starts with my mother. I think her love for animals rubbed off on me because she always put animals first. I remember a squirrel that would come right up to her and rest by her leg while she was lying out in the sun. You just don’t see that with squirrels. I always remember that.”

For Elizabeth, who never had a pet growing up, it’s a time when the two of them can travel, be together, and of course help the animals. “We see it as something we can do together and also give back at the same time,” she says.

Volunteering at the Sanctuary and closer to home

During the years they lived in Salt Lake City, Russ and Elizabeth traveled together to Kanab, but because of Elizabeth’s work schedule, Russ often went by himself. “I mostly do cat care,” he says, “but I have volunteered at every area at least twice. I think in 2021 we went down there nine times and have been going back an average of once or twice a year since 2006.”

Despite so many years of volunteering at the Sanctuary, the Duszaks didn’t volunteer at Best Friends in Salt Lake City until May 2018. “Someone sent me an email looking for help for a 5K dog run that they were doing,” says Russ. “That’s how I got involved locally. At first, we just did general cleaning, and that led to cat care, which eventually led to dog care. Then that led to kitten nursery work and then transports.”

[An enormous thank-you to Best Friends volunteers]

“Russ has about 1,300 volunteer hours here in Salt Lake City,” says Pat Theobald, Best Friends’ community engagement manager in Salt Lake City. “And Elizabeth has more than 300 hours. They are always super reliable. We set them up on recurring shifts, and we could always count on them to be here.”

Pat tells the story of a holiday office challenge a few years back to see which group of Salt Lake City volunteers could accumulate the most cat care or dog care hours. “We colored in a candy cane-shaped thermometer to keep track,” says Pat. “Russ felt bad because all of his hours were going to the cat care team, so for each cat care shift, he signed up for an additional shift with dogs. That’s how he started working with dogs.”

Russ the pilot volunteers between flights

When the Duszaks moved to Houston in 2022 for Russ’ job, Pat knew he probably wouldn’t be seeing much of them in the future. “But then I came into work one day, and there was Russ,” says Pat. “I did a double take. Like hold on. Russ, you moved. Don’t you still live in Texas?”

Turns out Russ was on a layover between flights until the next afternoon, so he signed up for a half-day cat care shift. He plans on doing the same type of volunteer work with Best Friends in Houston, as well as other animal shelters in his airline layover cities.

What’s his favorite volunteer job? “It still goes back to cats,” says Russ. “I think I understand cats better than any other animal I volunteer with.” Not surprisingly, it’s a cat ― Natasha ― who stands out.

“It was probably more than 10 years ago,” he recalls. “I noticed this very shy cat at the Sanctuary named Natasha, who wouldn’t let anyone get near her. If you got too close, she would just run off. (Each time) I returned, I could see how far she had progressed. Her shyness deteriorated, and she was more friendly. That’s what happens when you have great staff members spending time with the same cats every single day.”

Fostering highlights

Danny was one of a litter of kittens Russ drove from Price, Utah, to Best Friends in Salt Lake City. He and Elizabeth ended up fostering them. “They had named them all after the characters in the TV series Full House,” Russ says. “We were doing kitten care from home utilizing one of our bathrooms. We took care of them, but not all of them made it. Danny did make it and eventually got adopted.”

[Inspiration from a kitten foster volunteer]

It's a reminder that working with homeless pets is filled with highs and lows. Kittens are fragile, and despite everyone’s efforts, sometimes they still pass away. But each kitten who goes home is inspiration to keep giving as many of them a chance as possible. “It’s just another example of how we bring in these kittens who wouldn’t have had a chance five or 10 years ago,” says Russ. "And now they’re adopted.”

Another foster highlight was an orange kitty nicknamed Bic, who had a digestive problem that challenged the medical team. “He was super playful, super energetic, and we would take him to the Salt Lake City center for different kinds of treatment,” says Elizabeth. “We took him in for one regular treatment, and before we could get him back, he was adopted. We didn’t even get to say goodbye, but that’s what it was, and good for him.”

Advocating for no-kill

Elizabeth says their volunteer work in Salt Lake City has made them more aware of Best Friends’ efforts to bring the country to no-kill by 2025. “We’ve learned so much more about animal welfare in a broader sense,” she says. “And we’re able to support and advocate for the animals through the no-kill initiative. Going to Kanab and volunteering there also opens doors to talk to visitors and adopters about no-kill.”

On one of the Duszaks’ best trips to Kanab, two extra passengers were onboard ― their own kitties, Snow White and Macchiato, who got to stay at the Best Friends Roadhouse and Mercantile, a Kanab hotel that caters to Best Friends visitors and their pets.

“Snow White (16 years old) is an old lady with arthritis, but other than that she still loves to cuddle and play,” says Elizabeth. “We no longer have Macchiato, which looking back makes that trip all the more special because she was with us.”

Despite the fact that they live in Houston now, the Duszaks still have plans to return to the Sanctuary in Kanab. Russ says: “We go back because there’s never a finish line, right? And while there really is no finish line, at least there’s a goal out there that we can try to achieve. And the only way to do that is to just keep doing what we do. And in our case, it’s volunteering when and where we can.”

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