Volunteers work and play hard at Best Friends

Brenda and Marty Winnick smiling and holding an orange tabby cat
For Brenda and Marty Winnick, volunteering at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary means making a difference and having a place to belong — and, of course, having fun.
By Sarah Thornton

The morning starts with assisting at Hope House, Cat World’s medical area, and then it’s off to make meals. And whether that means preparing frittatas for residents of Wild Friends or lunchtime desserts for hungry staff and volunteers just depends on the day for Marty and Brenda Winnick. Or maybe there’s a vaccination clinic to fill syringes for or a community event that needs a Best Friends booth staffed.

Basically, wherever there’s a job that needs doing, Brenda and Marty will be there. For them, they say, it’s like playtime.

Photo by Molly Wald

Making a change

Lifelong animal lovers Marty and Brenda first came to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary several years ago to visit a cat named Papaya, whom they’d met volunteering with an organization in their home state of Florida, Spay the Strays. “And that was it,” Marty says. “We were sold.”

After their first trip to the Sanctuary, they kept coming back. They were in love with the red rocks and small town; it was a big difference from the loud, busy traffic back home. But, of course, the highlight was always the animals. Brenda and Marty volunteered in every area, meeting cats and dogs, parrots and rabbits, as well as horses, pigs, goats, and everything in between.

[An enormous thank-you to Best Friends volunteers]

It was often hard work, cleaning rooms for incontinent cats or going through mountains of laundry. But it was fun, too. And when they arrived at an area and were greeted with a familiar smile and a "We’re so glad to see you," they felt like they belonged.

So when life in Florida started feeling stagnant and they decided it was time for a change, the Winnicks packed up and moved to Kanab, Utah, just 15 minutes south of the Sanctuary. “We were through traveling; we’d traveled enough,” Brenda explains. “I think the pandemic changed a lot of people in a lot of ways, and that contributed to us saying: While we’re still young enough, let’s get out and do something that matters.”

And just like that, they were home.

Photo by Molly Wald

A little bit of everything

“They’re never in a bad mood and always come in like, ‘OK, what do you want me to do?’” says Mike Bzdewka, Cat World caregiver and friend of Marty and Brenda. “They volunteer in Cat World, they volunteer in Wild Friends, they volunteer up at the café, they do transports, and Brenda just trained on doing laser therapy up here.”

Every morning that they’re at the Sanctuary — three days a week, currently — Marty and Brenda go to the Cat World medical building and check ringworm tests. They’ve been training with veterinary staff to know when a test means a cat is clear of the fungal infection versus when they need a bit more treatment.

[There’s a fungus among us and it’s OK]

Sometimes, Marty says, he will also help prepare and hand out breakfast to new feline arrivals. When new cats come in, he and Brenda help with their first exams, weighing them and drawing up vaccines for vet techs to administer.

“A lot of the stuff we do is stuff (staff) don’t have to do,” Marty says. “If I’m feeding (the cats) … it gives staff time to do the meds. I can’t do meds. Whatever we do, it’s helping them out; it gives them time to do the really important work. And that’s what we enjoy.”

Photo by Molly Wald

Their other big love is Wild Friends, Best Friends’ state and federally licensed wildlife rehabilitation and education center, which also houses some adoptable pets who don’t quite fit into the other areas.

“They do a ton for us here at Wild Friends,” says Lauren Ross, a member of the rehab team. “Including a lot of meal prep for our animals, as well as dishes and laundry and helping clean and socialize the adoptable animals.”

When Marty and Brenda are at Wild Friends headquarters, they chop vegetables to make everything from tacos and frittatas to pizzas and muffins for fun meals that all the residents can enjoy. “One day,” Brenda laughs, “Marty and I actually shared one of the muffins because it looked so good.”

By the way they smile and joke as they’re doing their work, you can tell both Brenda and Marty are thoroughly enjoying themselves. But, they say, the most fun they have is when they’re working in the real kitchen, making desserts to serve at the Angel Village café.

After getting their Utah food handlers’ licenses to be able to volunteer in the kitchen, they walked in and asked, "What are we going to make?" — to which the response was, "What do you want to make?"

[The Best Friends Cookbook]

“We don’t get there until at least 9:30 or 10 (in the morning) because they’re making lunch, at which point every station is taken up,” Marty says. “But once basic lunch is finished, we have prep space in back.” They make lemon poppyseed bars and king cake for Mardi Gras or help fill orders for the Best Friends Roadhouse and Mercantile, learning all about vegan baking substitutes along the way.

“This is play period (for us),” says Marty. “We just enjoy it; we enjoy helping out.”

“When we go home at night,” Brenda concludes, “it’s like: We did something worthwhile today. We didn’t just sit and watch TV or vegetate.”

Photo courtesy of Lauren Ross

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