One of the objectives I had in mind coming to Best Friends was to visit all of the departments. I had eight days to do this. And there are several problems with this goal. This place is BIG. Really big. It resides on over three thousand acres.
Most everyone knows about “Dogtown.” That is the area of Best Friends that looks after dogs and readies them for adoption. They were featured in a television series on National Geographic and they rehabilitated some of the Michael Vick dogs:
But Best Friends isn’t just about that area. There are many other departments that are just important, and their work is just as crucial. And I wanted to include those departments in this blog to explain what it takes to keep this place going. They have cabins available for rent. Who’s going to maintain those? Well, I explained that important aspect and the people who take care of that. Who looks after the horses? They have really cool people that do that too. Bunnies? Debbie heads that department. And Nick does a vegetarian lunch every day except Sunday that is terrific.
Who fixes broken locks and fences in need of repair? Ross Hartill and the maintenance department looks after that. And if you’re at the Parrot Garden, you’ll meet Al who can build or fix just about anything.
Since “Dogtown” premiered on TV, they have been overrun with volunteers, so they have a staff that schedules you to work in an area each morning and afternoon. They get a ton of help from volunteers. But the staff will tell you that there is no way they could get everything done without them. Wouldn’t happen. Couldn’t happen. There are simply too many animals and too much to do to get it all done.
But the staff people are very cool and realize that when you come here on a vacation and want the “Best Friends Experience,” you really aren’t too interested in cleaning a bathroom. (Well, except me. I cleaned two of them when I was there. But I also look to see what needs to be done and just do it. I worked at the Cincinnati Zoo for six weeks and have a feel for what makes the staff happy. A clean, shiny bathroom makes them swoon.) But generally, the staff sets aside the fun stuff for the guests. Walking the dogs and socializing the cats and bunnies is a big help to the staff. So is feeding the pigs.
If you want a little exercise and want to see some of the back roads of the property, you can muck the horse fields. And while you’re driving from field to field, you’ll get the bonus of a look at some of the most beautiful land you’ve ever seen:
One of the lesser known areas of Best Friends that needs a ton of help is the Bunny House. I can tell you one thing about it. It’s quiet! Bunnies are pretty much silent. So it’s very peaceful. But it’s a ton of work and it’s very hard. But they need help. So if you come to “Best Friends,” be sure to sign up to work the bunnies because they staff people there are just wonderful and need your assistance to get it all done.
Even if you simply fold a couple of loads of laundry, it helps them out because they wash about eight loads of laundry a day. I loved the Bunny house but it nearly killed me. I never imagined it would be bunnies that would kick my keester! It’s work and there’s a lot of it to go around, believe me. But people arrive at Best Friends year after year to help out by walking a dog or a pig, socializing with some bunnies, grooming a horse, and playing with some cats. It doesn’t have to be a huge massive effort. Sometimes something as simple as folding some laundry, sitting quietly with a bunny, or helping to train to a parrot will help the caregivers.
Jing was Jane Hallender’s Timneh before Jane passed away in 2002. Irene Pepperberg asked me to visit with her, so I spent a lot of time with Jing who now lives with Rick Van Tuyl and Patti Platia, both employed at Best Friends. It was a privilege to meet Jing; I was a huge admirer of Jane’s writing.
I was told of one story by Liz, a caregiver at Dogtown. They had a guest who wanted to help but she was confined to a wheelchair. She was quite upset by this because she felt she couldn’t contribute in any way. So Liz had her go into an enclosure with an old, depressed dog who had apparently lost interest in the world and seemed to be withdrawn. The lady in the wheel chair didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t play with the dog. And it was awkward to pet him. Liz said, “Here’s a book. Just read a couple of chapters to him.”
So the lady sat with the dog and read to him. As she read, he began to stir a bit. Raising his head, he began to look at her, as if all he needed was a little one-on-one time with a human. The lady sat with that dog all afternoon reading the entire book to him. And it seemed to have a profound effect. But it wasn’t just on the dog. It seemed to do something for this lady as well. But there was one thing Liz wasn’t sure of: Who’s self-confidence did it help more? The lady’s or the dog’s? I guess it really doesn’t matter. They both ended up happier that afternoon. And all it took was a book, a dog and a woman who just wanted to help the only way she could.
Was the three flights there and back worth it? Were the sixteen-hour days worth it? The dry lips, shortness of breath, and hair that dried out in the heat and dry altitude so much it stood up at the end of the day? Was the nagging fatigue for a week after I came back worth it? You’re damned right it was! I’d always wanted to go to Best Friends, but I discovered it was more than just helping to care for the animals. It was people like Jacque and Wendy at the Parrot Garden:
It was finally meeting Rick and Patti:
It was getting to know Marlene and Bill who work at the Parrot Garden:
It’s about getting to know Al, Virginia, Kevin and Amy and Brian, who were featured in much of my video footage. It was Laura, Heather, Ann, Patti, Justin and the crew at the Welcome Center. Nicholas, Ross, the Housekeeping Crew, Dogtown, Deb at Bunnies, Haven and Erin at Wild Friends. Lenny and Joe at Angels Rest were so helpful to explain things there and I came away with some of the best stories from them. And there are a hundred other people I didn’t mention that I loved meeting.
I wasn’t ready to leave when I had to. There was still too much to do and to see, too much to write about. But I do know one thing. I’ll be back to this beautiful place that staked a place in my heart where it will remain forever.