Regulars and Shorts

Animals Animals: Volunteer for a Day

By Sunny Branson

A visit to Kanab's Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.
by Sunny Branson
animals.jpgI recently had an opportunity to spend a day volunteering for Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. Knowing how trying animal care can be, I figured committing one day would be as much as I could handle. Their volunteer program offers a variety of opportunities based on ability, interests and time commitment. There is always lots of work to be done, and the appreciative Best Friends' staff makes the work a pleasure. In fact, from the gracious way I was treated, you'd think I was paying for a salon spa treatment, not signing up to shovel dung for free.

Best Friends is the country's largest sanctuary for homeless domestic animals. On any given day, the rescue is home to about 1,500 dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, birds and other animals. The organization is involved in nationwide and sometimes worldwide rescue efforts and initiatives that promote kindness to animals, adoption, spay and neuter, and humane education programs.

Even organizing the visit was a pleasant experience. The friendly volunteer coordinators at Best Friends made it easy to arrange the visit and helpfully explained what I could expect from a day of volunteering, how to dress (long pants and closed-toe shoes), and what to bring (water, sunscreen and a desire to work). I was offered a choice of specific animal areas. I decided to spend time with my current fascinations- pot-bellied pigs.

I arrived at the sanctuary in time for the volunteer orientation and pre-tour video where I was joined by some 20 other people. The film outlined successful recent  programs and the continuing efforts of Best Friends – great motivation that made me happy to be supporting such a laudable cause.

The sanctuary's 33,000 acres is a bit difficult to cover on foot, so we loaded into vans for the tour which took us past pastures and the mountainside grazing areas where the horses roam. Past the TLC Cat Club, designed for cats with special needs, and the Wildcats Village. Past Dogtown, which includes the Old Friends Home for senior canine residents. We also passed the Bunny House and Feathered Friends.

If the animals aren't enough of a draw, the scenery is. The tour winds through the magnificent redrock landscape of Angel Canyon, a sacred place to generations of pueblo natives for thousands of years.

After the tour we set off to the cafeteria for a vegetarian lunch buffet on a large wooden deck overlooking the spectacular Angel Canyon cliffs and landscape. The Mexican buffet was great. After lunch, we separated to our designated volunteer areas.

The front door for the pot-bellied pig headquarters had a sign warning "Open door slowly- Brittany sleeping on other side," along with a picture of a chubby-faced scruffy sow adorned with a sparkly tiara and slinky boa. I opened the door slowly and, when confirmed pig-free, pushed it open just wide enough to step inside. I looked around for a sleeping pig and found Brittany in the corner on her pig-bed, nose and face buried in a blanket. Apparently Brittany gets cranky with people too near her face, so I was careful to pet only her scruffy bottom, not wanting a 150-pound sow upset with me. Petting a pig is real treat. The long coarse fur feels like it should belong to a baby porcupine. The skin underneath is tough and dry – in fact, some pigs enjoy oil rubs to soften their skin.

The pig caretaker Donna went over my tasks for the day. They really needed help weeding the pig area. A bit of a disappointment set in; I'd had my fill of weeding at home. Still, I was there to help! And I was willing to do whatever was most useful. So, I prepared myself for an afternoon of weeding. Donna may have taken mercy on me; after only 20 minutes, she called off the yard labor and we moved on to the real fun: mud holes.

Yes, it's true, just like in the children's books, pigs love mud. But contrary to the children's books, pigs are not actually dirty animals. They love mud holes because the water cools them off and the mud protects them from the sun. I dragged the water hose over to the dug-out craters and ran water into each hole until it was full enough for a large pig or two to roll around.

Next was the task of mucking – scooping poop. I was surprised that a 150-pound animal produces only pellet-sized droppings. They were hard to scoop, though; the pellets would slip through the rake fingers. But I digress… I managed, and soon the pig areas were poop-free.

Back at pig headquarters for rehydration, I asked Donna about Metro, a boar whose story I follow on the Best Friends' Web site. Metro, I'd read, was surrendered to the sanctuary after his people were worried he wasn't getting proper attention or care. His diet consisted of whatever the family was eating that day, which turned out to be a lot of pizza, mac-n-cheese and cheez-it snacks.

Metro was accepted at the sanctuary in April 2007 under the Guardian Angel program, a donation program designed to help some of the neediest animals. Metro was a whopping 357 pounds! He had trouble dragging himself around and suffered from a common problem for pot-bellied pigs, mechanical blindness, a condition that develops when fat deposits around the eyes hinder the ability to see. His fat also clogged his ear canals and he just didn't feel like moving around much anymore, which only added to the problem. His tusks had never been trimmed and were so long they grew out around his face causing sores on his cheeks. If left untrimmed, tusks can actually grow into a pig's face and cause serious damage.

The goal was to get this big boy to drop over 100 pounds so he could be active and comfortable again. Following the blog online, I read about Metro terrorizing the caretakers. He is a grumpy pig, not happy to have been removed from his home, put on a diet of vegetables, and led around the yard for his daily walks.

Donna explained that Metro was kept away from the other pigs because of aggression issues. Armed with a wooden board used like a shield, she took me to a pen behind the office and introduced me to Metro, the pig with a tendency to attack ankles. By the time of my visit, four months after he arrived, Metro had already reached the goal of losing 100 pounds. The caretakers had done quite a makeover on this pig and he was looking very svelte indeed.

Near supper time, we headed back to the kitchen to prepare the pigs' meal. How an animal can reach 100 or even 200 pounds eating almost nothing but veggies astounds me. Feed trays were stacked for the dozen or so residents and we filled them first with romaine… lots of romaine, then a sprinkling of corn, beans and edamame. We approached the pig area with our stacked trays of food and the hogs, true to their name, came running and squealing in anticipation. After dinner, we tossed out dessert – handfuls of sliced almonds that flung randomly to keep the pigs moving around sniffing out the treats.

As I watched pigs pushing dirt around with snouts looking for almonds, I thought about my day at the sanctuary. I may not have gotten a massage or a facial, but I was left feeling fulfilled. I played a part in helping an organization that touches lives, and that made me feel like I brought a little good into the world. I can't wait to go back to Best Friends, only next time I'll stay much longer!

Sunny Branson is co-owner of Single Malt Media, volunteers for Wasatch Animal Rescue, and sponsors two pot-bellied pigs at Ching Farm Sanctuary.

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This article was originally published on August 31, 2007.