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Sanctuary for the Soul: How a Safe Haven for Animals Can Be a Healing Retreat for You


girl grooming a horse at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary
me grooming Gertie

Prepare to embark on a heartfelt journey inspired by a chance encounter with a dog on an Atlanta highway. Through Marley's tale, we dive into the challenges faced by countless homeless pets in the United States and how Best Friends Animal Society is on a mission to Save Them All by 2025. Through this article, you'll experience the transformative power of adoption and discover a sanctuary that not only nurtures animals but also nourishes the human spirit.


Marley's Story

Some of you may know that I pivoted from my career back in 2017 to work in animal welfare. At the time, I was still running my chocolate business, nicobella organics, and volunteering once a week at local Atlanta animal shelters. It was something my heart was called to do since 2013 when I found a sweet dog running on the side of the road on a busy Atlanta highway. He was a young lab mix who was confused after seemingly being dumped by his owners, not knowing where to run, making him very difficult to catch. Luckily a group of super sweet people working in a nearby building came out to help as they saw me struggling to get him. My guess is that his former owner was a man because the dog ran directly into the arms of the kind gentleman who came out to help me.

 

They helped get the dog into my car. I took him home overnight until the county shelter opened the next day. I didn’t want to take him to a shelter, but Georgia law states that every stray dog must be on stray hold through the county, where they were found, for a certain period of time to at least allow for their owners to reclaim them. This is an important policy for dogs who find themselves lost and have worried owners checking every location to find their beloved family member. The shelter is often the first place they look, and, if you’ve ever seen a dog and family come back together again, then you know that there is nothing more heartwarming than a family reunion!

 

However, the ending isn’t always so joyful for every cat or dog. They can end up and stay in the shelter, sometimes for years, before a new family chooses to adopt them. And, sadly, some of them never make it out at all.

 

You see, every day more than 1000 dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters, simply because they don’t have a place to call home. It’s not the shelter’s fault that they’re so overcrowded. It’s a systemic and community issue with many factors coming into play, including lack of spay and neuter understanding and resources, apartment and condominium breed restrictions, laws that aren’t in favor of pets, for profit breeders, puppy mills and pet stores, and more.

 

Thankfully, Marley’s (what would become his newly adopted name) fate was in his favor. A sweet 16-year-old boy, Alex, saw my post about him on Facebook and begged his family to adopt him. That was the beginning of Marley’s new life, getting adopted by a loving family that would provide a wonderful, loving home for him. They would share stories with me that Marley slept with Alex, followed him around everywhere, and would patiently wait at the window for him to return from school every day. They became lifetime best buddies.

 

Marley’s story is what inspired me to get involved with volunteering at animal shelters in Atlanta. It was through Marley that I learned the southeast has one of the highest rates of homeless pets and euthanasia in the country. That awareness was the spark that lit my soul (or my heart or my head — or maybe a combination of the three) into action. I started volunteering for local animal shelters, as well as a national animal rescue that my mom had been supporting for years, called Best Friends Animal Society (Best Friends).


entrance to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

 

Best Friends did, and still does, educational outreach and events to raise awareness around shelter pets and adoption throughout the country. My volunteer time with them turned into a temporary part-time position helping to market their annual event called Strut Your Mutt, which then turned into a full-time position as a public relations and social media specialist for their Atlanta and national teams. It was a four-year digression from my 20-year dietitian career and a welcomed unexpected change that filled my heart with joy every day. I will say that there is no better feeling than seeing a sad pet without a family find their forever family. It’s a win-win for both! You’ve probably heard the expression, “Who rescued who?” because many individuals who adopt do it to help the animals, and then realize that the animal rescued them as well. From mitigating symptoms of depression to improving health through daily walks to reversing the feeling of isolation and loneliness, rescuing a pet not only changes the life of a pet, but also changes their person’s life for the better.

 

But, here’s the thing — adoption, of course, is a wonderful thing, but you can get this same sweet, heartfelt, and blissful experience in another way ... by visiting Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, a soulful retreat where you go to give back, but that gives back to you tenfold.

 

Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

welcome sign with dog and cat at Best Friends Animal Santuary
cutest signage all around!

Nestled in between the red rock canyons of southern Utah with aromas of sage filling the air, scenes of Old Western Hollywood giving nostalgic vibes, and 3700 magical acres instilling feelings of peace, I’ve come to realize that Best Friends is as much a Sanctuary for humans as it is for animals.

 

They serve as a safe haven for approximately 1600 animals, including shelter dogs and cats, horses, bunnies, pigs, birds, and wildlife.

 

I recently had the opportunity to visit again and, two weeks later, I am still cultivating the magical feelings of peace and bliss from the experience. I wondered what was so magical about Best Friends that leaves me continuously craving a return? I realized that Best Friends Animal Sanctuary fulfills every single one of my personal core values, called the 10 Pillars of a Healthy Body and Happy Mind:

 

  • Plant-Based Eating + Hydrating

  • Sleeping Soundly

  • Moving

  • Creating a Morning Routine

  • Meditating

  • Breathing

  • Connecting with Nature

  • Giving Back

  • Leading with Love/Connecting with Others

 

Continue reading to learn how Best Friends Animal Sanctuary fulfills each of these needs, which are basic needs that I believe create a healthy body and happy mind.

 

Plant-Based Eating + Hydration: Stay Nourished and Hydrated at Angel Village Café

vegan and plant-based restaurant
entrance to Angel Village Café

Filling up your plate up with plant-based foods and staying hydrated keeps inflammation at bay, your gut nourished, and your mind happy.

 

Okay, when I was thinking about how Best Friends Animal Sanctuary fulfills all 10 Pillars, hydration was a bit of a stretch. However, they do provide full jugs of water in their café! (Box checked.)

 

Question for you — think of a place where you can indulge in an insanely delicious, completely nourishing, and beyond satisfying all-you-can-eat buffet for only $5.00.

 

I’m waiting …

 

Still waiting …

 

Okay, did you give up?

 

Don’t worry, I couldn’t think of a place either — until I visited Angel Village Café at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Y’all haven’t tried plant-based comfort food at its best until you’ve eaten at their café. Every day from 11:30–1 pm they open up their doors to guests, volunteers, employees and anyone else to fill up their plate with the specials of the day. When I visited, it was St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday they celebrated with all things green! Check out my recap here. It was fun and festive, plus it fueled my body after a morning of volunteering with horses and  prepared me for the afternoon activity (grabbing a sleepover pet!). 

 

They also have a salad bar to end all salad bars with more than just healthy leafy greens (which, of course, I highly recommend). The salad bar offers chickpeas, edamame, quinoa, corn, olives, six different tasty plant-based dressings from which to choose, and much more.

 

Bottom line — bring your appetite when you visit Angel Village Café!

 

Tip: 

Get there at 11:30 am when they open so you can grab a seat by the window or outside to capture the beautiful vista views as you eat.

 


vegan cookie from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary
St. Patty's Day Vegan Cookie!

Sleeping Soundly Underneath the Star-Filled Sky

Next to consuming lots of plant-based foods, sleep is next in line for keeping your body and mind in tip-top shape.

 

Did someone say sleeping underneath the vast Utah sky filled with billions of bright stars and hearing only the sounds of desert life? Yes, please! Whether you choose to stay in a cabin or cottage on the Sanctuary property, or at the Best Friends Roadhouse & Mercantile (where I stayed) in town, you will find quiet and peaceful rooms that are equipped with all of the essentials you need for a comfortable stay and a sound sleep. Not to mention, if you plan to volunteer once a day in the morning or afternoon, or choose to do both (go you!), you will be tired (in the best way!). There are lots of things to see, plenty to do, and animals to visit when you volunteer, making it stimulating and invigorating, setting you up perfectly for a sound sleep.

 

Tip: 

I absolutely LOVED the Roadhouse. It was quiet, quaint, and oh-so-comfortable. If you enjoy walking to nearby dinners, museums, and stores then the Roadhouse is for you. You can see my recap of the stay here. While I haven’t stayed in the cabins or cottages on the Sanctuary property, I’ve heard amazing feedback about both of them. You may want to choose these if you prefer being immersed in the canyons with just nature around you. The main town is only a 10-minute drive away.

 

Moving Your Body Through Volunteering and Hikes

girl volunteering by mucking or scooping horse poop at an animal sanctuary
"Mucking" (ie. scooping poop, making it clean for the horses)

Moving your body in any way you enjoy (walking, hiking, yoga, running, gardening, etc) is good for your body as well as your mental health. It can be an instant mood booster … especially when you have a cute animal by your side! Moving your body also supports conscious breathing and moving outside helps you connect with nature.

 

If you’ve ever volunteered with dogs, you probably know that they can sometimes take you for a walk, even though your intention is to take them for a walk. :D If you enjoy walking, consider volunteering at Dogtown to get some pups out for a walk on one of the many trails nestled in the Sanctuary and under the beautiful Utah sky and sun (good for both you and the pup!). As you walk, soak in the sights, the sounds, and the aromas (in addition to focusing on your pup, of course). This can be a form of meditative walking as you connect with your volunteer pet and nature. Take some deep breaths as you move your body as well.

 

Engaging your senses, immersing in the experience, and focusing on the activity at hand while consciously breathing is a form of meditation and breathwork that can easily be practiced with any activity (and doesn’t require you to sit still for 20 minutes, which may not be for everyone).

 

Other activities at the Sanctuary that offer a meditative-like experience while moving your body include volunteering with the horses, pigs, birds, cats, rabbits, or wildlife. I will say that I have volunteered with the bird before and it is absolutely lovely! However, it is not quiet lol.

 

If you can make time for it, visit one of the majestic close-by national parks, like Zion or Bryce Canyon. These parks are definitely worth the trip and there’s nothing like seeing stunning views than by foot. Plus, hiking through magical canyons can be one of the most profound meditative experiences. Don’t be surprised if you see beautiful wildlife in their natural habitat while exploring.

 

Tip: 

Pack appropriately for the time of year you plan to visit. If you’re planning to volunteer or hike outside, desert mornings can be very cold in the winter and chilly in the spring. Plan to wear layers as the sunshine brings on the heat in the afternoon. Also, pack any footwear you may need, like hiking boots, running or walking shoes, and consider rain boots for volunteering in any fields that may be a bit muddy. Bring sunglasses, sunscreen and any other protective gear you think you may need.

 

Creating a Morning Routine, Western Style

mountains in Utah
Beautiful morning Utah sky

Research shows that morning routines can increase energy, productivity, and positivity. 

 

For me personally, there is something about being on the west coast that ignites an early wake-up every morning. Maybe it’s in the air or the early sunrise. All I know is that it feels really good!

 

You may experience the same when you visit, but even if you don’t, you will when you sign up to volunteer! Morning shifts start at 8:15 am (until 11:30 am) and I do recommend eating a well-rounded breakfast to keep you sustained as you volunteer. A stay at Best Friends Roadhouse & Mercantile comes with (delicious) breakfast each morning, starting at 7 am. Choose between overnight oats, traditional oatmeal, baked goods, and fruit, plus a variety of beverages, like teas, coffee and lattes. I had yummy chia seed overnight oats one morning and traditional oatmeal plus an egg bite the next morning. Everything is vegan!


overnight oats breakfast at the Roadhouse & Mercantile Motel in Kanab, Utah
overnight oats breakfast at The Roadhouse & Mercantile

 

Tip: 

Bring breakfast back to your room if you like to dine solo or grab a seat in the joyful Mercantile where you’ll likely meet other like-minded animal and nature lovers.

 

Giving Back to Others Gives Even More Back to You

volunteering at a dog rescue
Avalanche, my 90-pound four-legged co-pilot

Volunteering can help you move your body, engage your mind, learn new skills, foster a sense of curiosity, and connect with like-minded people, all of which lead to a healthy body and happy mind.

 

During my two-day stay, I chose to volunteer two of the mornings and partake in a dog sleepover for one of the afternoons. It ended up being a fun-packed, energizing time!

 

On day one, I volunteered with the horses. I wanted to start there because I was coming off of an intense work trip and I know that time with horses outside and in between canyons would be exactly what I needed to restore my body and mind. And, boy was it.

 

I was told we would be ‘mucking.’ I immediately felt excitement because it sounded fancy and I envisioned grooming the horses in between majestical canyons. Little did I know, mucking is just a fancy word for scooping poop. :D And, who knew that scooping poop could be such a meditative activity! I truly enjoyed it and I wasn’t the only one! The three other volunteers emphatically agreed.

 

This brings me to my next point … as if scooping poop wasn’t enough, meeting new friends was a definite unexpected highlight. We all shared the same passion for nature, animals, and needing a mental break from work and everyday busyness of life. Connecting with them elevated my overall experience and filled my heart.

 

The ultimate experience, however, was at the end, when we actually got to do what I initially envisioned — brush the horses! Gertie, the one who stole my heart, fell asleep while I was brushing her. Watch her here.


horse at a sanctuary
Gertie

 

Next up, lunch at the café followed by picking up my foster pup for a fun sleepover!

 

Boy did I luck out. Avalanche, a 90-pound, “I think I’m a lap dog,” big snowball fluff full of love was a dream sleepover buddy. We went for a walk, indulged in some treats, played ball and slept (snuggled) hard. It wasn’t easy to bring him back the next day. As much as I wanted to bring him home, I just don’t think he’d fit underneath the plane seat in front of me. Thankfully, just days later, Avalanche was adopted! See our time together here.

 

dog rescue
Avalanche took up the entire bed when he slept!

The next day I volunteered at Roxy’s Place where there are only about six of their adoptable dogs waiting for adoption. My job was to socialize the shy dogs and puppies — I know, such a hard job, right? The shy ones always make my heart melt. It was another fun experience indeed!

 

I’m sharing my experience with you to give you a glimpse of what you might expect or want to plan for your volunteer time at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Or, perhaps it’ll inspire you to visit your local shelter, rescue, or sanctuary!

 

Tip: 

If you book a trip to the Sanctuary, make sure to schedule your volunteer activities asap. They fill up quickly, especially during peak season, in the spring and fall.

 

Rescue and Retreat for the Body, Mind, & Soul

walking a shelter dog
Walking adoptable pup, Toboggan

There is space for anyone and everyone at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Whether you enjoy traveling solo (highly recommend) or want to plan a girl’s trip or want a place the whole family can enjoy, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary can fulfill your vacation goals through their majestic grounds, nourishing food, volunteer activities, fun tours, and educational opportunities. Plan to stay at Best Friends Roadhouse & Mercantile, their cabins or cottages, or a hotel or AirBnb in Kanab.

 

And, even if you can’t get to the Sanctuary this year, consider creating your own local self-care retreat by volunteering at your near-by animal shelter or rescue where you may experience the same type of connection with other like-minded folks and leave feeling more fulfilled after giving back. You’ll get a chance to move your body and engage your mind while giving back. And, you’ll not only be supporting your own community and self-care, but you’ll also be supporting Best Friends Animal Society’s mission to end the killing of homeless pets in animal shelters by 2025.

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