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The Angels Have Landed
When I typically wake on a weekday morning, the decisions I must make never deviate far from the mundane. What should I wear? Did I remember to set the timer on the coffee pot? Will the stock market wreak its wrathful havoc upon me? Not today, however … this day is different. My questions today are more along the lines of “what will Jeffrey be having for breakfast?, “has Orson continued to lose weight?”, and “did the flat tires in Eve’s wagon get filled?” Today, I am not going to work, you see … I am in the south of Utah, amidst my first ever week of volunteering at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.
Some 30 years ago, a few dozen animal-loving pioneers set out to settle this property – founding what has since become the largest animal welfare and rescue sanctuary in the country. Encompassing some 40,000 acres of Utah’s Angel Canyon, this tangible testament to the progress of their movement is consecrated; the many diverse havens that populate the landscape each have an important function, a diverse community, and a critical role. Horse Haven, home of hoofed inhabitants recovering from past woes and enjoying a peaceful respite – not the least of which being Curly Sue, famed survivor of the "Last 28", horses saved from the final queue when slaughterhouses were outlawed. Piggy Paradise, where almost twenty pot-bellied pinnacles of preciousness root in the red clay of their special mud baths. Cat World, with numerous wards each designated for a specific feline demographic – from thin cats needing some fattening, fat cats needing some thinning, feral cats needing some patient socializing, and everything in-between. Parrot Garden, home to domestic birds who often outlive their human families. Wild Friends, whose programs and caretakers focus not on adoption, but rather upon the careful task of rehabilitating their inhabitants to ensure successful return to their natural environments. Rabbits, goats, burros, prairie dogs … no species turned away.
And let’s not forget Dogtown, an assortment of buildings across a landscape connected by winding, tree-lined walking paths … traversing everything from Puppy Preschool to Old Friends. National Geographic made a television series years ago about the important work they do here, most notably the rehabilitation of what are termed “The Vicktory Dogs” – many of whom have since been adopted and are living the lives they have always deserved.
In the middle of it all, you will find a congregational place called Angels Landing; people come here to rejuvenate, relax, and even at times, to marry. 5,500 feet above sea level, where The Anasazi once lived; cave paintings and structural remnants can be found here upon exploring the many cavernous corners and hidden lakes of this high desert landscape. The pueblos of this region’s predecessors may have since been replaced with state-of-the-art animal care facilities, but that has not interfered with the blessed nature of this place. This is truly hallowed ground.
If loving animals is your religion, there is no other way to put it – this is your Mecca.
What truly consecrates the Sanctuary, however, goes far beyond its many diverse animal inhabitants. When you are here, you find yourself surrounded by people – from all walks of life, with varying things to give – united in a common purpose, a shared belief. Every step among this kindred company is enveloped in compassion and colored with community. The newly married couple, flying across the country to spend time lavishing their affections not onto each other, but onto cats in need – those that have been deemed most eager for nurturing and care. The shy, quiet man, rolling up his sleeves in preparatory fashion, ready to muck a horse pasture that needs some tending. Children, together with their families who instead of choosing to spend their vacation visiting a place such as Disneyland, are here - working with rabbits recently rescued from a hoarding situation, all the while learning important lessons about kindheartedness, that animals are creatures versus merely things. A retired widow who, despite her own physical limitations, can see how important it is to take a book she’s just purchased with her each day to Dogtown, where she sits and reads for hours at a time to an older dog - one who is, likely for the first time, learning to trust in the soft voice of a kind and loving soul.
You see ... it is anything but random. They call this place “Angels Landing” for a reason.
Fresh off of the proverbial runways of every avenue of the Sanctuary, queues of volunteers assemble each day, waiting their turn to sign an animal out for a special sleepover – a line I found myself in, each and every night I was there. There are similar congregations each day, of families who have met a certain furry or feathered someone that they cannot bear to live their lives without. Adoption counselors carefully articulate proclivities, special diets, and every ounce of champion for their success. New families are celebrated with applause, encouragement, and always, always with joyful tears.
As luck would have it, my trip to the Sanctuary fell over the last week of the month, the time when a blessing is given at Angels Rest – the Sanctuary’s cemetery. When you traverse the memorials, the mementos, and the myriad sentiments that blanket the landscape in every direction, the music of wind chimes that hang from the trees flows through you. Despite the sub-100 degree temperatures and the utter lack of humidity, you won’t find a dry eye here; this week, none other than Ellen - one of the Vicktory dogs - is being eulogized. It has been five years since she first came to the Sanctuary, and she recently lost her battle with disease – but not before leaving a legacy, influencing the lift of restrictions that the courts once placed upon dogs like her. Her legacy changed the Sanctuary, everyone who knew her, and I believe, the lens of the entire world; listening to the sentiments delivered in her memory admittedly changed my lens, too - by draining them of tears, most notably.
One of our own was memorialized during this visit … Angel City Pit Bulls' own Prince William. His chime will forever hang from Tree 14 at Angels Rest, in honor of his life here on Earth - the hearts that he touched, and the way his time here has woven a thread that unites so many angels all together, in this world and beyond.
Our Angel City angel
Here on Earth and up above
The short time that we shared
Forged an everlasting love
If you visit the Sanctuary, be sure to pay a visit to his memorial chime, and let the wind that passes through soothe your soul in reminder of what his life will always represent.
So … my decisions remain yet before me. What will I do today? Will I take Jeffrey, the pot-bellied pig, for a nice long walk? Will I take a spatula and a jar of baby food, and with an outreached arm and a tender morsel, carefully encourage the shy cats to trust in humans once again? Will I grab my pitchfork, put my triceps to the test and clean the horse pastures, basking in the loving gaze of those intelligent, graceful creatures? The possibilities here are endless.
Today, however, I won’t be doing any of these; I have a special task to which I must attend. I have just learned that Eve, the ability-challenged pit bull who shares my name, now has a wagon available with tires freshly filled with air, and is eagerly awaiting the possibility of an outing. She has no use of her back legs, due to neurological damage likely from a car accident; while you might think this would thwart her enthusiasm and zest for life, think again. She doesn’t mind the heat or the dust … as long as we can roll all up and down the walkways that surround her temporary home here at Old Friends, her heart is content. And despite the heat, the heaviness of her wagon, and the hills … so is mine.
Eve is still looking for her forever home … if you think it may be yours, don’t hesitate. Her guardian angels have paid her adoption fee already. All she needs is for that special someone to see how much life she has, and how much she wants to live it with a family of her own.
Leaving the Sanctuary comes with a swirling mix of satisfaction and sorrow. Now, I am faced with a mathematical conundrum. By my accounting, there is no way around it – the laws of physics seem to have been defied. How could I have left such a gigantic piece of my heart behind, and yet – find my heart fuller than it has ever been?
There is but one answer… at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the laws that plague us elsewhere just don’t apply. I am glad that my next visit is already on the books; that is one other difficult part of leaving the Sanctuary that I have discovered ... the incessant yearning to go back ...
“Angel City” is the name we chose for our organization, and is a term we’ve referenced to characterize our home town of Los Angeles; the meaning of that term has typically been explained as two-fold. One, the more obvious – as a reference to the City of Angels; two, to illustrate a metaphorical allegory referring to the many angels that have left this life way too soon. I propose a third meaning – that “Angel City” also represents any place where these kinds of animal-loving kindred spirits flock together. There are most certainly angels like these among us … their congregations exist everywhere. In budding grassroots rescue groups, in rural animal shelters, and even in grade school classrooms they can be found. This Sanctuary is perhaps an "Angel City" all its own, representing a gathering place where these many angels can both find one another as well as refuel their tanks of inspiration, enabling them to return to the communities from whence they came and continue to spread their wings over the important work that there is left to do.
I’m no expert, nor any sort of seasoned veteran in this arena; what I am, mostly, is lucky. Blessed to have stumbled upon this world in general, that has introduced me to some of the most amazing angels who, fortunately for all, dwell among us here on Earth. With a teeming heart and a wellspring of gratitude, I thank Julie Honse - living angel, treasured friend and fellow advocate at Born Again Pit Bull Rescue, for the generous life-changing invitation to shepherd this, my maiden voyage. Thank you for who you are, all that you do ... and for sharing the beauty of it all with me.
So, over a sore and hunched back, tired fingers sporting freshly close-trimmed fingernails, and hands full of blisters, I leave you all with this. No matter what you may or may not have to give, what you may or may not believe about humanity and its nature, what you may or may not have endured in the walks of your path of animal welfare life thus far … grab your halo, dust off your wings, and get thee to Utah. You definitely will not escape there without leaving a giant piece of your heart behind, but fear not; according to my empirical research and recent discovery about the bent rules of physics, you have nothing to lose.
In fact, quite the contrary.