Vacationing friends "went to the dogs" recently -- and found the experience to be their dream trip.
The animal-loving trio included Donna Clanton, Alicia Holliman and Karen D. Clark. Each active in the local animal welfare community, Clanton and Holliman serve on the board of Middle Tennessee Spay and Neuter Clinic, and Clark is a board member of the Shelbyville-Bedford Humane Association who also works at Bedford County Animal Control.
The well-loved facility may be best-known for the National Geographic Channel series, "Dogtown." In four seasons, the program profiled staff and volunteers as they cared for dogs in need of homes from 2008 to 2010. Many of the animals featured were severely abused or neglected.
At the open of the second season, Dogtown featured the group's rescue of 22 pit bulls seized from football player Michael Vick's Bad Newz Kennel.
They call them the "Vick-tory Dogs."
While other national organizations had called for the dogs to be killed, the pits were accepted into the ranks of Dogtown -- simply, they had nowhere else to go. Many of them suffered from serious psychological and emotional trauma, similar to that of children from situations of abuse and neglect.
In the past four years, they've made progress: Learning how to play. How to relax. How to love. Many have been adopted, but some will remain at the animal sanctuary for the remainder of their lives.
"From the moment Lucas arrived at Best Friends, it was obvious he loves people. He not only wants to be around humans, he absolutely has to be around humans," says Michelle Logan, a team leader at Dogtown. "He's just always been happy-go-lucky."
Set on 33,000-acre Angel Canyon Ranch, the vision for the animal facility began to take shape in the 1970s with a group of animal lovers who eschewed the then-conventional wisdom that animal societies and shelters had only one choice in caring for animals who could not be adopted -- euthanasia.
In a pilot program, they rescued animals from shelters where their luck was about to run out, rehabilitated them, and found homes for hundreds of cast-off cats and dogs.
"Those who were still unadoptable formed an eccentric assortment of wonderful and lovable creatures whose numbers grew until Best Friends was established in the early 1980s as a large and unique sanctuary at Angel Canyon in Utah," say the foundation's organizers.
In 1990, a reported 15 million animals were killed in shelters, and that number has dropped to less than five million in recent years.
On any given day, the sanctuary is home to about 2,000 animals. Most of these are dogs and cats, but there are also horses, burros, birds, rabbits, goats, farm animals, and an assortment of other creatures who co-habitate peacefully in Catworld, the Bunny House or Horse Haven. There is a Parrot Garden for feathered friends, and Piggy Paradise which frequently houses abandoned pot-bellied pigs after the 'cute factor' wanes.
"The animals come from all over the country, and sometimes beyond -- mostly from shelters that don't have the resources to rehabilitate them and where they would otherwise be destroyed," reads the website. In exchange, many of these shelters take back animals that are ready to be placed in good homes.
Most of them -- approximately three out of four -- are soon ready to go to good homes with permanent or foster families, making way for the daily new arrivals. Others, who are too badly traumatized through ill treatment or who are old, crippled or chronically ill, find a permanent home at the sanctuary.
Clanton found the town of Kanab to be particularly welcoming, with pet-friendly hotels and restaurants. Dog Benny stayed with the ladies in their hotel for two nights of their stay.
"It's the friendliest town," said Clanton of Kanab.
The foundation is funded by the donations of members like Holliman, who has been a supporter since the 1980s. In part sparked by the popularity of the television show, the organization credits 300,000 U.S. households for providing a means of paying operating costs.
Best Friends is not formally affiliated with other animal welfare groups, but works cooperatively with hundreds of other organizations.
"We came back relaxed, energized and ready to go," said Clanton, who has already made plans to return. "We already have hotel rooms booked for next year," said Clanton.