SANCTUARY DRAWS COMPASSIONATE VACATIONERS

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KANAB, Utah -- Marrying into a family of rabid animal lovers was one thing. But when Barb Dugan's husband-to-be suggested they celebrate their union by helping care for a menagerie of stray and abused pets near Utah's Zion National Park, she balked.

''I told him, 'No way am I picking up dog poop on my honeymoon,' '' recalls Dugan, a photography teacher from Syracuse, N.Y.

Shoveling manure is still a no-go. But one year and two stray-cat adoptions later, Dugan and her new spouse, Mike -- with his parents, sister and brother-in-law in tow -- have joined a cadre of vacationing volunteers at Best Friends, the USA's largest animal sanctuary.

Over the next few days, Dugan will happily snuggle rabbits and juggle dog food bowls -- and watch her husband dispatch dung.

''It's good exercise,'' argues Mike Dugan, hauling a heavy (and pungently scented) wheelbarrow through a corral that shelters several of the sanctuary's 35 permanently out-to-pasture horses. ''But altruism'' -- key to the growing number of other do-good vacations -- ''is the big draw here.''

Established in the early 1980s by a small group of like-minded friends who abhorred the then-widespread practice of euthanizing unwanted but healthy pets, Best Friends now boasts about 1,500 furred and feathered residents (including 1,200 cats and dogs) and an annual budget of $14 million -- sustained largely through donations from the non-profit's 250,000 members.

About three-quarters of Best Friends' animals wind up in permanent or foster homes, and the sanctuary's high-profile proselytizing for spay/neuter and adoption programs has helped slash the number of cats and dogs destroyed in U.S. shelters and pounds from an estimated 17 million in 1987 to less than 5 million last year.

Thanks in part to its spectacular location in the middle of southern Utah's ''Grand Circle'' -- a cluster of national parks within a few hours' drive -- the 3,300-acre sanctuary draws about 20,000 visitors a year.

Most are content to browse the well-stocked gift shop for ''no outfit is complete without dog hair'' magnets, watch a warm-and-cuddly video with kudos from celebrity backers Laura Dern and Noah Wylie, and take a guided, 1-hour tour.

The van trip combines local lore (the sanctuary's canyon setting was a favorite location for Western moviemakers from the 1930s through the 1950s) with brief stops at such sanctuary landmarks as the Kitty Motel and Dogtown Heights.

But unlike some other animal refuges that require would-be volunteers to commit to a month or more of service, Best Friends welcomes hands-on helpers for as little as half a day.

And that, along with a cacophonous chorus of yelps and whines, is music to the ears of animal aficionado Priscilla Willess of Rockwall, Texas.

Still mourning the death of her family's Australian shepherd a year ago, she persuaded her husband and three kids to make a Best Friends detour as part of a two-week driving trip to Southern California.

''I couldn't wait to get here, and the plan is to leave with lots of slobber,'' Willess says.

Today's assignment: keeping company with the residents of Old Friends, a new section devoted to aging and special-needs dogs.

While Best Friends' land-locked Noah's Ark encompasses everything from potbellied pigs to a pair of wild burros airlifted from the nearby Grand Canyon, many volunteers gravitate here.

In an air-conditioned, improbably clean octagon with a central courtyard, indoor/outdoor runs and kitchen, its two dozen canine denizens ''live pretty high on the hog,'' says Willess, giving a belly rub to Trey, a three-legged yellow Lab mix.

They are not the only ones: At a nearby complex dubbed the WildCats Village, there are about 350 feral cats, whose fear of humans makes them poor candidates for adoption. They spend their days snoozing on leopard-print cushions, sharpening claws on cedar climbing posts and peering at human admirers from the safe confines of outdoor rafters.

Relatively few Best Friends volunteers venture to ''The Hill'' or ''The Ridge,'' considerably less posh compounds of plywood kennels and chain-link fences topped with ''Beware of Dog'' signs.

They're home to some of the sanctuary's most difficult-to-place castaways, from wolf mixes to pit bulls, as well as adoptable pooches waiting their turns for placement in newer digs.

But when they're not feeding, combing or walking their four-legged charges, most volunteers wind up at Angels Rest.

Tucked against the canyon's red walls behind a fancifully carved wrought-iron gate, the cemetery contains brick markers, tinkling wind chimes and a smattering of well-chewed socks -- all memorializing hundreds of former pets of Best Friends residents and supporters, from Butch (''A Good Trail Dog'') to Angelique Louise (''Gave Much, Demanded Little, Forgave Quickly, Forever Missed'').

And to Barb Dugan, the reluctant visitor turned hate-to-leave softie, it reaffirms what her relatives knew all along: ''Every animal here was loved, and gave unconditional love in return

Planet Pets is not responsible for content or opinions of contributing writers


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