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A BETTER PERSON
By EILEEN JONES
I don’t know if you’ve ever considered trying to become, ahem, a Better Person. Not that I recommend it—everything associated with becoming a Better Person (BP for short) is pretty unpleasant. Like most of humanity, I’m comfortable in a state of complete moral rot, which makes self-improvement difficult. But, I don’t know, there’s something in the air lately. Everybody’s all, “yes we can!” Oddly well-behaved young people now expect you to recycle and be tolerant and volunteer for stuff and not drink so much, and are shocked when you disappoint them.
Anyway, I gave it a try recently, setting out to help animals. I refuse to help people. I hate people. But animals, I’ve always liked, nice, sane, fur-bearing mammals in particular.
Thus began my dark journey into the world of voluntary goodness.
Some family members of mine are obsessive dog-helpers, and they were headed out to volunteer at this place called Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, so I went along. It’s located in Southern Utah, but I still went along. That just shows how serious I was about becoming a BP. Because I know Utah. I’ve been there before. I even lived there for a while, and somehow managed to escape, so like a Stephen King character I feared going back to face the fanged clown lurking in the sewer.
Revelation #1: Even getting to the place where you might do some good is ridiculously hard.
Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is pretty well-known by now, mainly for saving a lot of the Michael Vick dogs and the Hurricane Katrina dogs, and for the National Geographic show, Dogtown. They rescue a lot of other animals too, horses, cats, birds, rabbits, pot-bellied pigs, and so on. They’ve got massive acreage right in the middle of red rock canyon country, which most people think is beautiful but I think is sinister. They lure you in, you stupid tourist—“Oh look at the nice red rock, take a picture”—and the next thing you know you’re buried in a shallow grave of dusty pink soil. That’s the kind of place it is. Southern Utah is even more extremely Utahan than Northern Utah, which makes it a likely candidate for the Heart of Darkness. You can hear the banjos playing the duet from Deliverance the whole time you’re there.
If you decide to volunteer at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, chances are you’ll fly into Las Vegas. That’s pretty unpleasant to start with. For me, Las Vegas had exactly two good qualities, the inclinators at the Egyptian Hotel that ascend and descend slantwise, and certain cool views of the lit-up strip at night that had an insane exuberance to them. Well, the inclinators still function, I believe, but the cool views are destroyed. They’ve built up so much crap recently with no regard for sightlines that the whole place is just a big ugly mess, day or night. Nobody cares but me, I realize, because the place still fulfills its basic function as an aggravating American theme park, Dickheadland.
So moving on, we drive four hours northeast from Vegas to the tiny town of Kanab, Utah. Well before you get there you’ll notice that you’re in the middle of nowhere and nobody will hear you scream when cannibalistic locals set upon your vehicle like in a scene from The Hills Have Eyes. Though Kanab is located in the ironically-named Angel Canyon and contained within the “Golden Circle” of parks including Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park, there are many long desert miles between those relatively safe tourist havens. Think of it this way: Southern Utah is where polygamists go to live in walled-off compounds because they’re so far out in the sticks they feel the law can’t reach them there. And if the law can’t reach them, it can’t reach you.
Kanab is a tiny, scrubby town that you’ve driven through before you realize you’re there, so you have to backtrack. It’s got that run-down, seedy air of places where the unemployment rate has always been 30% or higher, giving the locals plenty of time to pursue their avocation, glaring at outsiders. They recognize tourists instantly, of course, and since there’s nothing in the town itself to visit except Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, they strongly suspect that’s why you’re there. And they hate you for it.
Revelation #2: The minute you set out to do good even in a small way, you’ll realize you’re hemmed in on all sides by total slavering malevolence. Normally, see, you’d be at one with it and never notice.
Naturally they would hate Best Friends, it being a big employer in the county and an entirely benign institution and all. You get the visceral-hate-vibe from sullen Kanabites when you walk from your little rental house to The Rocking V restaurant with the unexpectedly great food, or the nice coffee place, I forget its name. These two places particularly cater to sanctuary employees and tourists. You’ll get told later that those are among the few public spots where you can be sure of a welcome, but you don’t really need to be told. Believe me, the first thing you’ll want to do when you hit Kanab is go to one of those little oases of civilization.
You might think you mock civilization, but you actually love it, love it with a swelling heart and tears in your eyes, and you will find that out when you get to Kanab.
The sanctuary itself is midway up a mountain, and right away you’re surrounded by cheerful do-gooders in Best Friends T-shirts and comfortable shoes. They know you’re not to be trusted on your own around animals, so they tour you around the dog runs and bunny hutches explaining everything to you in words of one syllable. This has to be endured if you’re going to earn the privilege of shoveling shit later.
Revelation #3: You can’t become a better person without shoveling shit.
I volunteered to work with the horses, because I’m nervous about horses, and conquering fears is all part of the BP agenda. Major shit-shoveling ensued.
A Best Friends employee, we’ll call him Jeff, rode around in a little cart that totes offal while we volunteers shoveled it in. Jeff was desperate for sympathetic company from the outside world, because he’d been at Best Friends a whole eight months and felt he couldn’t take much more. After cautiously sounding out my views and discovering that, like Alice Roosevelt, my motto is, “If you can’t say something good about someone, sit right here by me,” he started confiding. The sanctuary is fine, he said, it’s Kanab that’s killing me. A real heartland horror show, this town, he told me, populated by grim Mormon gun nuts somewhere to the political right of Joseph Goebbels. Animal abuse rates in Southern Utah are off the charts, he muttered, and these degenerate Cletuses regard animal-rescue as some sort of personal affront. He told me about the “safe spots” to go for food and drink, the hostile turf to avoid if I valued my life, and the overall ghastliness of living in a creepy little burg in the middle of desert scrubland surrounded by violent yahoos.
So in other words, Jeff’s was a pretty straightforward story of the American culture wars. He concluded by saying he was moving to Seattle at the end of the month.
Revelation #4: As you struggle to get into a place where you can do good, somebody else is struggling even harder to get out, and that’s why Baby Jesus cries all the time.
Feeling unburdened, Jeff rewarded us volunteers by letting us stop shoveling shit. We got to groom horses instead. A lot of “recession horses” wind up at Best Friends, abandoned by their owners after the economy tanked. Mine was a retired thoroughbred racehorse of colossal height, about Trojan Horse size, I estimated, as I tiptoed up to his immense brown flank. Luckily he was so tall he was indifferent to everything under six feet, and paid me no mind. There was never any real equine danger, or course. The rescue horses that were badly abused and are looking for payback against humankind are kept in separate paddocks. They stared at us unblinkingly as we passed.
Next day I volunteered to do good for the dogs. Naturally I chose playing with the puppies as my form of doing good; everybody does. There are mobs of volunteers to play with the puppies. The poor puppies get worn out from petting and have to be removed from the volunteers for their own safety.
Revelation #5: Volunteering to pet puppies doesn’t really count as a good deed.
Then I switched over to the very old dogs, but a lot of them are preoccupied with staring at the horizon in a regal manner, conferring with the infinite and sniffing the air, which is frankly how I hope to end my days. I washed down their kennel areas with bleach while the volunteer supervisor, a sixtyish woman named Peggy, told me about her early life as a fervent leftist working with the Black Panthers “before they got too radical.” Her post-retirement career was working at Best Friends, she said, and she didn’t mind living in Southern Utah because she didn’t go out much anymore, anyway. Older people do better working at the sanctuary, she told me, because they aren’t out hunting for mates and friends and a social life among the Kanabites.
At lunchtime each day everyone got shuttled up to Angel Village Café, the sanctuary’s mountaintop restaurant with a staggering view where, for $5, you can eat all you want at the buffet. It’s a pretty good buffet, too, considering that vegetarian food is all you’re going to get. The staff eats there, the volunteers eat there, John Garcia, the Dogtown host, eats there. That’s the place where you have reason to fear someone might start singing “Kumbaya.” Everyone is aggressively nice and smiling. Hi, how are you, take my chair, let me bus that tray for you, isn’t it a beautiful view? It’s a BP jamboree. You feel helpless against all the pleasantries. Are there hidden cameras? Do they wait for the volunteers to leave before they resume displaying their essential human rottenness? Or do they just go right out after lunch and rescue more animals, thus shaming us all?
I got the hell out of there and waited to see if any of my recent attempts at goodness had made a dent in my character. They hadn’t, of course. I could shovel shit till doomsday and remain fundamentally arrogant and bad. But I’ve learned to keep up appearances better, which is something in our current sanctimonious climate, I guess. When Best Friends sends me an e-mail plea or something, I sponsor a sanctuary dog for a small annual fee. The first one, named Pacino—stupid name, all wrong for him—got adopted. The latest one’s name is Tulip.
Revelation #6: If you’ve got any to spare, just send the money.
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