The National Geographic Channel has produced a documentary series full of amazing stories of redemption and overcoming incredible odds. And, oh yeah, it's about dogs.
"Dogtown," which debuts tonight at 7 and 10 on the National Geographic Channel, takes viewers inside the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, a 33,000-acre spread in southern Utah that's one of the world's largest no-kill facilities. It's "sort of a last resort" for animals who have nowhere else to go, said Dr. Michael Dix, medical director of the facility outside Kanab.
The intent is not to accept hopeless cases old dogs at death's door but to help animals that can be helped, help people who can't afford veterinary care and find homes for dogs. The veterinary staff, armed with state-of-the-art facilities, does everything it can to treat the animals.
As viewers quickly see, some "horrible things" have happened to a lot of these dogs. Some have serious illnesses; some have been badly abused; some have severe behavioral problems.
"You can't turn around 100 percent of them, but I'd say we get close to 100 percent of them to some level of workability," Dix said in a telephone interview with the Deseret Morning News. "I'm amazed at the people who do it."
It's not just the medical miracles performed by the veterinary staff, it's the psychological miracles performed by the animal behaviorists. In the series premiere, Sherry Woodard works with Animal, a terrier turned vicious by a caged life in a puppy mill. In Episode 2, the animal behavior consultant works with Annie, a mixed breed who bit a young child.
By the end of the each episode, we see startling progress.
"That's the sort of thing we do at Dogtown," Woodard said. "Animal is an incredible little guy. And in most situations, dogs like Annie and Animal don't have a chance. They need help. And one of the overall messages is we, as America, can be helping a lot of animals.
"There are amazing dogs that have been able to turn around and come from situations of huge fear aggression and end up as loving, wonderful members of society that can go anywhere and do anything."
Best Friends' goal is to find homes for every animal. While some end up at the sanctuary for the long-term, most are placed.
"We're always looking for the perfect home, but for some of them, that home might be pretty rare," Woodard said. "People that take in some really special dogs always seem to have some already."
"Dogtown" can be tough to watch. Viewers see animals who have suffered even died at the hands of their owners. Dix has worked with thousands of animals at Dogtown (last week, he estimated the current population at about 800), but the emotional effect "doesn't completely wear off."
"What has happened since I've been here is I've seen enough of them get better and mentally be healthy dogs or cats that it doesn't bog me down anymore," he said. "Because I know that for most of them, there's hope. Most of them do get better.
"Is it still sad? Yeah. Is it still horrible to see some of the abuse cases? Definitely. Those are the hard ones. But seeing so many of these dogs rebound keeps me going."
"Being with Best Friends and being with Dogtown," Woodard said, "I get to be on the good end of sad stories."
"Dogtown" is also the story of the people who devote their lives to saving animals. (The series focuses on dogs, but there are also cats, horses, rabbits, goats and various other farm animals at the sanctuary.)
Dix admits that he "begrudgingly" came to Kanab for the first time because his wife a longtime member of Best Friends pretty much dragged him there.
"I came out here and I love the place. I love the environment. I love the people we met," he said. "It seemed like it was a great organization as well as a very nice way to practice medicine meaning I didn't have the short-term restrictions that you often have in private practice."
Woodard, who's been with Best Friends for 12 years, said this is her "life's work."
"I think it was actually meant to be. I came upon Best Friends, took a tour and thought, 'This is where I'm supposed to be,"' she said. "It is definitely not a job, it's a life."
Best Friends operates entirely on donated funds, and a best-case scenario for "Dogtown" would be to not only raise awareness but raise funds.
"We hope it brings more attention to us as an organization as well as to the whole animal welfare movement," Dix said."We are at a time when there are millions of homeless pets every year," Woodard said. "So we're hoping that we can make a difference putting the message out that, overall, we need to care more about every living creature. And create less of them and take better care of the ones that exist."