From Pilot to Animal Rescuer

Serial reinventor Juliette Watt had been a casino card dealer, singer, soap opera writer and flight instructor. Then a volunteer vacation at an animal sanctuary set her on another path.

By Susan Crandell
Photograph: Photo: Jesse Chehak

On a dazzling September afternoon in southern Utah’s dramatically gorgeous canyon country, while gazing at ancient cliffs shadowed in hues of vermilion and vanilla against a cobalt sky, Juliette Watt had an epiphany.

Watt and her husband, Jason, were one week into a volunteer vacation at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, a 3,800-acre compound that’s a last-chance haven for 1,700 dogs, cats, horses, pigs and birds. Watt was working in Dogtown, Best Friends’ canine quarters.

“I was cleaning out their kennels, scooping dog poop,” she recalls. “I could see 100 miles in the clear air. That’s when I had what I call my Eckhart Tolle moment, a powerful knowing that we had to move here.” Ready for change and burned out on East Coast big-city life, Watt felt nourished by the desert surroundings. She looked forward to sharing her revelation with Jason, who was toiling elsewhere in Dogtown.

A handsome woman with big hazel eyes and a high-voltage personality (her surname is apt), Watt was already well into her fourth act when the urge to upend her life struck that day in 2002. Born and raised in London, she grew up with dogs (“We got the rejects breeders didn’t want”) and was such a good horsewoman that MGM studios hired her as a stunt rider for films such as The Charge of the Light Brigade. Before coming to the U.S. in 1976 and landing a gig as a chanteuse in Playboy clubs throughout the country, Watt had dealt cards in a casino and sung in cabarets in Turkey, Lebanon and Belgium. In her forties, she settled in New York and thrived as an ABC-TV scriptwriter, turning out more than 700 soap opera episodes and earning a six-figure salary.

Watt met Jason, a voice-over actor 15 years her junior, through a friend after her first marriage ended. The couple wed in 1994 and bought a house in New Jersey. Not long after that, Watt fulfilled a long-held ambition to become a pilot and teach flying. As a flight instructor, she pulled in about $40,000 a year, sometimes taking her students, mostly doctors and businesspeople, up in her own four-seat Mooney. But after the 9/11 attacks, business waned, and her old restlessness returned. Then came the trip to Best Friends.

After a few days of volunteering, Watt felt a strong connection to the mission of the sanctuary (no animal is ever euthanized there except in cases of painful terminal illness) and to the staff, many of whom had left behind successful first careers; there was a rocket scientist, a corporate purchasing agent, a medical writer. She felt an even stronger connection to the land, the glorious high desert just outside the town of Kanab. When Watt decided to move there, she had no idea what she’d do for a living. But that didn’t faze her. “I’m a jack-of-all-trades,” she says. “To work among the animals at Best Friends would be great, but I could also be a waitress or a flight instructor. I just knew that this was the place I had to be. That evening I told Jason, ‘We’re moving.’ ”

Her husband balked. Jason loved animals and adored southern Utah, with its beautiful desert landscape and national parks, but didn’t relish change and couldn’t imagine that a voice-over actor would find much work in the area. “I was scared of leaving my comfort zone,” he says. “But Juliette taught me to move outside it.” Trusting his wife’s instincts, he agreed to relocate.

First Published November 15, 2010

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