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

After their vacation, they returned home to put their house on the market. Meanwhile, Watt continued giving flying instruction 25 hours a week, tracked Kanab real estate listings and regularly checked bestfriends.org, hoping to find a suitable job opening for Jason. Her soap opera earnings had enabled them to buy their first house, so they decided that he would be the main provider now. One day she noticed that Best Friends had an opening for a videographer and that a beautiful cedar house near Kanab, with commanding views of the desert, was for sale. She took this as a sign of what their future would look like. Jason, who’d studied filmmaking in college, applied for the position and was invited to Best Friends for a tryout. (The nonprofit requires many prospective employees, even previous volunteers, to work for two weeks at the job before it makes an offer.)

By July 2003, the pair were on the road to Utah with luggage piled on top of the car and their three dogs curled up in the backseat. “Jason and I turned to each other at one point and said, ‘Are we mad?’ ” recalls Watt. The first week in Kanab, they took another big risk, putting down a chunk of their savings on the cedar house. With uncertain job prospects and two mortgage payments due (their New Jersey house still hadn’t found a buyer), the situation looked perilous. “One of Best Friends’ founders, a very sensible lady, asked me what we were going to do if Jason didn’t get the job,” Watt says. She had no answer and felt a stab of panic (“What if we’re poor and homeless and it’s all my fault?”). But having already made several career changes, she had faith in her internal compass. “Most people don’t listen to their inner voice, but if you do, everything works out,” she says.

The couple planned to live on Jason’s new salary, but the amount hadn’t been posted in the ad. When they discovered that if hired he would make only $37,000 (about a third of his voice-over earnings), Watt quickly applied for a volunteer-coordinator job at Dogtown, which paid $18,000. Her tryout went so well that after three days, Best Friends broke with protocol and signed her on. And at the end of his audition, Jason became the sanctuary’s first official videographer.

With two mortgages draining their savings, however, their salaries weren’t enough to live on. Eight months after the move and down to $300 in their checking account, the couple had a huge fight. “I believed we’d ride out the situation,” says Watt, “but he saw my confidence as nonchalance, and that set him off.” Jason moved into the guest room.

The turnaround came soon after the blowup, when the New Jersey house finally sold and Jason fell in love—with a feral Chihuahua. “Chaco came from a terrible animal-hoarding situation, a person who had more than 250 dogs,” says Watt. “When we adopted him, he became Jason’s best buddy.”

With the couple’s debt reduced and marital harmony restored, Watt reveled in her new job. Over the next few years, her position expanded, and she’s now the coordinator of volunteer groups and interns for the entire ­sanctuary—Piggy Paradise, Horse Haven, Cat World, the bird and rabbit areas. Dozens of people help at Best Friends every day, most of them out-of-­towners on volunteer vacations, and Watt matches their interests with work that has to be done, like taking 140-pound potbellied pigs for their morning walk and cleaning the rabbit hutches.

In 2005 she was part of Best Friends’ Hurricane Katrina response team, which rescued 6,000 animals, mostly pets (including one emu) trapped in flooded homes and backyards. While Jason worked on logistics from the Kanab headquarters, Watt was deployed along with about 20 others to a rescue facility in Mississippi. “I spent seven months living in a trailer, being eaten alive by bugs, but when you save animals, there is no feeling like it in the world,” she says. “Every night around midnight, a big truck would arrive from New Orleans full of dogs. We’d unload them, get them set up for the night and, in the morning, process them through a makeshift clinic for vaccinations and medical care.”

First Published November 15, 2010

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