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.

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.”

Back in Utah, workdays are less dramatic. On a typical morning at Best Friends, Watt (now earning several thousand dollars more than she did in 2003) dresses for action in jeans, trail runners, a piggy paradise sweatshirt and a sparkle of eyeshadow. She’s a blur of motion, ponytail bouncing as she oversees workers stacking wooden supply-transport pallets, rustles up shovels for heaving gravel into storage cans and briefs volunteers on how to tidy an area outside Piggy Paradise headquarters. Patting shoulders as she bustles by, she calls everyone “darling” and swiftly molds a gaggle of California kids on spring break into a hardworking team. The students are here for a week, rotating through the various Best Friends neighborhoods. In Piggy Paradise, they fall in love with a potbelly named Sprocket and beg to take him on a sleepover to the house in Kanab where they’re staying. Best Friends lets volunteers take animals home overnight, and Sprocket, housebroken and unflappable, is on the approved list. Watt calls the owner of the house for permission, arranges for a van to transport the pig and asks her husband to send a photographer so they can post a story (“Sprocket Goes to Town”) on Best Friends’ website. 

 The constant motion of Watt’s job (“My iPhone is my office”) serves her restless spirit, but it’s Best Friends’ rescued horses that thrill her most. “They’re always monitoring what’s going on around them,” she says. “They reflect back the emotions you send out.” Not surprisingly, the Watt household has now swelled to three horses (two of them are fosters), three goats, six dogs and a group of feral cats.

Living in Kanab has also enriched Watt’s relationships with humans. “The silence of this place magnifies your inner self,” she says. “There are no distractions, so you concentrate on friendships. I’ve made the best friends of my life here.” On weekends, she and Jason cook with their buddies, watch rented films or go hiking. “The move was one of the best things I’ve ever done,” Jason says. “It’s given me challenges, opportunities and skills I would never have had. I won’t ever leave.”

Still, there are trade-offs. Jason misses New Jersey pizza, Watt hankers for Whole Foods, and the nearest Target is 80 miles away. Kanab, population 5,400, is a place where you make your own happiness.

Of course, there’s a sad side to working at an animal sanctuary. “A dog was turned in a few years ago because he didn’t match the color scheme of the new house,” she recalls. Many of Best Friends’ inhabitants come from hoarders who amass hundreds of animals they cannot care for. And then there are the cruelty cases. “We did a rescue in Gabbs, Nevada, of dogs abandoned in pens in the middle of the desert. One, named Tuffy, survived the most awful injuries.” But the sanctuary’s success stories make the sadness more bearable. “Tuffy is happy and healthy now and in a wonderful home,” says Watt. That so many animals, even gravely injured ones, can be rescued, healed and placed for adoption inspires her to keep going.

Lately, Watt’s work at Best Friends has led to an interest in natural horse training, a style pioneered by Pat Parelli, who runs a worldwide organization that teaches people how to become the animal’s partner instead of its master. “I observed a demonstration class at Best Friends and realized I’d been working with horses the wrong way all my life,” Watt says. Now she wants to study the method, continue working at Best Friends and eventually run a side business as a Parelli horsemanship instructor. “I can use my airplane to visit clients who want me to train their horses,” she says. Will this be her last career change? Unlikely. When a visitor to Best Friends describes her as a serial reinventor, Watt cracks a big smile. “That’s the nicest thing anybody’s ever said to me.”
 

Volunteering at Best Friends

Call 435-644-2001 (extension 4119) to sign up for a tour or set up a stint, from a single day to several weeks. Volunteers can stay in one of the cabins or cottages on the sanctuary grounds for $55 to $125 a night, depending on the season (they’re sometimes booked two years in advance), or at one of the many motels in nearby Kanab. Best Friends is an hour-and-a-half drive from the airport in St. George, Utah, and less than two hours from Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon, which you’ll surely want to visit if you’re in the area.

Susan Crandell, author of Thinking About Tomorrow: Reinventing Yourself at Midlife, lives with her husband and three rescue cats.

Originally published under the title "Call of the Wild" in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of More.

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First Published Tue, 2010-10-26 12:03

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