By Laine Bergeson, Experience Life
Despite graduating high school early and having his pick of several enticing college scholarships, John Garcia went to work at a nearby animal sanctuary right out of school because he had a debt to pay — though not the financial kind.
“I grew up in a very small town, and my best friend as a kid was my dog,” says the 28-year-old dog trainer and star of the National Geographic Channel’s series DogTown, a show that chronicles the lives of the dogs in DogTown, the designated dog area at the Kanab, Utah–based Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.
A self-described chubby Latino kid growing up in a conservative Anglo town, Garcia wound up as a loner much of the time. He says only the animals in his life refused to judge him and never tired of his company. “Pretty much my entire life I knew I wanted to work with animals. I always felt I had a debt to repay to them for what they’d done for me growing up.”
He got that chance when he landed a job at the 3,700-acre Best Friends sanctuary. Tucked into the majestic red-rock country of southern Utah, the center came to national prominence in 2007 when it took in the 22 most-abused dogs the government rescued from former NFL star quarterback Michael Vick’s illegal dog-fighting ring.
Unlike many humane societies and other rescue organizations, Best Friends was committed to working with the dogs — all American Pit Bull Terriers or pit bull mixes — rather than euthanizing them. While the government mandated that two dogs remain at the sanctuary for life for their own safety and happiness, the other 20 dogs (once they pass the rigorous stipulations set out by the government) will eventually find new homes — an outcome many people once considered impossible.
Garcia, however, was not surprised. Despite their reputation, he says, American Pit Bull Terriers are filled with potential. “Pitties, by nature, are very loving and very loyal. If they are brought up properly and socialized properly, they are the best dogs in the world.”