Nola Stories: Hurricane Katrina Animal Rescue
A documentary, featuring Juliette Watt.
Video Credit: Jeff Buss and Christina Ciano, Filmmakers
Featured on NEXT Act For WOMEN
BECOMING A PILOT IN MIDLIFE: JULIETTE’S STORY
POSTED ON MARCH 27, 2017
Juliette’s life has been full of adventure and brush with fame—Cat Stevens, Hugh Hefner, Bruce Springsteen—not the least of which is getting her pilot’s license and using that skill to help rescue animals after Hurricane Katrina. What an odyssey!
featured in People Magazine
Eager to Adopt a Pet? She Delivers—by Air
BY LARRY SUTTON
POSTED ON AUGUST 20, 2007 AT 12:00PM EST
Juliette Watt, 56
Juliette Watt will go to extraordinary lengths to help a bunny in distress. Or 1,600 bunnies, as was the case last year when the owner of a rabbit ranch in Nevada decided he could no longer care for his cottontails. Watt fired up her four-seat, single-engine plane and flew the rabbits, 21 at a time, to animal sanctuaries from Southern California to Martha’s Vineyard, making sure her passengers had plenty of lettuce and liquids along the way. “Rabbits need to get out of their cages to eat and stretch every few hours,” says Watt. “And you can’t do that on commercial airlines.”
Comforting bunnies—as well as cats, dogs, horses, snakes and other critters—keeps Watt plenty busy when she isn’t coordinating volunteers at Utah’s Best Friends Animal Society, the country’s largest animal sanctuary. A licensed pilot since 1996 (a longtime dream), she has used her own plane to rescue pets from places like hurricane-ravaged Louisiana. She also delivers about 200 tough-to-place animals annually to new owners in towns across America. (Best Friends pays for the fuel.) “To bring together a homeless pet with the perfect new companions—nothing can match that,” says the British-born Watt, whose husband, Jason, 40, produces promotional videos for the shelter.
Among Juliette’s fans: Patti Lehman of Kissimmee, Fla., who adopted Ms. Laura, a blind, lame but “full of spirit” mixed-breed dog, rescued from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Says Lehman: “I’ll always be grateful to Juliette for bringing her into my life.”
FEATURED in More Magazine
287 Secrets of reinventing your Life: Big and Small Ways to Embrace New Possibilities
Following Your Passion
Sometimes a hobby is merely a hobby, and sometimes it can redirect your life. In this chapter, you’ll hear about women who jettisoned their original careers and chose a different future, channeling their enthusiasms—for anything from animals to food to connecting with nature—into work that is not only financially viable, but emotionally fulfilling.
Call of the Wild - Juliette Watt
By Susan Crandell
On a dazzling September afternoon in southern Utah’s dramatically gorgeous canyon country, while gazing at ancient cliffs shad- owed 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 a hundred 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 sur- roundings. She looked forward to sharing her revelation with Jason, who was toiling elsewhere in Dogtown.
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 United States 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, Leba- non, and Belgium. In her forties, she settled in New York and thrived as an ABC-TV scriptwriter, turning out more than seven hundred soap opera episodes and earning a six- figure salary.
Watt met Jason, a voice-over actor fifteen years her junior, through a friend after her first marriage ended. They married in 1994 and bought a house in New Jersey. Not long after that, Watt fulfilled a long-held ambi- tion to become a pilot and teach fly- ing. As a flight instructor, she pulled in about $40,000 a year, sometimes tak- ing her students, mostly doctors and businesspeople, up in her own four- seat Mooney. After the 9/11 attacks, however, 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, and a medical writer. Watt also loved the glorious high desert landscape 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 this was the place I had to be. That evening I told Jason, ‘We’re moving.’”
Her husband balked. Jason loved animals and adored the beauty of southern Utah 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 to give flying instruc- tion twenty-five 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 these as signs 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 back- seat. 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. Watt says she felt a stab of panic (“What if we’re poor and home- less, 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 had 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 sanctu- ary’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 situa- tion, 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. During 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, and the bird and rabbit areas. Dozens of people help at Best Friends every day, most of them out-of-towners on volun- teer vacations, and Watt matches their interests with work that has to be done, such as taking 140-pound potbellied pigs for their morning walks and cleaning the rabbit hutches.
In 2005, she was part of Best Friends’ Hurricane Katrina response team, which rescued six thousand 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 twenty others to a rescue facility in Mississippi. “I spent seven months living in a trailer, being eaten alive by bugs,” she says, “but when you save animals, there is no feeling like it in the world. Every night around mid- night, 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 morn- ing at Best Friends, Watt is 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 head- quarters. 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 serves her restless spirit, but Best Friends’ rescued horses thrill her the most. “They’re always monitoring what’s going on around them,” she says. “They reflect back the emotions you send out.”
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 friend- ships. I’ve made the best friends of my life here.”
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. Then there are the cruelty cases. “We did a rescue in Gabbs, Nevada, of dogs abandoned in pens in the mid- dle of the desert.” The sanctuary’s success stories make the sad- ness more bearable. 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. 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. “It’s a way to make the world a better place for humans and horses, working with different rescue groups and shelters, working with horses that are ‘difficult’—I would like to make a difference in that area.”
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.”
The Most Important Thing I Did Right
“Trusting my instincts.”
The Most Important Thing I Learned
“When your gut, your instinct, your whole body are telling you to do something, even though it may seem like the craziest, most insane thing, do it. I used to ignore that; when my instincts told me to do something, I would always question it and talk myself out of it. Now it’s sort of like the filter has gone.”
| August 10, 2007 |
Her day job is watching over all the volunteers and visitors who stream in and out of Best Friends Dogtown to help look after the pooches. But Juliette Watt is also a licensed pilot and flight instructor with her own four-seater Mooney plane. So she’s often aloft, bringing rescued animals back to the sanctuary or delivering them to their new homes.
And this week, she’s profiled in People Magazine in their "Heroes Among Us" section.
The article describes how she’s used her plane to rescue pets from hurricane-ravaged Louisiana, as well as to deliver hundreds of tough-to-place animals annually to new homes in towns across the country.
One of Juliette’s projects was helping place rabbits in new homes and refuges during the Great Bunny Rescue last year, when Best Friends rescued 1,600 rabbits from a backyard hoarding situation in Reno, Nevada. "Rabbits need to get out of their cages to eat and stretch every few hours," she told People Magazine. "And you can’t do that on commercial airlines."
Not mentioned in the article: Juliette’s longest flight – from Miami, Florida, to Best Friends in Southern Utah, when she brought the giant mastiff Zeus from the county shelter for special care at the sanctuary.
Nor her biggest passenger: Luna the miniature horse (the size of a big dog), whom she took to the veterinary hospital at Oregon State University for specialized surgery. Zeus and Luna each took up both the two back seats of the small plane. ("And we stopped half-way to Oregon," notes Juliette, "so Luna could take a bathroom break.")
Juliette ferries people as well as pets. Currently, she’s doing runs back and forth to the Great Cat Rescue in Pahrump, 60 miles from Las Vegas, where Best Friends is caring for hundreds of cats. "It’s a long, hot, time-consuming drive back and forth," says Juliette. "But I can get whoever and whatever they need from here at the sanctuary to there in less than an hour. And that’s a big help."
Photo by Andrew Geiger, courtesy of People Magazine