Animal Film Festival in California’s scenic Gold Country offers clear air, fresh perspectives, new friends

Gregarious burro poses for selfies with tour participants at Center for Animal Protection and Education in Grass Valley, California

by Katerina Lorenzatos Makris ~

Claire Andreae (left), who made ‘The Matchmaker,’ a film about a shelter in Germany that takes in and finds homes for dogs from Spain, and 78-year-old vegan bodybuilder Jim Morris (right), star of the documentary ‘Jim Morris: Lifelong Fitness’

At first, you might wonder why the organizers of the Animal Film Festival would pick an out-of-the-way place like Grass Valley, California for their annual event, instead of more obvious choices like Los Angeles or San Francisco. Nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills, it’s a hamlet of only about 13,000 inhabitants. The closest significant airport is in Sacramento, a scenic hour-plus drive away.

One reason is obvious: the town serves as headquarters for the Center for Animal Protection and Education (CAPE), which puts on the yearly film festival, and also for CAPE’s sister group Animal Place. Both organizations run animal sanctuaries on a big, beautiful property just minutes from the theater.

After one visit to the Grass Valley area, you’ll probably understand more of the logic of AFF co-founders Shelley Frost and JP Novic. The place is just right. Pines and laurels scent the crisp mountain air. Forested slopes provide pristine emerald views.

The animal protection issues in some of the films can be pretty weighty, so it’s soothing to be in an area of such natural beauty, where you can amble outdoors to reboot your brain.

Mellow, welcoming vibe

Another therapeutic feature of Grass Valley is that locals are friendly and welcoming to the bunch of animal advocates and aficionados who descend upon them every year. The place has a mellow, low-key vibe emanating from the hip young crowd who populate Sierra College, blended with the more traditional salt-of-the-earth folks who one imagines might be descended from the area’s 1849-era Gold Rush miners.

Due to this eclectic but somehow sensible mix, there’s lodging, dining, and entertainment to suit a variety of tourist tastes. If you add extra days to your trip, you can take your time to enjoy the local attractions.

Or if you bring along friends or family who aren’t quite as animal-obsessed as you, they’ll have plenty to see and do while you’re watching the films.


Those interested in long-ago times will enjoy a visit to Grass Valley’s North Star Mining Museum, and to the picturesque old mining site in the nearby town of Rough and Ready. (Who can resist a town named something like that?)

Marshall Gold Discovery State Park, about an hour’s drive down Highway 49, commemorates the spot where the Gold Rush began. In 1848, on the South Fork of the American River, carpenter James W. Marshall spotted some shiny flecks of one of the world’s most coveted metals near a sawmill he was building. His discovery led to “the greatest mass movement of people in the Western Hemisphere,” as described by California State Parks literature, with prospectors traveling from far and wide to try their luck. Scene of “the spark that ignited the spectacular growth of the West during the ensuing decades,” the park remains “one of the most significant historic sites in the nation.”

Leisurely strolls along the streets of downtown Grass Valley and surrounding neighborhoods also yield intriguing glimpses of past glories. The handsome facades of antique buildings like the 19th-century Holbrooke Hotel, a California Historical Landmark that once hosted the likes of writer Mark Twain and President Ulysses S. Grant, and the storybook Victorian-era homes can all transport you back to the region’s Gold Rush heyday.

Lake Tahoe


Hikers and bikers will discover a myriad of local options such as the 14 miles of trails in Empire Mine State Park just a few minutes’ drive from downtown Grass Valley’s Center for the Arts theater, where AFF is held.

In the hills of Rough and Ready, I found a lovely little path on the slope below the massive architecture of Twin Cities Church, whose staff kindly allowed this well-hydrated hiker to use their restroom. Lined with towering evergreens, dotted with wildflowers, fragrant with wild sage, and soundtracked by a bona fide babbling brook that accompanied a choir of songbirds, the path provided the perfect place not only for a short aerobic power walk, but also for meditation or prayer.

Briar Patch Co-Op: wild rice pilaf, herby roast potatoes, beets with creamy tahini sauce

For skiers, snow boarders, and other fans of the white stuff, the winter playgrounds of Reno and Lake Tahoe are within about a 90-minute drive. But those places aren’t just for snow bunnies. They also offer great hiking, biking, or just plain relaxation amid stunning vistas of mountains, forests, and, in the case of Tahoe, that famous sapphire lake.


To satisfy appetites worked up by all that activity, the AFF website provides an entire page of local vegan dining suggestions. We sampled a few of them during our visits in 2015 and 2016.

The deli department of Briar Patch Food Co-Op, a supermarket near Sierra College, offers all manner of hot and cold prepared foods to enjoy in their pleasant dining area festooned with original art, or as take-out for a meal during the film festival, or perhaps later as a picnic.

At lunchtime Pine Street Burgers whipped up a great vegan burger for me, made of pecans and brown rice, served with sweet potato fries.

Between evening films at the 2015 festival, I hurried down the block to the Holbrooke Hotel to grab some dinner. The kitchen rushed to custom-create a delish vegan entree of sauteed mushrooms accompanied by grilled veggies.

At the 2016 AFF, at a cheery little table in the theater lobby right on site at the festival, Horn of the Bull Taqueria offered innovative grilled veggie and soy cheese tacos and quesadillas with a divine Mexican-Cajun fusion sauce. We liked them. A lot. To the tune of two servings for lunch and three more for dinner.

At Flour Garden Bakery and Cafe I picked up a tasty Vegan Power Bar that lived up to its name, shoring us up with a hit of energy for the evening’s program of films.

Up the street from Flour Garden, Valentina’s Organic Bistro and Bakery offered several vegan items like hommus, steamed veggies, brown rice, and a fragrant soup with tomatoes, potatoes, and white beans, all suitable for vegans.

Intending to grab some lunch to munch during the flight home Monday, I stopped by Fudenjuce in nearby Nevada City before the drive back to the Sacramento airport. But my flight time wouldn’t allow for a wait in the long line of customers, so I just lingered a couple of minutes to absorb the savory aromas, admire their monkey sign, and study their lengthy menu of reasonably priced temptations like the Chicken-Free Pesto Wrap, the Crunchy Vegan Salad, and the Agada Almond Butter Smoothie.


Wine aficionados may visit several vineyards in what is known as the Sierra Foothills American Viticultural Area. Within a half-hour drive of the AFF theater you can find Pilot Peak Winery, Coufos Cellars, Bent Metal Winery, and more.

The owners and staff of Pilot Peak were very kind when we dropped in, giving us their time for an impromptu lesson in viticulture. Neither this nor other local wineries seem to offer vegan wines (yet), but we did appreciate the folks at Pilot Peak taking the time to explain the wine making process, including what makes a wine vegan or not. (Please visit Rescue Diva again for an upcoming article on that topic.)

Happy residents of Animal Place


One of my fave stops in Grass Valley is a bead store. This is highly uncharacteristic. I have never made jewelry, and don’t know if I’ll ever find the skill or the patience, but the vast displays of gorgeous beads, beading doodads, and friendly staff of Beads Galore made me want to give it a try.

In my dreams, at least, when I return for the AFF some year I’ll have taken a beading class, will show up at Beads Galore for a little shopping spree, grab a picnic lunch somewhere, then find a nice quiet table in a park surrounded by towering pines to make some bracelets or earrings for all my buddies’ birthdays.

Making friends at Animal Place

Photo safari

Grass Valley is an ideal locale for my absolute favorite travel activity: photo safari. Going for an aimless drive is not the most eco-friendly thing to do, given the gratuitous use of fuel, but I have to admit that I didn’t mind getting lost on the area’s scenic country roads with the excuse of snapping some pretty pics.

While a brisk, pure breeze blew in through the rented car’s open windows, I tootled happily around on a sunny afternoon, pulling over often to photograph verdant pastures and hillsides populated by critters ranging from from squirrels to horses. And it was all accompanied by that ever-present symphony of bird song.

Vanessa and Steve Dawson, whose rescue of a chicken from the Jewish Kaporos ritual sacrifice was spotlighted in Duncan Skiles’s film ‘Penelope,’ meet the birds at Animal Place.

Animal Place and CAPE sanctuaries for farmed animals

Perhaps the main local attractions for AFF attendees are Animal Place and Center for Animal Protection and Education (CAPE). These two partner sanctuaries for farmed animals are located a 20-minute scenic drive from the theater where the films are screened. There couldn’t be a more idyllic setting than the sanctuaries’ combined 400 bucolic acres for the recovery, rehabilitation and happy retirement of chickens, turkeys, rabbits, goats, pigs, cows, horses, burros, and assorted other animals.

Human visitors enjoy the warm sunshine, country air, and soul-soothing views of the property’s gentle terrain studded with natural rock sculptures and blanketed by winter’s bright green grass, on which dozens of animals peacefully snack, strut, and stroll.

Animal Place cofounder Kim Sturla massages one of the residents.

During tours of the sanctuaries in 2015 and 2016, we made several pals among their animals, such as Internet stars Jellybean and Mr. G. This burro-and-goat duo became famous due to their devoted friendship with each other, formed while they endured years of neglect together at their previous home, The joy they expressed when reunited post-rescue at Animal Place made them Internet stars.

Also at Animal Place there was the pig who luxuriated in a massage from Animal Place executive director and cofounder Kim Sturla while Kim told tour participants stories about the animals’ backgrounds. “Escape artist” pig Lucille, for example, fled a transport truck on her way to the auction block but luckily ended up at AP as her permanent home. She enjoys belly rubs and being “worshiped” by visitors.

Award-winning filmmakers Justin Zimmerman and Sally Mackler

New friends

At the film festival we made lovely new friends of the human variety too. For example in 2016 I happened to find myself sitting next to highly accomplished, veteran animal advocate Sally Mackler for many of the day’s screenings. Sally currently serves as Senior Native Carnivore Advocate for Predator Defense, a group that made the film Exposed: USDA’s Secret War on Wildlife, winner of AFF’s 2015 short film category.

Sally and I laughed out loud during some of the 2016 films like Laura MacLean’s Spay and Neuter PSA, a clever public service announcement short about how a suburban housewife learns the importance of curbing pet reproduction.

Then we sniffled, reached for tissues, and muttered under our breaths to each other about the egregious abuses of animals depicted in undercover footage included in Eri Daniel Erlich’s Life According to Ohad, which follows a passionate young Israeli vegan and animal activist as he struggles to reconnect with his non-vegan family members,

After the screening of SMART, we chatted with filmmaker Justin Zimmerman about his documentary on the Specialized Mobile Animal Rescue Team (SMART) of Los Angeles, a group of courageous first-responders whose job it is to risk their lives—and sometimes their marriages and their sanity—in the process of saving animals caught in every imaginable type of danger.

AFF cofounders Shelley Frost (second from left) and JP Novic (second from right) with event filmmakers and volunteers

Old friends

There was also the great pleasure of getting to see dear old friends such as the festival’s founders Shelley and JP. We’ve known each other for 25 years, having first met through our activities at Peninsula Humane Society in the San Francisco Bay area, and I’ve never gotten to spend nearly enough time with this phenomenal team of animal advocates, profiled in Rescue Diva’s article “Animal Heroes: Shelley Frost and JP Novic soar with cape of protection and education.”

Another great highlight for me in 2016 was finally meeting in person Dr. Donald Conkling, one of the four veterinarians who volunteered many hours of his time to consult with Shelley and me while we wrote the health chapters of our book Your Adopted Dog: Everything You Need to Know About Rescuing and Caring for a Best Friend in Need. Fittingly, Dr. Conkling received festival recognition because of the pro bono vet services he has kindly provided over the years for animals rescued by CAPE and its partner group Compassion Without Borders (CWOB).

Dr. Conkling with Leia

He is also a past recipient of the California Veterinary Medical Association’s Meritorious Service Award due to his extensive volunteering in pet-assisted therapy with his dog Sophie, adopted through CAPE. Sophie, meanwhile, was inducted into the CVMA’s Animal Hall of Fame for her volunteer efforts.

Dr. Conkling recently adopted another beautiful pooch from CWOB.

“Leia was found abandoned in the desert covered in thorns, dehydrated, and partially blind,” Shelley explained. Under Dr. Conkling’s care she has recovered and is doing so well that she enjoyed attending the festival, where she attracted a crowd of admirers.

Make your plans for the next Animal Film Festival

It’s hard to decide what I’ve liked best about my trips to the Animal Film Festival—the illuminating and inspiring films, the gorgeous setting in the Sierra foothills, or spending time with friends old and new. It was all restorative and invigorating. I’m looking forward to this year’s trip for another hit of that piney mountain air, the mind-expanding films, and the fun fellowship.

British filmmaker James Button clowning around after screening of his ‘The Goat’ trilogy at AFF 2015

Twelve days and counting till AFF 2017 on February 25!

Make your plans for this year or next. Visit the Animal Film Festival website for all you need to know. Then for a few extra details, visit Rescue Diva again soon to find more articles about the films, reviews of restaurants in the Sierra Foothills, and more photos from our adventures in the area.

Rescue Diva is a proud sponsor of the Animal Film Festival. We’re an official “Festival Friend” for 2018! You, your organization, or company can be a sponsor too. Visit the AFF sponsorship page to learn about various tax-deductible donation levels and the many benefits you’ll receive. You’ll do great good by helping AFF present an impressive array of important films from around the world, all about animals and the issues they face.

Read more about Shelley, JP, CAPE, and the AFF:

Animal Heroes: Shelley Frost and JP Novic soar with ‘CAPE’ of protection and education

Rescue teamwork: How a starving, pregnant Greek cat hit the springtime adoption jackpot

Rescue Diva donates $500 to help sponsor Animal Film Festival

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Katerina Lorenzatos Makris is a career journalist, author, and editor. Her fiction includes 17 novels for Simon and Schuster, E.P. Dutton, Avon, and other major publishers (under the name Kathryn Makris), as well as a teleplay for CBS-TV, and a short story for The Bark magazine. She has written hundreds of articles for regional wire services and for outlets such as National Geographic Traveler, The San Francisco Chronicle, Travelers’ Tales, NBC’s, Animal Issues, and (Animal Policy Examiner).

Together with coauthor Shelley Frost, Katerina wrote a step-by-step guide for hands-on, in-the-trenches dog rescue, Your Adopted Dog: Everything You Need to Know About Rescuing and Caring for a Best Friend in Need (The Lyons Press).



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