Caring for animals
In 1873, biologist Richard Spruce wrote a letter to a friend.
He said of the species he was studying at the time: "If men cannot torture them to his uses or abuses, they are infinitely useful where God has placed them, and they are, at the least, useful to, and beautiful to themselves — surely the primary motive for every individual existence."
I was reminded of his deeply humane observation when I visited the Skibbereen Animal Refuge recently, a place where all its inhabitants are recognised as being "useful and beautiful to themselves".
It’s home to many animals — dogs, horses, goats, cats and even a couple of one-winged herons injured in road accidents — who live together harmoniously and have learned to respect each other’s space.
But it’s not all blissful co-existence for the refuge’s animal and human inhabitants.
Running a centre that is home to over 100 dogs, 70 plus horses and assorted other needy animals, requires many hours of dedicated work and endless fund-raising to meet the ever-escalating costs.
Anita Douglas, who started the centre, somehow manages to run the whole operation with a skeleton staff and a modest amount of money.
Not that this is how she chooses to function. But animals in need come first for her and her volunteers.
When I arrived at the gate to the dogs’ enclosure, I was met by what seemed like hundreds of dogs of all sizes and all breeds — rotties, alsatians, collies, huskies, drag hounds, and a selection of indeterminate breeds.
As my readers will know by now, I am a great admirer of dogs, and don’t consider anywhere a proper home without a dog about the place.
But the idea of following Anita through this huge pack was a bit daunting.
After all, I probably smelt intriguingly of strange dog to them and anyway, what if one or the other simply decided they didn’t like the cut of my jib?
It reminded my of those scenes in The Dog Whisperer reality TV series, where Caesar takes the owners of troubled dogs into his pack’s enclosure, so that they might understand how well dogs function, once they have a recognised leader.
As it happened, the only danger I faced was of being licked to death.
Every single dog knew its place, had a name and there was no sign of any aggression.
Anita’s charges have their own sleeping quarters — some share, others don’t. They all have long mountain walks every morning, and are not shut in while Anita is on the premises.
And when the sun made an unexpected appearance and the temperature shot up, Anita decided that the yard was too hot for the post-walk nap, and that the dogs should go to their respective beds, which they all did with only the minimum of encouragement from her.
Anita, the dogs and I sat down to share a few scones and talk about her mission.
* Anita, what keeps you going in the face of all this? It’s a bit of a tsunami for you, isn’t it?
>> Yes, well, it’s not the animals that are the problem, is it? It’s the humans. I was brought up on a smallholding in Hampshire, and I always had pets.
Apparently when I was about three, my mother managed to scrape together enough money to buy me a pram and a doll. But I had no interest in the doll, and I replaced her with a couple of pet rabbits.
* How long ago did you start the refuge?
>>It would be about seventeen years ago now. At first I was working on this farm, doing the milking and minding livestock, in return for use of the old house and the land.
But now things have changed, and our most pressing concern is to find new accommodation, 15 acres or more, perhaps with a mobile home where we can be centralised.
It doesn’t have to be good land. Rough grazing would be fine.
* As far as the horses are concerned, are you getting worried about feed for this winter?
>> Yes, definitely. I’ve had to pay huge amounts for hay this summer already, so I can only imagine things will be worse by winter.
So many animals have had to be moved off wet land.
* How do people find out about you?
>> Well, thanks to one of our volunteers, we’re on Facebook, and we have a website. Sometimes I’m contacted by gardaí about abandoned animals. We have a charity shop in Skibbereen, and sometimes we’ve found dogs left there, as if they were old clothes.
But there are also a lot of responsible people who’ve been forced to give up their dogs because they’ve lost their homes and they can’t find accommodation that will accept pets. It can be heartbreaking for them.
* Do you ever refuse to take an animal?
>> No, but what we don’t do is encourage people to be irresponsible. And if we are re-homing an animal, we do home checks, expect people to have appropriate living conditions, and are very careful indeed.
Someone came to us once with a female dog who was heavily pregnant and asked if we’d take the pups.
I said we would, but only if they’d show us a certificate from the vet that they’d had her spayed. They weren’t very pleased with that. A week or so later I found five tiny pups dead, hanging from my gate.
* Spaying and neutering are really the only answer to all this misery?
>>Absolutely. In Canada, only licensed dog breeders can let their dogs have pups.
They have to produce a certificate to say their pet has been spayed by the time its six months, or they are liable for a heavy fine. Certainly, putting down 40,000 unwanted animals a year isn’t the answer anyway.
It’s high time something was done. We visit schools with a slide show about all this for the kids who are our future and who we hope will change things.