Why a pet is not just for Christmas
As we prepare to celebrate the festive period with presents for our families, Linda Stewart talks to four women who have devoted their lives to rescuing unwanted pets who end up abandoned over the Yuletide season
Christmas and the summer holidays can be the worst time of the year - if you're a pet. Staff in animal sanctuaries will tell you those joyous times are exactly when many dogs and cats are found to be more trouble than they are worth and are sent away.
And for four women here who head up animal sanctuaries, ably assisted by an army of dedicated volunteers, the festive season can be one of the busiest times of the year for them as cats, dogs and other pets who lose their appeal not long after Christmas Day are dumped.
One of those women, who could be considered part of a dynasty within animal welfare, is Margaret Wade (56), manager of Mid-Ulster Animal Sanctuary in Antrim.
She has been involved with animals from childhood as her father worked for the USPCA at its shelter in Carryduff.
"I got involved, helping out, and that would have been my first job," Margaret says.
The mum and grandmother of four, who lives in Antrim with her partner Albert, (63), who works for BT says: "I've worked here in Antrim for the past 20 years. But we always had a house full of animals which we cared for and looked after and helped to find homes for."
The sanctuary currently cares for 43 dogs and around 30 cats - but they do get other species from time.
"We get the odd goat, sheep, some birds, rabbits, ferrets and guinea pigs. We've even had some piglets as well. It can be a challenge finding foster homes for all of them but we don't have a lot of facilities for all those animals."
Many of the animals are accepted from people who can't keep them any more and the council pound.
"We spay, neuter, vaccinate and chip the animals and we do home checks before they go out of here to make sure they are going into the right home. If a dog isn't good with children, we're not going to home it in an environment where there would be children coming in," Margaret says.
As a mum to Carol (38) and grandmother to Reece (19, Ebony (13), Jamie (9) and Daniel (7), she is aware children and pets often don't mix.
"The sanctuary deals with many neglect cases - some of the animals coats are so matted that they have to be shaved right down. And they come back lovely and look so different," she adds.
The centre has also taken in animals bred in puppy farms that are afflicted with serious health problems and even deformities because of unscrupulous breeding.
"We will put them into foster homes and pay for the vet's bills. People are brilliant and want to take them into their lives, but they don't have the money to pay for the long-term care required," Margaret explains.
Sometimes the animals need a new home because the owner has been made redundant or a new baby has come along and the family can't afford a pet anymore.
"We hear some sad stories - for example, an elderly person has to go into a flat and can't take their pet with them," Margaret says.
What is harder to understand is the owners who gets rid of their dogs because they are going on their summer holidays and haven't factored in paying for boarding kennels.
Margaret says she has even heard of people who went on to buy a new puppy for their children after returning from their holidays.
"You have to have a certain way of dealing with the animals and of dealing with the public as well. Getting them in and getting them looked after - that is our main priority."
Margaret admits she has taken animals home on occasion, including a long-term resident collie cross Lady who lived out her final days lying by the fire when she had six months to live.
She appeals for people to support the charity shop in Antrim that helps fund the work of the shelter which doesn't receive government funding.
"We're always looking for things for the charity shop - every penny goes back to the animals," she says.
But it's not just cute puppies and fluffy kittens who need rescued. Lyn Friel (60), who is director of Crosskennan Lane Animal Sanctuary, Ballynoe near Downpatrick, takes in horses and broiler chickens as well as the usual pets.
Caring for animals of any kind, though, is second nature to Lyn.
"I've always had a love of animals from when I was a little child in Belfast," says Lyn, who has one son, David (26). "I decided to follow a career with animals and I trained to be an animal nurse."
Once a keeper at Belfast Zoo, Lyn was responsible for hand-rearing a variety of animals, including the first Indian lion cub to be born in captivity. But working with animals showed Lyn that most of their problems were caused by people, so she set up the animal sanctuary at Crosskennan Lane.
"They need someone to speak up for them and explain what they need. When people went to have their dogs rehomed, we advised them on simple ways they could keep them."
The centre currently cares for 67 horses, 25 cats, 128 dogs and a flock of rescue broiler chickens. Some of the dogs are trained as therapy dogs which visit nursing homes.
Crosskennan Lane takes in abuse cases too.
"I've been to places where there were dead dogs and you have to pick out the living ones among them," she says. "The nice part is when you get them into the sanctuary and start rehabilitating them and we eventually find a home for them."
And people can be fickle with animals.
"The animals don't turn out the way people want them to and they get rid of them. We even had one couple who bought a dog in a bid to save their marriage, but ended up bringing it to us after having it for only eight weeks."
She lives on site and admits it's a 24/7 vocation with emergency cases often arriving late at night.
"You don't have a life of your own. It's a matter of being there for the animals," Lyn says.
A lifelong love of animals was also the motivation for Elaine McCrory (61), who became chair of Assisi Animal Sanctuary in Newtownards earlier this year.
Elaine, who lives with husband Raymond (62), a retired garage owner, has had pets all her life - but not at the moment. Her cat Tigger had to be put to sleep two weeks ago as he was suffering from end-stage kidney failure.
"We've had him for around 15 years and it does take a wee while to get over it when you lose a pet," she says.
Elaine's role as a trustee at Assisi has expanded into a full-blown "retirement job". She first became involved with Assisi seven years ago when she joined two friends who were fundraising for the centre. But after taking voluntary severance from the Ulster Bank five years ago, Elaine's role expanded - and now she is chairperson.
Next year Assisi will mark its 20 year anniversary and ambitious projects lie ahead with a planning application lodged to rebuild the current site to keep up with demand.
"On any day we would have 150 or 160 animals on site and we would have others out in foster care. We look after companion animals like cats, dogs, rabbits and guinea pigs," explains Elaine.
"The centre relies on a small army of volunteers and without them we couldn't look after as many animals as we do.
"Our fosterers are invaluable to us. When the kittens are very young, it's good for them to be in a family environment as they become much more socialised."
Many animals are ending up at Assisi simply because their owners have no time to care for them.
"Occasionally we will have animals coming in through the welfare route but it's usually people who have too many cats or dogs and may have taken on too much," Elaine says.
"We have a lovely Cavalier cross, about nine years old, that was heavily pregnant and left to walk the streets. She gave birth within 10 days of coming out of the pound and has three lovely puppies that will be looking for homes in mid-January."
Summer can be particularly busy for the cat yard with kittens being born between spring and late autumn.
"February will sometimes be busy with people who got pets for Christmas - it still happens - and realise a puppy is a lot of work."
Even rehoming the animals can be tough, Elaine adds.
"There can be a little tear here and there because they've stayed with us for a while and they've become a favourite. It's an occupational hazard," she says.
It seems there has never been greater pressure on animal sanctuaries yet modern veterinary practice could easily remedy this, according to Bel Livingstone (57), who is the manager of Cats Protection in Dundonald.
She reveals a really staggering statistic to explain why neutering is such an important part of the work carried out by Cats Protection. The shelter at Dundonald cares for almost 100 unwanted cats and has 95 more on its waiting list. But those figures are dwarfed by the sheer reproductive capacity of the cat as a species.
"A single cat can have up to 26,000 descendants in five years," Bel says. "Feral cats don't start out as feral cats - they start off as someone's pet which hasn't been neutered."
Bel has been working at Cats Protection for 17 years and now lives in the cottage on site, but she says she had links to the centre even as a child.
"I'm Dundonald born and bred and my grandfather lived in a cottage not far from the house where the adoption centre is now. They knew the owners of the building I am living in now - my grandfather used to come and visit them."
Now married to community worker David (57) with whom she has two sons, Thomas (30) and Lee (40), Bel initially worked in a school as a supervisory assistant, but her dream was to work with animals and she tried three times to join Cats Protection before being successful. She started off as a cat care assistant and is now manager.
"You have to make a lot of decisions on a day-to-day basis - how do you choose one cat over another?"
Bel says there is no busy time of the year - it's just busy all year round.
"From I started 16 years ago, the volume of cats needing rehomed has increased tenfold. I would blame lack of neutering and lack of education and responsible pet ownership," she says.
Bel says the Cats Protection offer of help with neutering is crucial to controlling cat numbers. It also has volunteers who go out to trap feral cats, have them neutered and released back to where they were found, known as Trap, Neuter and Release (TNR).
"We want to get the message out that neutering is best; secondly microchip your cat and remember to regularly update your address with the microchip service," she says. "Cats Protection helps 19,000 ferals a year through TNR and 31,000 cats are microchipped a year."
Bel says the charity is happy to work with owners if it helps to keep the cats in their own homes.
"We have approximately 95 cats sitting on the waiting list to come into the centre and I don't know when or how I am going to get them in," she says.
"But when someone takes an old cat out of the shelter, that is the best day ever."