Santa's little helpers, the adorable rescue pups in need of loving homes
It's Christmas and Rudolph and his brothers and sisters are looking for a loving family home. Can you help?
But these aren't reindeer - in this case, Rudolph, Donner, Blitzen, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Cupid, Comet and Vixen are six-week-old, black labrador cross puppies rescued by Assisi Animal Sanctuary.
Heather Weatherup, manager of the Co Down haven, says that, like many puppies, the five girls and four boys were an unwanted litter born to a mother who wasn't spayed.
"It doesn't pay to put things off," said Heather, as she described how it costs around £250 in vet fees to worm, microchip and vaccinate each pup: "And that's if the puppies are fine and healthy."
"We suggest a £60 donation for each dog we rehome so we run at a loss but that's why we do so much fundraising and rely on volunteers," she added.
Situated just outside Conlig, Assisi Animal Sanctuary is home to around 150 cats, dogs and rabbits at any one time but, says Heather, it's always busier coming up to Christmas as unwanted litters of puppies and kittens, along with adult animals, are abandoned.
"Some people look on animals and dogs as disposable items and think to themselves, 'Ach I don't like this any more, give it away.' I would rather we neutered and spayed to within an inch of our lives so that when someone wants a dog, they really have to work hard to get it and it is more valued because it can be a commitment of up to 15 years," says Heather.
At the moment, the nine new 'reindeer' puppies are living with Holywood mum-of-three Pam, who says caring for them is hard, but rewarding, work.
"Obviously they're so young they're not house trained yet, so cleaning up their pen isn't particularly enjoyable but being able to give them a loving home and knowing they're going to good homes is very satisfying.
"It's just very hard giving them away sometimes, and each puppy definitely has its own personality," she says.
For Heather, Rudolph and his siblings are getting the best start in life that they can, short of having a permanent home. They're an unwanted litter but theirs is not a sad story, as they are getting the help and care they need.
Heather explains: "They are in a loving home where they're learning good manners and then they'll move on to permanent homes, hopefully, with families who will love them for their entire lives."
But the Assisi manager is issuing a timely warning to those considering giving a pet as a Christmas present: "Please don't give animals as a 'surprise' present- it is the most expensive present you will ever give.
"A lifetime of care, time and veterinary costs could run into many thousands in the lifetime of a pet. Who do you know who could afford that present?"
The good news, though, for unwanted pets taken in by Assisi is that the sanctuary has a strict policy of not putting a healthy animal to sleep.
It is able to find loving homes for around 1,200 animals in Northern Ireland every year, and has also sent 2,000 dogs to the Dogs Trust in England for rehoming.
Care is taken, too, to ensure that prospective rehomers are suitable. Heather says: "We assess the animal first and see how they are, and then we look for the home where that animal will fit into and be a part of that family's lifestyle.
"Asking people to change their lifestyle around an animal doesn't work, so we need to match the two together."
With Assisi awaiting planning permission for a new, purpose-built sanctuary, as the current 20-year-old building is showing signs of age, Heather is issuing an appeal for people with skills who can help, as well as donations of blankets, animal toys and tinned food, many of which have already been kindly given by some local firms.
- If you can help Assisi, or can offer the puppies or its other residents a home, contact 028 9181 2622, visit the sanctuary at 1 Old Bangor Road, Conlig, Ards, BT23 7PU, or see its Facebook page