'We take the vet's advice, but we won't put a healthy dog to sleep'
Running an award-winning shelter, Louise Neill cannot imagine life without pets. The Ballymoney woman talks to Linda Stewart about her work and making up for an animal-free childhood
You'd expect Louise Neill to have owned a menagerie of pets when she was a child, but the Bushmills-born manager of Benvardin Animal Rescue Kennels admits to an animal-free childhood.
"I was never allowed any pets when I was a kid. I think this is what has happened - I'm rebelling," she jokes.
These days, the 47-year-old has four dogs, two cats, eight Shetlands and a budgie, not to mention the responsibility for an animal shelter of dogs. "My family are all four-legged," she says.
After studying office management at technical college, Louise's life took an unexpected turn.
"The strange thing is that everything that I was taught back in technical college has helped me to run Benvardin kennels, so it wasn't wasted," she says.
While working at an insurance broker's office in Coleraine around 20 years ago, Louise volunteered with the USPCA every weekend at its animal rescue in Seacon.
When the charity moved to the former safari park at Benvardin, she successfully applied for the role of assistant manager.
In due course Louise became manager, but in 2010 the USPCA pulled out of Benvardin.
Even though she had a job with the USPCA in Newry, some of the supporters asked her to step in.
"Everyone was saying 'Louise, what's going to happen to the wee dogs. Would you not start up on your own if we support you?'" she said.
"I thought long and hard about it. I had a job with the USPCA in Newry, but I'm a homebird and I thought 'If I don't try...'. I was anxious about whether it would work out.
"Then, in August 2010, Benvardin Animal Rescue Kennels, also known as BARK, was formed."
It looked like the writing was on the wall in 2015 when the site at Benvardin was put up for sale but, thanks to a highly publicised appeal, the charity was successful in buying it.
"We had a fantastic response from the public," Louise says.
"Thanks to the TV response, we were able to secure the deposit to get the place bought. We managed to raise £50,000 within a week. We had the deposit paid for, although we still have the monthly mortgage to pay."
Louise estimates around 350 dogs come in every year, bringing the total over 10 years to around 3,500 rescues. The charity works closely with Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council, taking in the unclaimed dogs that have been in the pound for five days, and has a policy of never putting a healthy dog to sleep.
"The way we work here is to go on the vet's advice. If the vet thinks it would be in the dog's best interest, the dog would be put to sleep, but only for health reasons," Louise says.
"We never put a healthy dog to sleep. We've had one dog which has been here since May and is looking for a home. He is a German shepherd that must have been kept in a pen. His tail was so badly infected where he had been chewing on it that we had to get the tail amputated.
"Back in the summer we had a few small-breed dogs that were very, very badly matted. We had a few cases in which we had to completely shave them to the very skin, they were so bad.
"We've had other cases of dogs coming in very thin and neglected and then we nurse them back to health."
The charity takes in dogs from across the council area, including Limavady, Ballymoney, Ballycastle and Coleraine, and carries out vaccinations, neutering and home checks before attempting to rehome them.
"You have to fill in a questionnaire before we even go and do a home check because it's important we match the right dog with the right family," Louise says.
Louise relies on a small army of volunteers who help out at the kennels, but she does need more help and is putting together a fundraising committee.
"We were named charity of the year at Pets at Home Coleraine and Pets at Home Ballymena, but we need to be in two places to promote ourselves and fundraise. After we were named charity of the year, we noticed a great increase in our rehoming.
"We're looking for fundraising volunteers in the area. We're always looking for donations of food, we're always looking for donations of bedding and money donations as well for our overheads to get the bills paid.
"We have a charity shop in Ballymoney as well - that's a good lifeline for the veterinary bills and the mortgage."
BARK was recently awarded almost £44,000 by Support Adoption For Pets, a charity set up by Pets At Home, to refurbish its rehoming kennel block.
But there's more work to be done.
"We are currently trying to fundraise ourselves for new wooden kennels for our outside runs at a cost of £1,200 as they are nearly 10 years old and have seen better days," Louise says.
BARK will be on site at the Belfast Telegraph Pet Expo this November for anyone who wants to find out more. For more information about the charity, visit www.benvardin kennels.com or call 07518 370478. For tickets to the Belfast Telegraph Pet Expo, click here.