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Dwindling donations but hundreds of creatures still to be cared for: the NI animal sanctuaries under pressure during lockdown


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Tilly and staff member Lauren at Crosskennan Lane Animal Sanctuary

Tilly and staff member Lauren at Crosskennan Lane Animal Sanctuary

Tilly and staff member Lauren at Crosskennan Lane Animal Sanctuary

Dogs, cats, horses, chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs are being cared at centres across Northern Ireland. With most unable or unprepared to rehome during the pandemic, they are relying on public support and volunteers to cope with the crisis, as three centre managers tell Linda Stewart.

‘We start running out of money at the end of May’

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Nigel Mason, CEO of Assisi Animal Sanctuary

Nigel Mason, CEO of Assisi Animal Sanctuary

Nigel Mason, CEO of Assisi Animal Sanctuary

As soon as restrictions were brought in, Assisi Animal Sanctuary also moved to an appointment-only system followed by lockdown a week later.

Nigel Mason, CEO of the centre, which is situated between Bangor and Newtownards, says: "We had a few animals that had homes to go to so they were dealt with by appointment and we were able to exercise social distancing to get them into their homes," Nigel says.

"Now we have nearly 100 animals - about 20 dogs, 30 cats and the rest are rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters. We employ a full complement of staff to care for all the animals - they are still fully employed and we hope to carry on with that.

"We have enough people on the staff and a couple of volunteers to be able to give dogs everything they need."

It's vital that the animals are cared for by professionals who really know what they need both physically and behaviourally, he says. "We've got a 20-acre field on the side of a hill at our centre that we can utilise, so we can do all the walking we need on our own land which keeps people safe and gives us the ability to give the animals the best care when they are with us."

The sanctuary had a call from one care worker who had a puppy but couldn't care for it any more because her hours have changed so much during the Covid-19 crisis.

Nigel says the sanctuary is launching a scheme to match foster carers with the pets of care workers in a similar position: "We will try to match fosterers to any frontline workers that need help."

While they've had a few enquiries about adopting pets and the animals can still be seen on the website, there has been a big drop in demand, Nigel says.

"That is for understandable reasons - people are not sure what the future holds for them," he says. One big area of concern is the Chance of a Lifetime scheme which the sanctuary co-ordinates with the Dogs Trust and other small charity groups.

Every year around 2,000 dogs are collected from pounds and brought to England for rehoming.

"Many of the pounds have closed and are not taking in animals and that will quell numbers significantly," Nigel says.

"But that could also mean stray dogs on the street as some councils have closed down their dog warden services. However, it would appear at this point in time that there isn't an overburden of stray dogs circulating, which is an interesting indication of society in general."

As a result of the loss of council dog services, Nigel says he is concerned about the "horrible spectre of euthanasia", but the sanctuary has set aside kennel space in case of emergencies.

The sanctuary's income has fallen off a cliff since the charity shops closed, he says.

"We're getting a steady little stream of donations from people helping us out, but our major income streams have dried up. We start running out of money at the end of May," he says.

"Hopefully at some stage in the next three months, the shops will open again. We've furloughed as many staff as we can, but our animal care staff are needed.

"We're carrying on and hoping we get back to normal as soon as possible."

The sanctuary also has concerns about how pets will cope after the crisis is over as they will have become so used to their families being at home.

"When people start to go back to work, they are potentially going to see some problems with separation anxiety and the manifestations of behaviours that go with that," Nigel says.

"In the next couple of weeks we will put together some advice on the website to help people wean their dogs back into their usual lifestyle.

"We don't want to see an influx of dogs that people can no longer care for because their behaviours have changed."

For more information, visit www.assisi-ni.org

‘Funds are low ... I have never felt so powerless’

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Lyn Friel who runs Crosskennan Lane Animal Sanctuary in Antrim

Lyn Friel who runs Crosskennan Lane Animal Sanctuary in Antrim

Lyn Friel who runs Crosskennan Lane Animal Sanctuary in Antrim

Ironically when the pandemic struck, Crosskennan Lane Animal Sanctuary in Antrim had just got back on its feet financially after being forced to withdraw from a council contract that left it struggling to cope with overwhelming numbers of abandoned horses.

Lyn Friel, its founder and manager, says: "For some reason, people don't support horses the way they do small animals.

"We have dogs, cats and chickens but people see us as a horse sanctuary and we never have received the same financial help that other sanctuaries do."

Before the Covid-19 crisis hit, the sanctuary had just paid off all its debts and was building fundraising efforts, including the popular Cats and Coffee events and a new sponsorship scheme.

At the moment, the centre is caring for 40 horses and ponies, 33 cats, eight dogs and 28 chickens. Many of the animals that can't be rehomed play a therapeutic role, working with people with autism, for example.

"Even the chickens that live in the office go out to nursing homes. We're trying so hard to be out in the community and give back to anyone who has supported us," Lyn says.

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Tabby cat Tom

Tabby cat Tom

Tabby cat Tom

Since the Covid-19 crisis hit, staff hours have had to be cut and there are only a few volunteers, working with horses and using masks and gloves so that they will be able to observe social distancing.

"We haven't allowed any smaller animal volunteers because they would be spending time in confined spaces," Lyn says.

"It's a horrible situation because this is the time we could do with more volunteers and so many people are bored at home and want to come up, but you have to be sensible."

However, people have been leaving food supplies at the gates, including tuna for the cats and apples and carrots for the horses.

"People have been amazing - it shows you how generous our supporters are," Lyn says.

She says she's had a few phone calls from people who are looking to rehome pets but none of it has come to anything.

"We've had a lot of people looking for a kitten, but our youngest cat is 11 or 12 and nobody wants older cats," she says.

"The calls have only been for us to take in cats - we had one call from a person at a restaurant who was feeding feral cats and asked if we could take in the cats as they couldn't do it anymore."

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Tim, the oldest dog resident

Tim, the oldest dog resident

Tim, the oldest dog resident

Lyn is very worried about the future of the sanctuary as it can no longer do all its fundraising work.

"But we're working by email and trying to push a sponsorship scheme to see if we can get more sponsorships, because that would help us a lot," she says.

"Some sanctuaries are talking for the first time ever about having to put dogs to sleep, but it's not an option for us.

"I'm looking out of the window and there are eight Shetland ponies dandering about, so happy and enjoying the sunshine and oblivious to everything that's going on. Whatever we have to do to keep this place going, we have to do it.

"But we are going to have fewer staff when we need more and fewer volunteers when we need more. We're going to have to fight hard to bring in the money and I honestly don't know where it's going to come from. I've never felt as powerless. No matter how low funds were, you were prepared to go out and work and raise money and at the minute we can't. If anybody would like to help, we have a list on the website of what we need, or they can email us and we will come back to them and speak individually."

For more information, visit www.crosskennanlane.co.uk

‘Our dogs and cats are still getting the best care’

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Janet Hume with Monty, a seven-month-old AM Bulldog, who will be available for rehoming when the animal sanctuary reopens

Janet Hume with Monty, a seven-month-old AM Bulldog, who will be available for rehoming when the animal sanctuary reopens

Janet Hume with Monty, a seven-month-old AM Bulldog, who will be available for rehoming when the animal sanctuary reopens

Preparation to cope with the pandemic was key, says Janet Hume, centre manager at Mid Ulster Animal Sanctuary in Antrim. During the two weeks ahead of lockdown, the sanctuary was putting together plans and began implementing a new appointment-only system to provide shelter for animals in need.

"People were still able to bring dogs and cats in for rehoming, people were still coming in by appointment to meet dogs to be rehomed, but it was appointment-led, whereas normally the gates are open and you can just walk in," Janet says.

Then, on the Tuesday after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the lockdown, staff did everything in their power to rehome any animals in their system that could be rehomed. Those not fortunate enough to be placed with new owners are now spending the period of the pandemic in the sanctuary.

"On that one day we successfully completed our processes in order that six dogs and six cats found their forever home. The focus was to get as many dogs and cats into their homes rather than sitting in kennels, but if they didn't move on Tuesday, chances were they weren't going to move for the foreseeable.

"We're now closed to the public and there's no rehoming, so the dogs and cats that are here are staying here."

The centre is now home to 19 dogs and 20 cats, some of them long-term residents that are unsuitable for rehoming.

"We have three staff members each day, working from 8am to 6pm, doing feedings, enrichment activities and two walks a day for all the dogs," Janet says.

"Everyday they get one enrichment activity, something that keeps them occupied and keeps their mind ticking over - their welfare and wellbeing are paramount.

"Our big challenge is not being able to do what we have to do - bringing dogs in from people who can no longer look after them and doing the rehoming process. Our dogs and cats are still getting the best care we can give them, but we're not able to rehome them and people looking to relinquish their pets can't bring them in."

Janet says there is a real concern about what will happen to the dogs that would normally go to the pound and from there to an animal sanctuary.

"We're asking people just to try and do the best they can. But we will react to welfare cases - if animal officers have any concerns, then we will take in a dog or a cat."

The sanctuary has been hard hit financially by the closure of its fundraising charity shops and by the loss of the volunteers who can no longer be allowed to come in.

Janet estimates that the charity shops account for around a third of their annual income: "It will have an impact on us the longer it goes on for."

The sanctuary is still continuing with its scheme in partnership with Women's Aid, taking in animals from families going into refuges in Antrim, Ballymena, Carrickfergus, Larne and Newtownabbey.

"If women or families find themselves having to go into a refuge and have a pet they wish to keep, we bring it in here and keep it for them until they come out of the refuge and are able to settle into their new home," Janet says.

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Shane Steele with Fletcher, one of the dogs available for rehoming with a family

Shane Steele with Fletcher, one of the dogs available for rehoming with a family

Shane Steele with Fletcher, one of the dogs available for rehoming with a family

Meanwhile, the dogs that are listed on the website will be available for rehoming after lockdown is lifted.

The sanctuary has also been inundated with calls from people who are keen to rehome a pet as they now have additional time.

"This is not possible due to the lockdown, but it's also not appropriate as their lifestyle will change back again once we're back to normal when they didn't have sufficient time. This is not in the best interests of the animal and we'd ask folk to give consideration to this as it will create further issues later on," Janet says.

"People have time now but if they didn't have time two or three weeks ago for a dog, chances are they won't have time in another few months when we go back to normal."

More information at midantrim.org

Belfast Telegraph