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Mid-Antrim Animal Sanctuary, which has rehomed thousands of abandoned animals is inviting you to help celebrate its 20th birthday

Our pet project: from Norman, the greyhound nursed back to health after his ears were cut off in a vicious attack to memories of a volunteer who died young and the very special bond he formed with a rescue dog

By Laura Abernethy

One of Northern Ireland's oldest animal sanctuaries has plenty to celebrate this weekend. Mid-Antrim Animal Sanctuary has rehomed over 10,000 animals - ranging from cats and dogs to rabbits and even a few pigs - since it opened 20 years ago.

Tomorrow, the staff and volunteers will be joined by some of the animals and families they have brought together over the years as they mark their birthday.

The sanctuary started out in 1996 when its home, Hurtletoot House, was itself rescued. Previously owned by the USPCA, the centre was earmarked for closure but former committee members from the Antrim branch took it over to establish Mid-Antrim.

From the beginning, the sanctuary founders advocated a no-kill policy - meaning that no animal is ever put down unnecessarily - so any long-term residents will live out the rest of their days in Hurtletoot House.

The shelter's chairman, George Anderson from Carrickfergus, has been involved with the centre for 17 years. He started first as a volunteer, before being elected secretary for 10 years and then his current post for the last three.

He recalls: "I have always loved dogs and I thought that I could do something to help train the animals here. I came along and never really left."

Throughout his time at the sanctuary, George has fallen for quite a few of the animals himself. He currently has three cats and three dogs - Tia, Codi and Norman - who have all come from the shelter.

"Margaret will phone me up and ask me to foster an animal for the weekend - and then it turns into weeks and just keeps going. It's hard to say no," he laughs.

His greyhound Norman became one of Mid-Antrim's most famous residents after he was abandoned with his ears cut off in a horribly cruel act of abuse.

George has helped Norman to grow in confidence and even took him to a specialist in England to try and cure the epilepsy caused by the attack - but sadly they were not able to help.

Norman's heartbreaking story helped him gain hundreds of fans and even three years on, he still gets recognised. George says: "Sometimes people will stop and ask 'Is that Norman?' In November 2014, there was even a couple from Florida who came over to meet him and they spent a few days with him. He's a very special dog."

For Margaret Waid from Lisburn, who is the centre manager, there have been other residents who have made an impact: "There have been so many animals over the years, but some of them really stick in your mind.

"There was Norman and Fudge, who we recently rehomed after almost six years here with us, but I will always remember the bond between our late volunteer Jonathan Adams and a dog called Megan.

"Jonathan was a real character. We had a Dogue De Bordeaux here who was very very thin and she only had one eye. Jonathan nursed her back to health and she just turned out to be the loveliest dog. They had such an amazing bond. Sadly Jonathan had Cystic Fibrosis and he died in 2010, but Megan meant so much to him."

Like Norman and Megan, many of the animals arrive at Mid-Antrim as skin and bones, unable to stand and suffering from months or even years of neglect and abuse.

"It can be so difficult when you see the dogs who have been neglected come in," Margaret explains.

"You think to yourself how you would love to meet the person who has got them into that state. But you remind yourself that the animals are safe now. It can be hard to deal with those feelings.

“But when you see one of the animals that has been through so much neglect and you nurse it better, that’s when it’s worthwhile. It’s just amazing to see them get more confident and then getting them a home.”

Margaret has been at the Co Antrim shelter from the beginning. Previously, she had worked for the USPCA, but the new committee of Mid-Antrim asked her to manage the sanctuary in 1996 as they were preparing to open.

Over the years, she’s seen thousands of animals pass through the doors, welcoming each of them with open arms. But she has also seen plenty of changes for the charity, too.

Four years ago, they opened their brand new purpose-built sanctuary after raising over £750,000 in much-needed funds. “The new building was a turning point,” says Margaret. “Before, we didn’t have underground heating in the kennels or the cattery and it just wasn’t fit for purpose.

“We were able to build brand new facilities for the dogs and cats with underfloor heating to just make it a bit more comfortable for them.

“From then, we’ve been going from strength to strength.”

But the demand on resources is constant and the management team at the shelter still need to raise over £21,000 every month just to keep the doors open. And, even with significant discount from local vets, they pay out £70,000 in vets’ bills alone each year.

“Now we have this big building, we have more overheads so we have to keep thinking about where the money is coming from. Our supporters are fantastic and we can’t thank them enough but it is a continuous struggle,” adds Margaret.

The kennels hold around 70 dogs while the cattery houses up to 60 cats. They are almost always at full capacity and while the animals wait for their forever homes, they are cared for by five full-time staff members and a massive team of more than 50 volunteers — ranging from teenagers to their oldest volunteer Olive Johnstone, who is in her eighties.

One of their longest serving volunteers, Moira Cross, joined the sanctuary eight years ago while recovering from a major operation.

She says: “One of the nurses started talking about Mid-Antrim shelter and I knew that as soon as I was well again, I would be in touch. I started off walking dogs, but now I come in two days a week to help with the cleaning. I love just making the animals a little bit more comfortable.

“My heart goes out to them and the more cases I see, the more I’ve wanted to help so I just keep coming back. The volunteers are so important because the staff here just need all the help they can.”

George agrees wholeheartedly: “Our volunteers do a lot for us.” “We would be in trouble without them. We have five full-time staff and everything else is done by people who give up their time. They do everything from walking dogs and cleaning the kennels to looking after the cats. And then there are the fundraisers. Everything they do is amazing.”

Margaret says: “All our animals are happy here, thanks to our volunteers and fundraisers. They get the best healthcare, food, walks and care. Our volunteers bring them sausages, cheese and chicken. We have some volunteers who make them wee sandwiches. The only thing they don’t have is a nice warm fire to lie in front of and that’s just what I want for them all.”

With a steady stream of adopters coming through the doors, some of the animals are snapped up quickly — but others have to wait years for that spot by the fire.

One of their longest serving residents, Fudge the dog, recently joined the Todd family after almost six years at Mid-Antrim.

The 10-year-old Staffordshire Bull Terrier had been overlooked but after a social media appeal and an appearance in the Belfast Telegraph, Fudge is now settled into her new home.

After spending more than half her life at the sanctuary, she had developed a strong bond with some of the volunteers, making it difficult to say ‘goodbye’.

“It is the most amazing feeling when we see some of our really long-term dogs, like Fudge, get homes. Some of them have been with us for years and you think it’s never going to happen, but eventually the perfect family just comes along,” George says.

Margaret adds: “It can be sad when you see them go, but you know they’ve been through so much and you realise they have a good home.

“You would nearly cry with tears of joy, not sadness.”

But many of the residents come back to visit the sanctuary throughout the year and keep a strong connection with Mid-Antrim.

The team is looking forward to seeing many familiar furry faces at tomorrow’s party.

Previous open days have been a big success, but this will be their biggest yet to mark 20 years.

The event will feature entertainment and treats — for both owners and animals.

Margaret adds: “Quite a lot of our residents stay in touch and it’s so nice to see them come back so happy. We’re excited to celebrate such a big achievement because we’ve given so many a second chance. There are so many animals across Northern Ireland and at least we’ve been able to make just some of them happy.”

The Mid-Antrim Animal Sanctuary party will take place tomorrow at their Hurtletoot House base on the Greystone Road in Antrim from 11am-2pm. Supporters, previous residents and their families are encouraged to come along to enjoy  music, treats, activities

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