'Sanctuaries are best': Meet the people who care for animals at Christmas
It can be a busy time of the year for Northern Ireland's animal sanctuaries as they see a surge in the number of unwanted pets they've to deal with. Linda Stewart finds out more.
"Don’t go to puppy farms or use Gumtree... sanctuaries are best"
Margaret Wade, welfare manager at the Mid Ulster Animal Sanctuary, says it's a busy time for the centre and for animal welfare in general.
"Quite a lot of sanctuaries coming up to Christmas would stop homing animals because it's a very busy time," she says. "We find that we get a lot of animals in now and they will not be rehomed until after Christmas.
"So many people get puppies for presents for their children and then they realise a week down the line that this wasn't such a good idea and then they move the animals on and give them to anybody just to get them away."
At the moment, the centre is caring for 36 dogs and 25 cats, with more due to arrive in the coming days.
"They would come out of the dog pound or from people in general who can't look after them anymore or can't keep them," Margaret says.
"Maybe something happened to their owners - they've gone into hospital or passed away or gone into a wee flat or something where they can't look after them."
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
But even for older pets, there is always someone to take them, she stresses.
"You always do find someone there who will take on an older animal. You are trying to find that right place. If they aren't used to children or cats or other dogs, it can be a bit of a challenge, or it might be used to space on its own."
Staff have been busy in the run-up to Christmas, organising the Christmas fair, and the animals won't be forgotten on the big day.
"Over Christmas we have staff and volunteers that come up on Christmas morning and Boxing Day morning to help get the dogs walked and bring stuff up for Christmas dinner," Margaret says. "It's a very good atmosphere in the kennels at this time of the year because everybody is doing something to help.
"It would be very busy around Christmas because you have people that have taken on animals, can't keep them and realise in a few weeks they shouldn't have got them because they haven't time for them."
Margaret advises anyone considering getting a pet to ask the staff at the animal sanctuary what pet they recommend to fit in with their family and lifestyle.
"I think people would probably be better thinking about it more and researching what kind of animals they would like. Don't go to Gumtree, don't go to puppy farms, but do use the sanctuaries.
"Come in to meet the animals we have and let the staff choose the animal they think is right for you after talking to you. They would look for what people want and need and match it up that way," Margaret says.
'To keep things fair, we’ll work split shifts over festive period'
Nigel Mason (60), CEO of Assisi Animal Sanctuary near Newtownards, says there is an increase in the number of animals needing rehomed even before Christmas.
"What tends to happen in the run-up to Christmas is that we get many calls from people asking us to take animals because they've decided they can no longer keep them," he says.
The reason there are so many calls at Christmas, he says, is because people may have been thinking about rehoming a pet, but it's only when they're preparing for visitors and the bustle of Christmas that things come to a head and they do something about it.
"We get requests to take animals in all the time, but we can't take everything in the timescale that people want," he says.
"At the same time most people decide not to take a new pet at Christmas and they wait until the New Year.
"So it can be a double whammy come February or March."
It's been a busy time for Assisi, which is just embarking on a three-week period of modifications to its cattery.
"We have been able to find foster homes for all the cats we have in the sanctuary at the moment and it's an opportunity to get units in that will be better than the old ones," he says.
"We're not closing to the public at Christmas. We will rehome animals to people right over the Christmas period on a case-by-case basis.
"For some people, it will suit them down to the ground to have a new cat or a new rabbit if they are having a quiet time. But if they're having a busy Christmas with lots of visitors, it might not be the right time to get a new pet. We won't necessarily say no, but it's case-by-case. We want to rehome animals so shutting down altogether would be a bit daft."
Staff will be in the centre every day from 7am until 7pm and are currently sifting through all the items donated through shoebox appeals, many of them food items.
"On Christmas Day they'll give presents to the animals, it's usually food. But we always say spare a thought for those who are coming in from the cold and dark and cleaning cages and they work from 7am to 7pm. They work a 12-hour day for 365 days of the year."
The staff make sure it's a festive atmosphere for the animals, Nigel says.
"We've got the Christmas decorations up, and the lights, and in our three charity shops we've just had Santa Paws where people can come along and have their photo taken or their dog's and cat's photo taken with Santa.
"We had more than 90 people who came with their pets to have their photos taken in Bangor alone. People always look forward to that.
"Generally there's a very festive atmosphere in the centre and they celebrate every animal that gets a home prior to Christmas because it's another space for somebody else to come in.
"They may shed a tear when some animal has been here for a while and is rehomed, they want them to be rehomed but they've formed a bond with them. So they're constantly losing their friends, but that's part and parcel of it. We'd rather that they were in a home than a shelter."
In order to spend some time on Christmas Day with family and friends, many of the staff split shifts, each taking an early or late eight-hour shift.
"It means they get some time during the day to spend with their family and we try to ensure that if one works on Christmas Day, another works on Boxing Day and they split it as best they can," Nigel says.
"On Christmas Day I will come in with some goodies for the staff. But people are so generous that we have a kitchen table with goodies.
"The dogs and cats will all get a special Christmas dinner - usually chicken - and they make a celebratory day of it," Nigel says.
'Our staff will even take some of the vulnerable animals home'
Colleen Tinnelly, development manager at the USPCA, says the hospital in Newry is trying to rehome a number of animals in time for Christmas but will be vigilant about where they go.
"A lot of people are looking for puppies for Christmas and are keen to purchase them for a family member, but we have a strong message that an animal is not a toy. It's a lifetime commitment and doesn't come with a return policy," she says.
The charity is currently trying to rehome around 25 animals, of which 16 are currently receiving veterinary care at the hospital.
"They come in through the social rehoming scheme. So one animal here, dachshund-collie cross Sally, her owner died recently and she has been left orphaned in the mouth of Christmas. So it's our commitment to get Sally a home over Christmas," she says. "The USPCA operates 365 days a year, so our staff will come in over Christmas and ensure that the animals receive the same care as the rest of the year.
"On Christmas Day we will have presents for the pets, that people have left in shoe boxes for the animals left over Christmas. We had a Santa Paws events over the weekend that was completely booked out and our pets got to see Santa too."
Colleen says the hospital has a dedicated team of staff and volunteers who will operate on a rota basis so that everyone gets some time with their families.
"Some of our staff will even take home some of the vulnerable pets that need round-the-clock care over Christmas," she says. "We've a dedicated team of animal lovers and they want to make sure that any animal in our care at this time of year will receive a very happy and pleasant Christmas.
"But for the likes of Sally, our job is to ensure that she gets a new home over Christmas. However, we've to be very vigilant coming up to Christmas that our pets go to good homes and aren't impulse decisions. Full home checks are done for all pets."
Not only does the USPCA rehome pets that arrive through the social rehoming scheme, but it also cares for pet rescues and wildlife rescues.
"We have some hedgehogs at the minute and an injured seagull. Every day we have wildlife admitted that need our attention," she says. "One thing about the USPCA is that we care for all animals over Christmas. We've just rehomed two African parrots this week. We've vets on call and all hands will be on deck this Christmas. We deal with a lot of rescues, so our phones never stop over the Christmas period."
Colleen warns that Christmas can be a time of rich pickings for unregistered illegal puppy farmers and dog dealers. "Motivated by money, they breed dogs on an industrial scale with the only welfare concern being the well-being of their pockets and not the animal," she says. "The USPCA does not encourage getting an animal as a Christmas gift. Experience tells us the festive season is not ideal for the quiet introduction of a companion animal into the home."
However, for anyone who is shopping for a pet, she advises considering homing a pet from a local animal rescue, always seeing a puppy with its mother and litter, and never buying a pet from a car boot, the back of a van or a market stall. Buyers should ask if the person is a registered commercial breeder; and record the number from the Local Authority Registration document, and should enquire about the pup's health status, worming and parasites, and inoculations, seeking verifiable veterinary confirmation.
They should not meet anywhere that is not the pup's home, or buy a pup from anyone who supplies various breeds. Buyers shouldn't take a pup that looks too young or underweight or buy a pup that they suspect has been illegally imported.
"Remember, if you are dealing with a legitimate breeder they will have questions for you about your lifestyle in order to satisfy themselves that you are a suitable keeper for their pup," Colleen says.