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The Northern Ireland woman chosen to model a dress made in honour of Cecil the lion

When London fashion designer Mary Martin designed a dress in tribute to Cecil, the lion killed in Zimbabwe by a trophy hunter, she chose Omagh woman Janice Porter to model it. Here, Janice, who lives with husband Glyn, tells Leona O'Neill about the honour of remembering the majestic Cecil and how she has turned her own lifelong love of animals into a rescue mission

When Cecil the lion was shot and killed in Zimbabwe by American millionaire dentist Walter Palmer in the summer of 2015, it sparked worldwide condemnation.

Many took to social media to vent their fury, but London fashion designer Mary Martin went one step further and channelled her anger and heartache over the senseless death into creating a stunning dress that was then modelled by a Northern Irish animal rights activist.

Janice Porter (49), who runs Grovehill Animal Trust, a cat and dog shelter in Omagh, donned the now iconic Cecil the Lion Dress - made of black sparkly fabric and featuring layers of black tulle around the neck and shoulders which represent the mane of the lion - for a special charity fashion shoot at Lissan House.

Janice says that, as a lifelong animal lover, she was honoured to don the dress. And, as a fashionista at heart, it was even more special to get glammed up since she spends most of her time, when she's not at work for the NSPCC, in wellies at the animal shelter.

"Grovehill is a small independent animal shelter based in a little village called Sixmilecross on the outskirts of Omagh," she says. "So animal welfare and animal rescue would be our main thing. It's all cats and dogs and pups and kittens. Our priority is pound dogs and we work very closely with the dog wardens in Omagh council. We also take in welfare cases, and we take in dogs surrendered by the public.

"There are all sorts of reasons why people give up their pets: they might be in a financial pickle and no longer able to look after their pet, or their health has declined. And we take in strays too when we can't locate their owner.

"We have a cattery and indoor and outdoor runs and the same for the dogs. It is completely volunteer-led. We have one full-time staff member and everyone else volunteers. People think that there are dozens of people behind the scenes, but there really is just a small committee and we have a team of volunteers of all ages and backgrounds who look after the animals. We also run a charity shop in Foundry Lane in Omagh and that covers a lot of our costs - it costs between £10,000 and £12,000 a month to keep the shelter open. It is a complete battle every month, it really is a hand-to-mouth existence. But we can say, hand on heart, that we have never been in debt - we have enough coming in from fundraising and donations - but we never have any money left at the end of each month. We run fundraisers as often as we can and we sell calendars also. It's just survival."

Janice says that donning the fabulous Cecil the Lion Dress was a poignant honour.

"While most of the time you would see me in welly boots covered in muck, tramping through fields around the shelter, I do have a very serious passion for fashion," she says. "From no age I have just loved clothes and shoes. I don't often get a chance to wear anything overly glamorous, but I do love clothes.

"When Cecil was killed it was something that everyone was aware of. I think that because it was a trophy hunt made it all the more sickening and the fact that he didn't die instantly. If he had been shot it would have been horrific, but the fact that he lay there for potentially 12-30 hours suffering before he died was awful.

"He was an iconic lion. I don't think too many people know the names of lions in reserves in Africa, but he was known.

"So the fashion designer Mary Martin, when she heard the story, she didn't go to social media, or the papers, she locked herself away for a fortnight and created this totally incredible dress in memory of Cecil."

Janice was put in touch with Mary Martin through a friend.

"For a bit of fun around a year ago, I had done a little bit of modelling for a friend who had produced a blog from it and he was chatting to Mary one evening and went through the pictures," she explains.

"She thought that I might be a good choice to model her dress. Mary is a lady of a similar age to myself and wants to break away from the stereotypical thin, size zero, 19-year-old model. Her notion would be that fashion really can transcend all ages. Mary is really colourful and lively. She is just so passionate about creating, about animals and about fashion, that is what we would have in common. Her creations are breathtaking."

Designer Mary was keen to have a really authentic country house setting. After much deliberation, Lissan House in Cookstown was chosen as the ideal location. Its aged and authentic interiors were just what she was after.

"Normally, Mary's dresses would be modelled on catwalks," says Janice. "But she felt that she would like to do something outside of her comfort zone.

"We hired Lissan House for the morning. It was stunning. All the staff were fantastic. The caretaker opened up the house and had a beautiful log fire ready for us when we arrived.

"When I put the Cecil dress on, it took me ages to get the whole collar and the mane fixed. Mary's dresses are very much layered. They are really intricate.

"I think the fact that there is a story behind it makes it even more special. It's not just some dress that a fashion designer decided to run up. The dress is very fitted around the tummy and chest area and then the mane is amazing. It was very soft to touch. That was what Cecil was so well known for, not only his majestic form but also his thick, intricate mane, and that is why Mary created that neckline.

"It was the kind of dress that if you wore a necklace, it would have spoiled it."

The Cecil dress has been shown off on catwalks but Janice's photoshoot was the first time that it had left England.

"It was flown over for the shoot and then unfortunately I had to return it to Mary," she says. "The dress has been worn at quite a few fashion shows. I don't imagine that it is a dress that will just go into a cupboard. It is one that she is well known for."

Janice says that her love of animals goes back to her childhood, growing up in Whitehouse, near Belfast.

"I have always loved animals, from no age," she says. "I had my parents' hearts broken. As a child, I had a pet blackbird called Harry and any strays that arrived at our house in Belfast were brought in. And when I moved to Omagh 25 years ago, there was very little in terms of animal welfare in those days. So I started feeding ferals in the town, trapping, neutering and spaying them myself. And I got involved with a few like-minded people and Grovehill Animal Trust was set up. In the very early days it was just a few of us volunteers rescuing as and when we could.

"Then, about five years ago, we figured that if we were doing street collections and taking money from the general public we needed to do things by the book. So we set up as a charity and opened up our shelter and our charity shop. And it has really taken off since then.

"Our shelter is off the beaten track, it is completely surrounded by sustainable hedges, the scenery is absolutely breathtaking. At any given time we would have up to 20 dogs and up to 30 cats. We also have dogs and cats in foster placements, for example if we got in a heavily pregnant cat it would be much nicer for her to be in a home with a family, coming up to giving birth. Any vulnerable animals who would be old or aren't too well would be the same. So we have a few local families who live nearby the shelter who foster for us.

"We see the shelter as only being short term. Our role is to rescue the animal and then to rehome them. Since social media has taken off we have rehomed outside of the Omagh area."

Not only is the shelter packed to full capacity with animals, but Janice's home is too, with at least 10 animals.

"We have four dogs and four pet sheep at home," she says. "And we also have a few cats who come and go. Whatever strays and waifs wander through at night time, there's a dinner dish out in the yard. Our dogs are Suzie, who is a springer. There's Ruffles, who is a beardy cross, Honey, who is our collie and Rosie, who is a miniature schnauzer. They are all rescues.

"Our sheep are Martha and Molly and then Molly had two babies, Ted and Emma. The sheep stay in paddocks at the side of the house and they are basically our lawnmowers. They love it here."

Janice says that her love of animals led her to radically overhaul her lifestyle as a young woman, becoming a vegetarian, a diet to which she has stayed true ever since.

"I have been a vegetarian for over 25 years," she says. "As a teenager I started reading animal rights literature. I read up about abattoirs and got an eye opener. I visited a few cattle markets to really see for myself how the animals were treated and what happened to them. It was a gradual process.

"Personally I don't believe that you can become a vegetarian overnight. I think you have to understand why you are doing it. So for me it was just a gradual cutting back of beef and then pork, then fish. I can't condone the eating of meat because of what goes on beforehand. To eat out these days, it is easy as a vegetarian. There's something wrong if you can't be a vegetarian. I do find myself healthier with this lifestyle and I'm rarely sick.

"I think if you are involved in and talking about animal rights, it would be a bit hypocritical to eat animals."

For more information on Grovehill Animal Trust, visit www.grovehillanimaltrust.org

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