Heartbreak and hope at haven for animals
Roger Malone visits the Woodside Animal Welfare Trust’s halfway house for pets who have been homeless.
IT'S hard to meet their eyes. Each cat, each dog looks guilelessly at you – pricking the emotions with a mix of hurt and hope.
This is Woodside Animal Welfare Trust, a haven and halfway house for creatures who, through no fault of their own, are homeless.
It's a poignant place that can highlight cruelty and compassion in equal measure.
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Created in 1976 as the Thornbury group by founder Carole Bowles, the purpose-built rescue centre sprung up on the outskirts of Plymouth in 1984 – a valuable resource for the city, maintained through determination and massive support.
Many years ago Carole witnessed a vet terminate the lives of unwanted animals at a home for dogs and cats.
"In one day 90 kittens and 30 dogs were put to sleep through no fault of their own," she says. "That was dreadful, and I have never forgotten that."
Woodside has evolved through her determination to do something positive about the endless plight of unwanted animals.
Here, no animals are put down unless by the recommendation of a vet or because they are dangerous.
"It takes £500,000 a year to run the centre," says Carole, now 73, and as enthusiastic for the cause as ever.
"That is paid for by donations, legacies, fund raising, and income from the Trust's 15 charity shops – each run by a team of loyal volunteers under a paid manager."
To survive, Woodside has to pay wages, food, and vets' fees – including spaying and neutering which costs £10,000 per month. The sanctuary works closely with the local branch of the RSPCA which goes 50/50 on the spaying and neutering.
"We had 148 cats and kittens here one day," continues Carole, who, as a trustee, takes no wage herself. "You have to cope with feeding and caring for them, and all the other animals.
"That is why I'm involved with bringing in the funds so that we don't go under."
Some animals have been rescued from horrendous cruelty, while others have been brought in by heartbroken owners who, through their own changed circumstances, can no longer look after the animal they love.
Others are simply cast-off creatures treated as commodities.
"As well as the animals we also care about the people that come here," says Carole.
"Tea and sympathy is important. People might love the dog or cat they bring in and feel dreadful about giving their responsibility to someone else.
"People get dealt bad things and you cannot blame them all the time."
Four dogs have just arrived from Ireland. Because of pressure on space Woodside normally only accommodates local animals – but these, with eight others, were in a pound and destined to be put down.
Woodside could accommodate four – the rest were dispersed elsewhere.
Seeing three-year-old Maggie, a Rough Collie from Dublin, on the canine version of Death Row after being abandoned, is a crime to behold.
Saved by another animal charity, the dogs were brought to England to be put in safe care; victims of a society that too often seems to care less.
There are a few golden rules of responsibility preached by Woodside which, if acted on, would go a long way towards eliminating its endless intake.
"Don't acquire an animal on impulse," urges Carole. "Make sure it is right for you, and that you can cope before making what should be a serious commitment.
"Do have your pet spayed or neutered to avoid unwanted pregnancies."
Realising people aren't always able to afford the spaying Woodside has launched a 'save and spay' scheme. You can buy £1 stamps from its charity shops and sanctuary and use them as part or whole payment for the operation at various veterinary surgeries that have registered with the scheme.
"It's so important to me that spaying and neutering in the community gets done," says Carole. "Once you have got the unwanted animals here you are shutting the door after the horse has bolted."
Debbie Haynes is a member of staff who has worked at Woodside since it opened, and given a loving home to a number of its homeless dogs and cats.
"I have just taken on a 12-year-old-dog that was here," she says. "I have four dogs and the great thing is I can bring them to work and walk them in my lunch break."
Woodside is full of touching cameos. There is 16-year-old daschund Daisy, a spaniel who will live her life out at the sanctuary, and shares her kennel with a terminally-ill younger dog, cross spaniel Jazz.
There is a special area for elderly and infirm felines, the frail senior citizens of the cat world.
"The animals that you have here are safe, and warm, and fed and loved," says Debbie. "But what distresses me is the animals that are waiting to come in.
"This is my job and my life and I love it. I have been working in animal welfare with Carole and her daughter Helen for 32 years."
New arrivals are put in an isolation area before being moved to the kennels or cattery. They are thoroughly checked by a vet; wormed, flea-sprayed, micro-chipped and given necessary vaccinations as well as spaying and neutering.
All the dogs are exercised daily by staff and volunteers, and their temperament assessed as a guide to their suitability for specific owners.
The cats have indoor accommodation with outside runs. Cared for and cosy they have blankets and heat pads and toys to keep them amused. A radio plays music all the time to provide background noise.
Outside, half a dozen rescued ex-battery hens, all now honorary members of the extended Woodside animal community, roam free.
In an adjoining field is a small band of rescue goats, sheep, ponies and pigs including a hog called Bruiser, sponsored by the Harley Owners Group (HOG).
Surveying Woodside's achievements through the efforts of staff, volunteers and donations from the public Carole says she feels "well blessed".
"We have made a difference," she adds. "Animal welfare is a bottomless pit, but you must do as much as you can with the money you have got."
Peak intakes at Woodside are predictable: animals abandoned in summer while owners take their holiday, and after Christmas when the cuddly 'presents' have lost their novelty.
"We will get the aftermath in January of what was bought at Christmas," says Carol, who knows the season of giving and then getting rid of only too well.
"People will have gone through the honeymoon period – sometimes it takes two weeks, sometimes three," she says.
"You do see a lot of bad things and callous people - but there are so many good people.
"At Woodside we have to remember the good we have done, and what we have achieved. It's not all doom and gloom. Here we offer hope to the animals – and the chance of a new life."