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A day with the RSPCA

eliza being_fed_01_06_12For hundreds of animals living at rescue centres, they want nothing more than their own bed in a nice, cosy home. Deputy editor, Jo Willacy, spent a day at an RSPCA centre, where unwanted pets live for days, weeks or even longer…

‘Passionate, dedicated and hard-working – none of these words does any justice to the staff who work at the RSPCA Southridge Animal Centre in Hertfordshire, where I went to muck in for a day, and see what’s really involved at a rescue centre.

‘Before I met the staff, I was given the once-over by the residents at reception – a good sniff from Leo, a Neapolitan mastiff (history: beaten with an iron bar and tied to a lamppost); Mutley, a Jack Russell who lies on the reception desk (history: owners went on holiday leaving him alone in the house, he broke out looking for food and got run over); and Stephen, a slim, handsome cat who prowls around reception keeping his canine companions in check (history: epileptic and now partially blind).

‘All three now belong to Anna White, the centre manager, who just couldn’t give them up – and I don’t blame her. ‘Stephen’s great for helping us test whether a dog will be OK living with cats,’ says Anna. ‘Because he’s partially blind, he doesn’t panic when a dog is near.’

‘However, Anna says re-homing from the centre has dropped dramatically. The reason? Most of the dogs at Southridge are bull terriers, and the breed is now out of favour because of the way they are portrayed in the media.’

Cool for cats

‘I can’t wait to meet these much maligned dogs, but first I set off with Lucy, one of the 12 members of staff on duty (there are 26 in all), to the East Wing. It may sound like I’m on the set of ITV1’s period drama, Downton Abbey, but no. The cat enclosure, where more than 100 kittens and cats reside, is next on the agenda and it’s time to clean up.

‘It’s a big job and all the animals’ areas have to be spick and span before the centre opens to the public at 11am. During the day, there will be a steady flow of prospective owners, mainly families with young children – strolling around. Lucy works quickly but very meticulously. She clearly wants a good job done and my first task is to walk the corridor of glass-fronted enclosures to look at the inhabitants. As well as a cosy bed, each cat has an extremely spacious outdoor area for exercise and play. I’m given a large broom to sweep the floor and then place every litter tray in the corridor ready for Lucy to empty and replace. While I’m doing this, Lucy cleans the glass windows and re-makes all the beds.

‘We’re soon joined by Sandra who puts breakfast out for the cats, then gives medicines to any that need it.’

Devoted care

‘Sandra asks if I’d like to watch her feed Eliza, a tiny kitten who needs hand-rearing because, sadly, she’s motherless. I don’t take much persuading. She’s the cutest little ball of black and white fluff. I hold Eliza while Sandra makes up a special feed which she gives to her via a syringe. One more cuddle and, reluctantly, I return her to her bed.

‘I then join staff member Rebecca, as Marley, a black and white cat, and Trigger, a ginger, are brought in. Rebecca checks Marley’s eyes, ears, coat, claws and pads, his mouth and tail. (A slight kink at the end could mean it’s broken.) This goes on his admission notes so the vet can take a look. With the checks complete, we take Marley to the cats’ enclosures to find his temporary home.

‘On average, cats stay at the centre for a few weeks while bull terriers will stay four to five months. Other dog breeds are usually re-homed about a month after they arrive.’

Miracle mutts

‘It’s time for me to meet some of the dogs. First, I join staff member Lisa in the exercise compound, with Honey and Angel. They dote on Lisa, and their eyes follow the ball she is holding – and never leave it!

‘I’m shocked when Lisa tells me that, when Angel arrived, she “was a third of the weight she is now” and that Honey “was a bag of bones”. It really does beggar belief.

‘Both dogs look fit and healthy now and, as well as a good game of ball, all they want is some TLC. She gives as much as she can, but explains that it’s a misconception that all a worker at an animal centre does is “cuddle and stroke dogs and cats”. The staff just don’t have time.

‘Lisa explains that the dogs are given time in the exercise compound twice a day as well as two daily walks, but this is where the centre’s ‘godsends’ come in. I’ve seen them pop up everywhere – and all the staff refer to them in the same way. In actual fact, these “godsends” are the centre’s numerous, and invaluable, volunteers.

‘I meet Katrina as she works her way down the aisles of cats. She’s calmly stroking two, Sunflower and Sunshine, a practice that helps get them used to human contact and to being handled. (Their backgrounds mean many are unused to this.)

‘Katrina has been a volunteer for a year or so, visiting three to four times a week if she can. She’s even adopted two kittens.

‘Outside, the volunteers are busy walking the dogs. The centre might be on the edge of the M25 but, despite this, it’s a lovely setting, with acres of green fields where the dogs can be walked with ease.’

Noah’s ark

‘To end my day, staff member, Jenny, shows me round the entire centre. She has worked here for 15 years but would give it all up in an instant for the good of the animals. “If centres like ours ever closed, it would be a wonderful thing because it would mean there weren’t enough animals to fill them,” she says.

‘It’s clearly not going to happen any day soon. Southridge Animal Centre is the largest of the RSPCA’s headquarters- funded centres. As well as its 120 feline residents and 80 to 100 canine guests, there are 20 rabbits, 10 horses, six guinea pigs, four pigs, three sheep, three goats, plus numerous aviary birds, rats, mice and chinchillas.

‘As I leave Southridge, I realise two things. Firstly, that while it may not be the ideal home, the animals at this centre are hugely loved and cared for, however long or short their stay. And, secondly, that Southridge might just have found itself another godsend.’


This article was first published in at home with Lorraine Kelly in April 2012. [Read the digital edition here]


Picture credit: RSPCA

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