All creatures great and small

Lucy Fry with Toady the horse. Picture: Paul Jacobs (122286-2)

Lucy Fry with Toady the horse. Picture: Paul Jacobs (122286-2)

Crystal and her husband Wayne with their children (l-r) Lacie-Louise (4), Bradley (nine months), Rory (2) and Harvey (6).  Picture: Sarah Standing (170509-232)

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Playful bundles of fur with wide appealing eyes gaze at visitors in the cattery.

And over in the kennels excited yelps and wagging tails tell animal lovers ‘I want to be your friend’.

Steve Baxter holding Gracie and Megan Williams with Angel.(122286-14)

Steve Baxter holding Gracie and Megan Williams with Angel.(122286-14)

The cats and dogs of Stubbington Ark are employing their full arsenal of cuteness to win over people who might be able to give them a loving home.

And these potential family pets have every chance. In its 25 years of existence, the RSPCA shelter near Fareham has re-homed an estimated 24,000 dogs, 27,500 cats and 20,400 other pets and livestock.

This week staff at Stubbington Ark were marking the shelter’s silver anniversary by inviting local officials, VIPs and supporters to join them in celebrations.

But the real stars of the show remain the hundreds of very important pets who have found sanctuary and a comfortable temporary home at the site.

‘Every animal here is an individual and that’s always been the case,’ says Mike Ward, shelter manager at the Ark since it was opened 25 years ago.

‘We deal with large numbers but you can talk to any member of staff and they will be able to give you names and numbers of certain animals that have been here.

‘Each one is a life that deserves love and care and it is important we never lose sight of that.’

If any resident sums up Mike’s point it’s Toady, once a majestic grey Arabian who’s now a little long in the tooth – and not just because he’s a horse.

Toady was one of Stubbington Ark’s first residents after he was found knee-deep in waste in a run-down stable.

Too scared to go outside, the horse benefited from the patience and care of centre staff and came on in walks and trots.

He was soon able to enjoy an active life and ended up being used to teach children to ride at the HMS Dryad recreation centre.

Now Toady has become one of the Ark’s only permanent residents and is enjoying his retirement in a comfortable new stable and spacious paddock.

‘You can see he’s still a bit of a funny shape. He was so thin when he came in and lost all that muscle, his hind legs never fully recovered,’ says Lucy Fry.

She’s now team leader of the small animals and wildlife section but was there to look after Toady at the very beginning.

‘We all absolutely love him. He is the Ark really, he’s a really big part of this place for us.’

But it’s the staff and volunteers who keep things ticking over and work tirelessly to make the lives of thousands of animals safer and more comfortable.

One of the longest-serving employees is Mike, who started working for the RSPCA in 1977 and was manager of the region’s former shelter at Park Gate.

‘It was too small and we were under a great deal of pressure,’ he says.

So the brand new Ark was a godsend, so to speak. The £500,000 shelter, opened after a major fundraising campaign fronted by TV presenter Fred Dinenage, was the biggest in the country and is still one of the RSPCA’s major centres.

‘We went from a two-acre site to eight acres and our capacity for taking in animals tripled,’ says Mike.

‘It was very exciting that we had the facilities and space to deal with the problems properly.’

And that wasn’t the end of progress. Over the years the shelter has had a new adoption cattery, puppy unit and state-of-the-art veterinary unit.

It’s all a great help to the staff and volunteers, as well as the RSPCA inspectors and education officers.

Not surprisingly life can be tough at the animal rescue coalface and staff get very attached to their canine and feline charges.

‘It’s a difficult one because you really want them to find a new home but you miss them a lot,’ says operations manager Steve Baxter.

So it’s understandable that Steve and many other members of staff have a few pets at home.

They’ve also seen the changing face of animal welfare and worked hard to improve it.

‘Even when we opened this, we’d talk to people about immunisation and they’d say what’s that. We still see a lot of ignorance but it’s improved,’ says Mike.

They’ve dealt with crazes over the years including an influx of terrapins when kids became obsessed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

And then there has been the irresponsible breeding of statement and fighting dogs. ‘This area was bad for that, they became known as Pompey Pitbulls,’ says Mike.

Following legislation governing pitbull ownership, people started breeding and cross breeding the Staffordshire bull terrier for its physical appearance.

‘It has nothing to do with the pedigree breed which is much smaller and a lovely dog. And now the breed has been crossed so much, we don’t really have problems with them,’ explains Mike.

In the end, he says, there are few bad breeders, just irresponsible and ignorant owners.

Happily, legislation and education programmes, including those run by the shelter, have improved things over the years.

‘What we can’t stamp out though is human cruelty,’ says Mike.

But he never becomes cynical about human nature, particularly as some people have to give up their pets as a last resort.

‘Unfortunately the recession has had an effect and some owners don’t have a choice. I’ve seen some heartbroken owners here and it’s really upsetting.’

But the positive side is that there’s an army of animal lovers, whether working or volunteering at the Ark or ready to adopt a pet, who can help.

‘We don’t just see animals, we see every side of human nature,’ says Mike.

‘And there’s a lot of animal-loving people who we couldn’t be without.’

ARK MEMORIES

Whether fun or distressing, there have been some events in Stubbington Ark’s history that workers will never forget.

When the Perrycroft animal laboratory in Herefordshire was closed in 1991 after a nationwide uproar, the Ark took in 50 beagles rescued from the site.

Shelter manager Mike Ward is still affected by the arrival of the dogs, which had been kept in tiny concrete enclosures and never witnessed daylight.

He says: ‘They had been kept inside in horrible cells full of their own faeces and they were in an appalling condition. They could hardly walk on the grass because they’d never stepped foot outside.’

But the Ark is always ready for the challenge of working with animals which have been physically and psychologically damaged. The beagles were rehomed, although the process required plenty of patience and care from the new owners, and since that time there has been an annual reunion of beagles, their descendants and the owners.

Some animals have come in 200 by 200 rather than two by two. Mike remembers the shelter becoming the new temporary home for 700 gerbils (a case of breeding getting out of hand).

But it hasn’t all been traumatic. Ark staff had the opportunity to become TV stars in the 1990s when Channel 4 show Pet Rescue spent two years filming the action at the site.

‘The staff were great, they soon became very comfortable with the cameras,’ says Mike.

And then there are the personal memories. When operations manager and Steve Baxter looks at a 10-year-old picture of himself with two dogs he recalls their names.

‘That’s Zeb and Sparky,’ he says, looking fondly at the photo which has become part of a display for the shelter’s 25th anniversary.

‘Some just stay with you, I can’t explain why,’ he says.

HOW TO HELP

It costs about £3,000 a day to keep the Stubbington Ark running and the shelter depends on the donations and support of the area’s animal lovers.

RSPCA Solent Branch, which runs the Ark and the RSPCA Veterinary Clinic in Southampton, is an independently registered charity which receives no government funding or lottery grants.

Responsible for an area of 400 square miles, including Portsmouth and Southampton, and caring for about 600 animals at the Ark, the charity is always looking for help.

There are several ways to lend support including sponsoring an animal, making a one-off or regular donation, sponsoring an event, volunteering or visiting the charity shop in West Street, Fareham.

Visit stubbingtonark.org.uk or call (01329) 666916.

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