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The Vacuum Issue 4 spacer Issue 4
Much Nicer Than Human Babies - Interview with Maureen Smith of the Assisi Animal Sanctuary
by Richard West
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Maureen Smith: The charity actually came into being in 1995. I would say it was founded on a dream by a lady called Avril Christie who was a great lover of animals and deeply concerned about their welfare. She sold the tiny little cottage she had outside Kircubben and rented a premises outside Ballywalter, which was basically a cottage with a small bit of land, and her dream had always been that one day she would have a sanctuary. So, she started there, with nothing.
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Richard West: Maybe you could give a little bit of the background? What were you doing prior to that? Do you remember how you first got involved in animal welfare?
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M: I think I've always been involved with animals, because I was brought up in the country with lots of animals. I came from County Fermanagh where my father was the local schoolmaster. But if he was the local schoolmaster, he was practically the local vet as well. People in the country wouldn't pay for vets, and my father was wonderful with animals and very knowledgeable about them as well, so, I mean, lambing seasons and things, my poor father was called out three or four times in a night sometimes. I was involved with sanctuaries here and was a great campaigner and anti-vivisectionist. When I came back to Northern Ireland, I became involved with the USPCA. I got quite heavily involved in the USPCA and did a lot of fundraising for them in Holywood and was on the committee until we moved into Asissi. I suppose, working for the USPCA, they have different ideas to what we have. We have totally a 'no kill' policy. We do not believe in killing healthy animals - which, unfortunately, the USPCA still do, to such a degree that we have the highest number of healthy animals destroyed each year of anywhere in the UK. It's very hard sometimes, if you get a lovely dog coming in and you think, you know, is it going to survive at the USPCA or is it not?
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Much Nicer Than Human Babies - Interview with Maureen Smith of the Assisi Animal Sanctuary
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R: So the USPCA have become like the bad dog warden of old?
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M: Well, no, I won't say that actually, because they are the only people with authority. We have no authority to go in somewhere there's a cruelty case or something. We need a very good animal welfare system, it is just sad that they are destroying so many animals.
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But, going back to the beginning, we started in Ballywalter in 1995 and by 1997 we were getting a wee bit further, I mean, it was ramshackle, I'll not pretend it wasn't. Avril was wonderful, but Avril would have had all the dogs in the house with her. She took everything, she was a dumping ground. Because, suddenly, there was a sanctuary in the area, a farming area, where very often dogs and cats are things that are expendable. So everything was dumped at the gate. In 1997, St Patrick's day, actually, we actually formed a committee for Assisi and called ourselves 'The Friends of Assisi'.
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R: This is a St Francis we're talking about here?
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M: Of course, unfortunately, at the end of that year, in the November, Avril was evicted. The farmer who owned it wanted it back to sell and we had to get out by the 7th of December. We raced round the country and all the estate agents, but nobody really wants a sanctuary and we really had no money.
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R: And that had been her house as well, so she had sold her houseŠ
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M: She was out as well, yes. I think, at that stage we had 70 animals, so that's when we approached the USPCA who had Clonligg where we are now - it was called White Spots, that sanctuary. That had been closed down about 18 months beforehand and was lying empty. So, we approached them and after consideration, they said, yes, we could lease it, initially for six months, but it probably would be ongoing. So we moved in there on the 7th of December, which I shall never forget. The basic kennels and everything were there, but it was hard work in the few weeks we had to get it ready for the animals. All these animals had to be moved from Ballywalter to Clonligg, mostly by car. The odd van we had. So you had things like sheep sitting in the back seat of a car driving along! Sadly, Avril left us at the end of April through ill health, and at the end of June that year the USPCA announced they were going to sell and the starting price was £85,000. So we were back with another dilemma, and this time we had more animals. What were we going to do?
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R: How many of you were involved by this stage?
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M: Our committee, which was about ten, I suppose and at that time we had collected various supporters on top of that, people would give you stuff for your sales, things like that, but, still it was a fairly small.
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R: And this isn't paid work, of course?
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M: Oh no, it's not. Nobody involved is paid, only our paid workers at the sanctuary, which, of course, you have to have now, because the thing has grown dramatically. Assisi is still a small sanctuary, and, to a lot of people in Northern Ireland, particularly when it comes to things like legacies, we want to leave money to animals, who have we got? - USPCA. They say it takes seven years before you start getting your legacies. We have had a few legacies and we will have, we know we will have. But, if you look at most of your charities, I don't know the exact percentage, but it's something like 70 per cent of their income comes from legacies. So, I think we have done extremely well to have lasted as long as we have and not just run the sanctuary. When I say it takes £160,000 to £180,000 a year to run, that is purely the running. Now, we have done a tremendous amount of development and that's on top of running costs.
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R: Is this buildings and things?
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M: Yes, The cattery is wonderful and we've got mother and baby units, we've a unit for the elderly. Oh the mother and baby unit's beautiful! It's all stainless steel. The mother and baby unit is a lovely big room with all stainless steel units and an ante-room off which is the labour room for mummies.
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R: We are talking about cats here?
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M: Yes. Mummy cats, queen cats, whatever you prefer. Mummy cats go in there if they're going to have their kittens. And they don't come out of there until the main cattery, the main unit. Having said that, we use foster parents a tremendous amount. Particularly, if a mummy comes in, we would send her out when she has her kittens. We have a new clinical unit for the vets, we have Happy Tails, which is the new puppy unit, again, which is stainless steel, a wonderful big place which was opened by Nuala McKeever just two years ago. Nuala did my BBC appeal for me, towards getting money for that new unit. We're just about to do another one, I'll have to ring her to see if she can do this one for me as well. So, we have that, we have five new isolation units for the dogs. Dogs coming in, tied at the gate this morning, you don't know what they're carrying - they can't go into the main dogs, they go into the isolation units, which are very good. Our dogs go out in groups, play together, they socialise.
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R: Do you mean socialise with other dogs or socialise with people?
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M: Oh yes, well, both really, but to begin with they're going out in their exercise pens. They're all walked, every dog is walked at least once or twice a day. We have a great army of dog walkers, which we are very grateful to. They can all go out in groups. We also have our own animal behaviourist, so if there are problems, she also takes a lot of the dogs in agility training, which is quite amazing because very often it is your most unsociable dog that takes to agility. I mean, they just blossom.
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R: What is agility training?
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M: They have hoops they go through and tunnels they go through and, you know, it's all part of training them and they all love it. It's always special ones, Henry, who is a long-term dog of ours, who would never have been homed is actually a possibility for homing now. Because he was a fighter, I think probably had been used in dog fighting and was very afraid of people. Now he's our star, so much so that he is one that is used for visiting nursing homes, residential homes, children's schools.
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R: And he used to be a fighting dog? Do you get a lot of dogs that are in that situation?
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M: Not a lot. Earlier on in our years at the sanctuary you got more. You do get a lot of abysmally neglected and abused animals, you get a lot of greyhounds. I love greyhounds, I just love them, they're the most sweet animals. I've never come across an aggressive greyhound, ever. They're all of very gentle nature and they're so badly treated.
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R: Is this by people that are racing them?
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M: They get to a stage they don't want them any more. We've just got one in now, Rosy, with a broken shoulder, that they were going to shoot, so she's in with us now and she's just lovely. And then we had Bella. A lady had been out on a Sunday, up the woods behind us walking her dog and found this dog tied to a tree. The vet said that it hadn't had food or drink for seven to ten days. It was just left there to die. It was a racing one - you know, they're tattooed on their ears, so you know that it has been a racing dog.
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R: Does that mean that you can find out who the owner was?
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M: You could do, but if there's a cruelty case, it would have to go to the USPCA because we have no authority. We have no authority to bring people to courts.
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R: Shouldn't the police be doing this?
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M: No, it has to go through to the animal welfare, they are the people with the authority to go, with the police, that it eventually goes to court. But, it could be anything up to two years before that court case would be heard. Meanwhile, that dog has to be kept in captivity. If it's not socialised, it's beyond homing. If it survives it at all, it's beyond homing. So, rightly or wrongly, we will keep these animals, bring them back to health and give them a good home.
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R: Are you saying that if you wanted to prosecute someone for being cruel to a dog, you'd have to be more cruel to the dog to get to make that happen?
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M: Basically that's what you're saying, yes, you would. The dog's life would more or less be finished because, by the time it sits in a cage for two years, that dog is beyond anything. It has probably become aggressive in that time anyhow.
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R: So, just going back to what you were talking about before. Have you purchased the site yourselves?
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M: We purchased the site. We had seven weeks to raise £85,000. We were sitting on, I think we had £400. So we got together the committee and, what can we do, we can't find anywhere to take these animals? And the USPCA had indicated that they wanted a quick sale - certainly within two months. So what do we do? Eventually, I think, Brian the chairman and myself said, quite facetiously, well, shall we buy it? And of course the rest of them were all, 'well, what with? What are we going to buy it with?' So, we decided, we'll have a go. We'll have an appeal and see how we get on. Well, you know the speeded-up film? Well, that's what it was like for seven weeks. I was the appeals organiser, and I'd never done anything like that in my life before, I was in my office from six in the morning and didn't move until 10 o'clock at night. There were literally 50 - 100 phone-calls coming through, 50 - 100 letters coming through per day. I was just up there, surrounded, in between writing to everybody I could think of. Every day, practically, a radio programme or something had us on and we did do it. Every week it was in the papers, every day, 'we have reached such-and-such now'. That's the Belfast Telegraph.
R: They gave you a free ad then?
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M: No they did not. The Belfast Telegraph give you nothing! That was £1000 of a donation - a German lady rang and said 'I will pay for it'. I got money from Australia, money from America. Ulster Bank, gave us £400. On the 27th of August we actually signed over and bought the place. Outright, with money over.
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R: That's incredible.
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M: It was. And the money over became my domain, and the appeal account continues with me. I build on the money I get, I apply for grants, I write to people, and any money, any legacies would go into my appeal account. This is building for the day that we do have our big rebuild. We have plans drawn up by the architect, for three quarters of amillion, so I don't intend running an appeal in eight weeks to raise that! But, we will get there.
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R: What kind of span of animals do you have there? Do you have snakes and sheep?
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M: No we don't, no. Basically, our big animals are the dogs and cats, really.
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R: What would happen to all those big animals? Is there someone who looks after them?
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M: Well, the USPCA. There was a safari park, the USPCA took those in and they were all sent to various places. I have dreams that I look out that window one day and there's a tiger sitting in the middle of that lawn. I think it would be a privilege to meet a tiger.
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R: Do you think it would be a privilege? I think it would be terrifying!
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M: I think I would be quite honestly attracted to it, I would see myself going out to it. I once fed a lion cub and it was a wonderful experience. It was just gorgeous, this big, warm, much nicer than human babies! I mean I've grandchildren and I love them to bits, but I must admit I like animals. I'd rather have a baby lion to look after than a baby. They don't make that horrible noise babies make.
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R: You very pointedly use 'mother and baby unit' for your animals. Do you want to put animals on an even standing with people in the home?
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M: Well, I suppose my animals, yes, are part of my family, and Assisi, something we do stipulate is that animals going out are family pets only. We are quite strong on that. We are also very strong on re-homing. You know, that you have proper homing checks. A lot of people are very offended because we turn them down. Somebody actually went on the Gerry Anderson programme and said that it's impossible to get an animal out of Assisi. He said it was easier to get gold out of Fort Knox than get an animal from Assisi.
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R: What was the problem there?
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M: I think his particular problem was he already had a number of large dogs, he was in the process of moving house and he wanted a puppy. He didn't have any enclosed are to put it in, and he had a lot of large dogs. So he was considered unsuitable. I debated whether I should ring in. Gerry Anderson of course has come round. He's become President of Oaktree Farm sanctuary, so he's become quite in to animals now.
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R: Do you employ the vet as well? Do you have one full time?
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M: We use three vets. Our veterinary bills run to three, four thousand a month sometimes.
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R: How many animals do you get in a year? How many do you re-house in a year?
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M: I'm trying to think what the last figures wereŠ. It was certainly over 600. I can't remember the exact figures, you know, of dogs, cats, rabbits etc. But over 600.
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R: And how much does it cost you to put one animal through this process?
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M: Again, I couldn't honestly say, because they vary. You can get one in that's going to need extensive veterinary treatment for skin disease or something. We had a little staffie in, it was at death's door, now that, I think it was about £3000 of veterinary fees for that, it was in such an appalling state. We have, as I say a 'no-kill' policy. Having said that, in my time, with three animals, we've had to euthanase, but that goes through quite a process. We need a secondary veterinary opinion, then a consultation between the Chairman, the Manager, one other committee member and two veterinary surgeons before we will make a final decision.
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R: That sounds like the proposal for human euthanasia as well.
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M: Humans don't have the benefit of it, unfortunately. We will do our best, particularly if it's an aggressive animal. We've had one - one aggressive animal that had to be destroyed.
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R: What type of animal was it?
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M: It was a pitbull that somebody picked up at the filling station in Newry and brought to us. It was fine with people, as far as we knew, but it nearly tore another dog to ribbons and the staff had to deal with that. We had a very courageous member of staff who had to go in and open that dog's mouth, and got the other dog out of it. We've a lot of children, a lot of visitors at the weekends. Whatever you do, children always stick their fingers through pens and, if it had been a child, we could have been in very serious trouble. It's a shame Rottweilers get a bad name as well. But it hasn't been their fault, they've been abused and tracked round on short chains by these macho men.
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R: I thought there wouldn't be many in Northern Ireland?
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M: There's an awful lot going on undercover, there's a lot of animal cruelty. Dog fighting is very popular in Northern Ireland. Cats as well. I don't know if you've heard about lamping of cats.
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R: No, what's that?
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M: Well it's been a popular hobby or pastime for a lot of people here. You see there's money in it all, there's betting. At one stage, there was a housing estate in Dundonald that didn't have a cat left in it - they'd all been lifted. They go up the hills with the big, bright lamps and dogs, and they throw the cats out. We have to be careful - there are areas we will not house a cat to. And dog fighting is very popular, we watch, when you've lurchers and greyhounds in, there are types you will get up, 'any lurchers or greyhounds?', If we have any, we say, 'booked, sorry all booked. If you'd leave your name and address, we'll let you know if there are any in.' They love betting, you see, and gambling, there's money in it you see. The Newtownards area has always been known to be a bad area for dog fighting.
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I think it always goes back to the fact that it's been a farming community, it's been a poor country. Even things like gardening centres, people didn't bother about their gardens, they might have had a few roses in the front somewhere, but they didn't bother because it was basically a farming community. The farming communities have a different attitude to the domestic animals to what I would have. I'm better not dealing with the people who come looking for animals actually. There was one, not so long ago, a very nice couple - this man and woman and a twelve-year-old boy, wanted a puppy. Some of the dog-walkers were coming in and I noticed the woman jumped about a foot in the air every time a dog came near her, so I said, 'Are you afraid of dogs?' - 'Oh, I don't like dogs', she says. So I said, 'Well, with a puppy, you'd be hoping it will live up until it's about 15. Where's your son going to be then?' 'But it's now he wants it.' I say, 'But he goes to university and then what happens? In another three or four years, what happens to the dog?' You know, they just don't think it out. In the end, I talked her out of it. I said, get your husband to bring your son up here at the weekend and walk dogs, so that he has some contact and starts to realise just what you do with dogs. We've got one this year, they said 'my husband has an allergy to the dog'. Now how they had it for eight yearsŠ People lie through their teeth too. 'we're moving into an apartment, we can't keep the animal', or 'We're going to England, we can't take it with us'. The public drive me mad sometimes.
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R: But at the same time, they're very generous in terms ofŠ
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M: Oh, well, yes, I was saying that because, Assisi as someone was saying to me the other day, it goes much wider than the sanctuary. There are so many tentacles out. You've got your people who dog walk, people who visit, people who come out to spend time with the cats, people who give you stuff for your sales, who work for your sales, who collect stamps, who do all the various things. And of course, with our various support groups, it's spreading further. It's amazing. And the people who come and support the things you do, the fundraisers you do, if you didn't have them coming you wouldn't raise any money.
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There used to be an old man who came from Newtownards. He lived in a home there. He came every Monday and Wednesday and he would walk a dog, and then he got past being able to walk a dog. He had had dogs all his life and he was no longer able to have a dog, so that was the highlight of his week. A niece of his came up with him one day and she said, 'You don't know what this has done for him. He'd have been dead now only for Assisi.' And she said, 'If ever I say 'what can I bring you' at the weekend, he says 'dog biscuits'.
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