In many ways I enjoyed my day as a volunteer at a dog rescue centre. If you like dogs it’s a pleasure to do something to help them. But it was upsetting, too, and not because these dogs were victims of cruelty — most were not. They were just unwanted, in some cases dumped with a casual ease that is shocking to anyone who believes that the British are a nation of dog-lovers.
Following the RSPCA’s announcement this week, these dogs will no longer be found homes through its animal welfare services. In future the charity will focus its limited resources on cruelty cases: people with unwanted dogs will be told to contact the police, the council or a vet. This means that healthy animals will die.
In the past the RSPCA has rehomed 20,000 dogs a year and its revised policy will put pressure on the hundreds of animal rescue centres, including the one I visited, that rely on the dedication of their staff and volunteers and on donations from the public.
Of Britain’s eight million dogs, of which three quarters are pedigree, 32 per cent reached their owners via a rescue centre, including Chandi, the latest canine star of Britain’s Got Talent. The recession has not helped: last year the number of stray dogs increased from 97,000 to 107,000.
“There will be a knock-on effect from the RSPCA’s decision,” says Sylvia VanAtta, who runs Many Tears Animal Rescue, near Carmarthen in West Wales. “I’d be delighted if they would refer owners to rescue centres outside their own network.”
Not that Sylvia has any difficulty in finding unwanted dogs. When I visited, the centre was full with 80 unwanted pooches. Yet at 8.50am, when the first call came in from an owner wishing to disown her dog — she cited a marriage break-up — Sylvia agreed immediately to take the five-month-old chocolate labrador.
I had expected to find cages filled with pitifully sad, scraggy mutts: instead I found plenty of pedigree animals, their robustness due largely to the care lavished on them by Sylvia and her team. She rescues and rehomes 1,500 dogs a year and runs the UK’s biggest dog fostering network, and her aim is simple: to provide a happy future for unwanted dogs. Some have been used for breeding at puppy farms, some abandoned or taken to dog pounds, some are from elderly owners no longer able to care for them, some, incomprehensibly, from owners who have grown to regard them as an inconvenience. A far smaller number than you’d expect have been mistreated.
“I’m addicted to dogs,” Sylvia explains. “I think about how they will feel tonight. They suffer a lot of anxiety, especially if they’ve been loved. They are howling for their family who got rid of them — sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for rubbish reasons. But I’m never judgmental. It’s the dog that matters.”
Sylvia works on intuition. She doesn’t care about qualifications, she has chosen her 14 staff because she likes them and they work hard. They include a former solicitor, a computer programmer and an mechanical engineer, none paid much more than the minimum wage. All are quick-thinking, articulate and dynamic.
Standards of care are absolute here, which is impressive, given that this is an operation that is constantly chasing its tail, never calculating whether a dog will cost more to care for than its £160 adoption fee (many do), just saving the life, offering a future and hoping that somehow the books will balance. Last year, Many Tears’s income exceeded its £300,000 running costs by just £180 — the funding comes from the boarding kennels that Bill runs alongside the rescue centre, and from donations from individuals and pet-food companies.
Most dogs spend two to three weeks at Many Tears. A board in the office logs all the residents: on the day of my visit, five dogs were found homes. The newly arrived Potter was not among them but I have no doubt that his day will come, and that his cage will soon be filled by another dog looking for an owner who will give him the loving home he deserves.
If a dog becomes a long-term stayer we get to know him better, so we can describe his qualities on the website,” Sylvia says. “A farmer rang once about a dog that wouldn’t work. We were full. I said, what’s the alternative? He said a bullet. That dog came in terrified and now he’s with a new owner, doing agility classes.
We do get happy endings.” BUT NOT THANKS TO THE RSPCA!