Four animal charities tell Caroline Lindsay how they’ve adapted over the past nine months and what’s in store for the animals in their care over the festive season…
“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” – Anatole France, French poet and novelist
As New Year approaches, most of us will heave a sigh of relief as we bid farewell to 2020. It’s been difficult for everyone but, through the months, many of us have drawn comfort from the companionship of our pets.
As we reported in Weekend earlier this year, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought its own challenges to animal charities. While the festive season will be a bit different for us all, it’s still a time to say thank you to our furry friends and to spoil them that little bit more.
The trainee dogs at the Guide Dogs training school in Forfar have certainly had an unusual 2020.
The centre plays a huge and important role in creating life-changing guide dog partnerships and the majority of their dogs go on to become trusted guides and companions for people with sight loss, not only in Scotland but throughout the UK.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the team at the centre initially had to suspend all training activities and move the dogs out to boarding homes until they had protocols in place to ensure their working environments and practices were safe for their service users, volunteers and staff.
“At the height of the pandemic, we had 92 dogs boarded by staff and volunteers,” Wendy Rankin, regional head of operations (Scotland), explains.
“We’re incredibly grateful to all those who supported us during this time.
“Dog training is fully under way but current restrictions mean we have not resumed residential training of groups, and service users are being trained individually from their homes.”
At Forfar, the dog training staff have dedicated spaces to undertake indoor training activities.
“We have a one-way system in place and any staff who are able to work from home do so, in line with Scottish Government guidelines,” explains Wendy.
Christmas this year has been a little different – most of the trainee guide dogs are enjoying time at home with their volunteer boarders over the festive period.
Claire Kinnaird, who lives in Dundee, is one of the boarders and shares her experience of Christmas with a trainee guide dog: “Last year I had the pleasure of taking Shadow, a dog I had been boarding for about two months at the time, for the festivities and it felt so good to be able to include him in the family fun,” says Claire.
“He was with me for brunches and dinners, and yes, pub times in the lead up to Christmas, and then on Christmas Eve we moved to my hometown of Kinross to spend Christmas Day with family.
“It was a lovely surprise to wake up on Christmas morning with a present from Shadow under the tree – thanks, Mum!
“And of course there were a few presents for the boy himself – although he needed a little help unwrapping them,” she smiles.
“Shadow gave me so many magical Christmas moments but one of the most memorable for me was when Mum was sat on the floor watching a movie and he came over and cuddled into her.
“It’s the little things that completely melt my heart – being able to see the affectionate side of these life changers, and knowing he’s going to be a superstar for someone who needs him.
“When we were out walking he knew he had a job to do – and he probably knew the rules as well as I did – if not better – but in my home, my mum’s home, or any other family visits we did he was so well-mannered and loved a cuddle,” she recalls.
“The people of Forfar and surrounding areas have shown such phenomenal support to Guide Dogs Scotland for many years now and we really can’t thank them enough for all that they do.”
Sadly not everyone is mindful of the slogan “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas” and the Scottish SPCA’s centres are playing host not only to a host of hounds, but also a collection of cats and a bevy of other beasties over the festive season.
In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought its own complications for the charity.
Scottish SPCA chief superintendent Mike Flynn explains: “In line with government guidance, we have had to close our animal rescue and rehoming centres to the general public, other than by pre-arranged appointment, to keep the public and our team safe.
“We are also only rehoming animals to homes within the same health board area as the centre the animal is located in. Our fantastic animal care team are continuing to care for animals as usual.
“What hasn’t changed is that the Scottish SPCA is still out there, in every community, doing our job. We are Scotland’s emergency service for animals and we are still providing support and advice to the concerned public.”
The charity, which was founded 180 years ago, has seen a slight reduction in the number of animals they have been able to rehome this year, largely down to the month or so when they were unable to rehome due to lockdown.
“Aside from that, rehoming levels have been fairly steady in line with previous years and we haven’t seen a large increase in the number of animals we have rehomed,” says Mike.
“The demand for animals is still very high and we do receive lots of applications via our website for most animals. Thankfully, the teams at our centres are extremely careful about matching each animal to the home that’s right for them.”
Happily, figures have not shown an increase in abandonments or strays since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.
“In fact, we’ve seen a decrease compared to 2019’s figures,” Mike says.
“We’ve always said that Scotland is, at heart, a nation of animal lovers and we believe these figures show that more than ever.
“However, we will continue to monitor this closely, including after the Christmas period.
“We appreciate these are uncertain times for many people but abandoning an animal is never acceptable under any circumstances.”
At the start of lockdown, the charity fostered more than 260 animals out to staff and volunteers to ease pressure on the centres during their initial rehoming freeze.
“Seventy of those animals went on to find permanent homes with their foster families,” Mike reveals.
“We reintroduced rehoming via a new online system in May and have rehomed 3,398 animals to date across Scotland in 2020.”
Although their education department was forced to stop visits to schools, they instead created online learning resources for home schooling, which were downloaded more than 6,000 times.
“We also partnered with Police Scotland and Barnardo’s to print out and distribute over 1,000 physical packs to children who had limited access to computers.”
As well as the animals the Scottish SPCA have available for rehoming they also have a Sponsor a Space scheme.
“On our website you can sponsor the spaces where we care for our animals at our rescue centres,” Mike explains.
“From dog kennels to otter enclosures and units for cats, hedgehogs and birds, there’s lots of different animals you can support.
“As well as important veterinary treatment, we have to provide food, water and stimulation for over 15,000 animals per year.”
Mike has some top tips to keep your dog happy and healthy over the festive season.
“As you can’t always predict how a dog is going to behave in a home environment, including whether they chew when unsupervised, decorations such as tinsel, Christmas trees, and electrics should be placed safely out of reach,” he advises.
“At this time of year, people also tend to have larger quantities of food around the home, many of which unfortunately contain substances that are toxic to dogs.
“Whilst we all love treating ourselves to chocolate selection boxes, grapes, dates and other treats these are highly dangerous if ingested by a dog.”
In the past year Angus, the Scottish SPCA Fife and Tayside Animal Rescue and Rehoming Centre at Petterden has cared for a total of 917 animals; rehomed 516 animals including 21 dogs, 70 cats, 31 rabbits, 33 rodents and 3 snakes; and reunited 44 stray animals with their owners.
Elliot Hay, manager of the centre, reveals that Christmas Day at Petterden was a quiet affair.
“We had two staff members in, and made sure all the animals were cleaned and fed, before spending as much time throughout the day as possible interacting with the animals,” he says. “They all got some treats, donated by the public, and some play time with all the new toys we had donated in the run-up to Christmas.
“Lockdown has been an unusual time for us all and no less so in an animal welfare charity,” Elliot continues.
“Where we used to have our doors open to the public six days a week, we have now been running by appointment only and our doors have largely stayed closed.
“On the plus side this has freed up some of the staff to do more work with the animals so they certainly haven’t been complaining about this turn of events.”
Larger animals like horses are sadly often abandoned or neglected so charities like Redwings Horse Sanctuary are a lifeline to these benign creatures.
Redwings cares for 1,500 rescued horses, ponies, donkeys and mules every day across the UK, including almost 100 living at their Mountains Visitor Centre, near Forfar in Angus.
“Since 1984 we’ve been rescuing neglected, abused and abandoned equines, giving them a safe place to live and providing essential veterinary treatment, rehabilitation and care for the rest of their lives,” says Lynn Cutress, Redwings chief executive.
“We also rehome rescued horses through our Guardianship Scheme with around 700 currently living in loving new homes outside of the sanctuary.”
Redwings Mountains is one of five visitor centres across the UK, where supporters would normally have the chance to meet some of the rescued horses and hear their stories.
“When you care for 1,500 rescued horses, you have to be very financially prudent, but this extraordinary year has pitched us into one of the most challenging periods of our history,” says Lynn.
“The closure of our visitor centres has so far resulted in a loss of income of over £250,000, while the cancellation of community fundraising events and an 11% rise in internal welfare costs, such as hay, feed, farriery etc, have further tightened our budgets.
“With no specific government help being offered to animal welfare charities, we will now be operating at a deficit for months, potentially years, to come,” she says.
Redwings Mountains, which is the charity’s smallest visitor centre, usually welcomes about 5,000 visitors annually, but due to this year’s temporary closures they have welcomed fewer than 600 people so far.
“While entry to Redwings Mountains is free, all sale proceeds from our on-site gift shop and cafe, as well as donations left by visitors, go towards the care of the centre’s rescued residents. This income has decreased by over 80% this year,” Lynn explains.
“As soon as the first lockdown began, our teams worked incredibly hard to adapt to the new restrictions and ensure we were able to continue providing the specialist care our rescued horses needed.
“Sadly, with an unabating horse crisis in the UK, incidents of neglect are continuing to occur and, despite the additional pressures on our resources, we’ve taken in almost 180 horses and donkeys already this year – one of our largest intakes in recent years.
“Some of these equines have come from other sanctuaries who were struggling financially,” she says.
While the nationwide lockdown in the spring also put a temporary halt to the charity’s rehoming scheme, happily they were able to reintroduce this at the start of summer with an adapted application process which involved virtual home visits and meets ’n’ greets over WhatsApp video.
“This has proved incredibly popular and, since the scheme’s reintroduction, we’ve been able to successfully rehome over 50 horses and ponies, making this one of our busiest years ever,” smiles Lynn.
“We can’t thank everyone enough for their support and kindness this year. At the start of the first lockdown, we launched an emergency coronavirus appeal and the response was incredible.
“We also had wonderful donations from local businesses, including 30 bales of hay donated to Redwings Mountains from a very generous local couple.”
Christmas Day was more or less like any other at Redwings.
“Across the country our vets and equine carers put on their welly boots and headed out to our sites, whatever the weather, to ensure our horses and donkeys received everything they need,” explains Lynn.
“We’re always incredibly proud of the dedication our teams show towards our rescued residents and we can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done in this most challenging of years.
“While the working day didn’t differ too much (there’s still lots of hungry mouths to feed and fields to check after all), each team enjoyed a more leisurely, celebratory lunch together, and those of our horses who are able to enjoy a special treat got to relish an extra carrot or two.
“We would like to say a big thank you to all the Courier readers who have supported us this year. As a charity 100% funded by donations, we simply couldn’t do what we do without you.
“We can’t wait until we can see you all again and in the meantime, there are plenty of ways everyone can still get involved with the sanctuary and help raise funds towards the care of our horses. Sponsor one of our Adoption Stars, have a go at one of our online fundraisers, purchase a gift from our online store or donate – it all goes a very long way.
“And if you’re missing seeing your favourite horse or donkey, take a look at our social media pages for daily news and photos from across the sanctuary, which we hope will make you smile.
“We wish everyone a good Boxing Day and a safe and happy new year.”
Meanwhile at Edinburgh Zoo, where we learned earlier this year that the animals were missing the visitors during lockdown, Liah Etemad, hoofstock keeper, describes what it’s like working on Christmas Day.
“It’s always festive and it’s usually the only day of the year we are closed to visitors, so it’s really peaceful,” says Liah.
“For the most part, the day is just the same as a usual workday. I need to clean the animals’ houses, give them fun enrichment to sniff and play with, prepare food for the day and do any daily training with the animals I work with. Sometimes we try to give them Christmas-themed enrichment to make it bit festive.
“Different teams have different traditions, and in the hoofstock team we do a Secret Santa every year.
“As well as that, there are decorations up everywhere, and although you’re missing out celebrating with your family, being in the zoo and getting to spend the day with our amazing animals and fellow keepers makes it special. Then at the end of the day, we head home to see our families and continue our own at-home traditions,” she smiles.
“One of the best things about Christmastime is our supporters’ generosity, and I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has donated, visited, adopted and become members of our wildlife charity.
“Your continued kindness and support means the world to us keepers – and the animals you love.”
Scottish SPCA: scottishspca.org
Guide Dogs for the Blind Forfar: The charity is appealing to Courier readers from Dundee and Angus to look after a trainee guide dog in the evenings and at weekends. Volunteers will care for a future guide dog in their own home for anything from two to 24 weeks. To apply visit: guidedogs.org.uk/volunteer
RZSS Edinburgh Zoo:
A treat for dog lovers: The Top Dog Film Festival features a selection of short films that celebrate the unbreakable bond between dogs and humans.
There are two shows, on December 27 and January 15. Films start at 7pm, with viewers invited to explore the virtual foyer from 6pm, where they can enter the prize draw, take on the ultimate Top Dog Film Festival quiz and much more. The shows will be available for 48 hours afterwards as well.