One of the most remarkable animal shelters that this magazine has ever had the joy to visit is a thriving menagerie tucked away on The Oval in Findon village.
Life-long friends Stacey McSpirit, 80, and Sheila Steere, 82, live across the road from each other. Sadly, 17 years ago their husbands both died within weeks of each other, so for years, the friends have been running the PAWS Animal Sanctuary, mainly from Stacey’s home but with overflow going to Sheila’s, seven days a week.
What began as a neighbourhood watch scheme 22 years ago gradually transformed into an animal rescue centre, as people brought in injured hedgehogs, birds, bats, squirrels, lost dogs – even a miniature horse that had been found abandoned by the side of the road and was so covered with burrs that it had to be shaved.
The horse is still with Stacey and Sheila, and he’s been named ‘Elvis’ because of his lip curl. He shares a field with Jasper, a miniature donkey.
The pair run a 24/7 operation, and alongside Jasper and Elvis live around 150 animals – they’re not quite sure how many, but they have dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, hedgehogs, a couple of birds, hens, a turkey, a quail, ‘Silkie’ hens – oh, and an African Grey parrot, who holidays there when his owners are away and enjoys his time giggling and periodically saying ‘Crisp’.
Every day, the process of putting the animals down for the night – which means cleaning out litter trays, switching on the cats’ electric blankets and feeding each animal – begins at 4pm and ends six hours later.
To help them, teenagers on work experience choose voluntary shifts.
It costs a fortune in electricity to run, with each cat having its own electric blanket and all of the cages heated.
“I tell people who want to take guinea pigs off me that they have to have them inside in winter,” says Stacey. “Otherwise they’ll die! It’s as simple as that.”
Stacey buys 18-month-old hens from poultry farms, who sell them for 50 pence each because they’re past their best laying season – but after a quick feather moult, they return to laying bigger eggs than before, says Stacey.
She’s now breeding Silkies, a fluffy breed of hen that is no longer bred along the south coast, she says, but are ideal as pets for children.
And when it comes to pets for older people, she reiterates what the RSPCA says.
“There are so many benefits,” she says. “I know one old lady who doesn’t speak to anyone for days at a time, maybe in a shop she will speak to someone, but no one else really. She tells me that no one phones her up, or knocks on the door.
“But she has a dog and it’s someone
to talk to.”
Stacey says care homes now take cats in because their residents appreciate them so much.
“There was one lady in a care home who hadn’t said a word for years, nor even left her room. Then they took a cat in and she instantly scooped it up and said, ‘What are you doing with my cat?’
“And as far as we’re concerned, it doesn’t matter if they’re old and the worst happens – because we will always take the animals back.”
Stacey does warn that people should only take in a dog if they can be there during the day, especially if they are rescue animals, who may have experienced traumas.
“Most cruelty is by neglect,” says Sheila. “By people not doing research – taking on a sheepdog, say, and not realising it needs exercise, and that letting it out in the garden isn’t enough.
“Our husbands died within weeks of each other back in 2002. And we didn’t know what to do. But we’ve carried on, and since then, hundreds of little creatures have been saved.”