Video & Gallery: Volunteering at Kimpton's Blue Cross Animal Centre
By Aimee Brannen - VISITING an animal rescue centre is always a heart-rending experience for me, especially seeing all the doe-eyed dogs staring up at you from their kennels. But spending the day as a volunteer at the Blue Cross Animal Centre in Kimpton
By Aimee Brannen - VISITING an animal rescue centre is always a heart-rending experience for me, especially seeing all the doe-eyed dogs staring up at you from their kennels.
But spending the day as a volunteer at the Blue Cross Animal Centre in Kimpton made me realise that a walk around such a place should be a positive one.
Although the centre was full of homeless animals with sometimes harrowing pasts, they can look forward to futures full of happiness due to the incredible work of the dedicated team at the centre.
The Blue Cross had given all of the unwanted pets I saw - from the dogs and cats to fluffy rabbits - a second chance in life which they would otherwise be denied.
Saving animals on the battlefields of the Balkans in the First World War was how the charity got its name. While the Red Cross was for human casualties, a Blue Cross helped the many animals injured, especially those working such as dogs and horses.
So as an animal lover through-and-through, I leapt at the chance to spend a day with the Blue Cross nearly 100 years on to see first hand how it continues to help.
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I arrived at the centre - which was established in 1940 - early one morning clad in wellies and old jeans having been warned that I was in for some dirty work.
After being greeted by Kay Bringman, the centre's volunteer co-ordinator, I was given a special Blue Cross fleece and taken to the cattery to help with the morning cleaning routine and some "cat-cuddling".
Animal carers Matt Pedley and Vicke Swingler - two of the 16 paid members of staff who work at the centre - explained that the volunteer cat-cuddlers give the animals that extra bit of affection as well as helping with socialisation and playing.
Matt and Vicke are currently caring for around 12 cats but things can get much busier for them come the kitten season between spring and summer - last year they raised some 80 kittens over a six-month period.
On average, cats normally leave the centre within two months but there is currently a waiting list of people wanting to hand over their cats to the centre for re-homing.
In fact, the centre is taking in more unwanted pets than ever since the recession started to bite - with numbers hitting nearly 600 last year, of which 500 have been re-homed so far.
The next stop after the cattery was the stables where I was introduced to the centre's three resident ponies - Lupa, Biffa and Spike - who came from one of the Blue Cross equine centres in the UK to live in Kimpton.
After helping to freshen up their stables, it was on to the rabbit area where the bunnies were already in their outdoor pens and enjoying some attention from the public ambling around the centre. That left their hutches empty for us to clean out and luckily the animals are mostly litter-trained so the task wasn't too messy.
Next on my volunteering schedule were the kennels where around 30 dogs are currently being looked after - reassuringly most of them had homes to go to or someone interested in taking them in.
I was however saddened to hear that many of the dogs currently coming into the centre are from Ireland, where neutering is apparently below the level it is in the UK.
This has resulted in Ireland's animal rescue centres heaving with unwanted dogs, some of which are put down after only seven days if no-one selects them.
According to the Dogs Trust, 12,500 stray dogs were destroyed in the Republic of Ireland alone during 2007.
The Blue Cross, which has a policy to never destroy any healthy dog without serious behavioural problems preventing it from being rehomed safely, often travel to Ireland to save some of these dogs in danger.
One of them was Teddy - an aptly-named, tan-coloured cross-breed who was just over four-months-old. Looking at him playfully bounding around one of the outdoor pens, it was unimaginable to think about what would have become of him if the Blue Cross hadn't stepped in.
Despite the increasing numbers of unwanted dogs, they are never sent to a new home until the Blue Cross team are 100 per cent sure it is the right place for them. And potential dog owners come along to the centre to walk the dogs as much as possible before taking them home, to ensure they are comfortable with each other.
One thing that really stood out to me during the day was the truly caring attitude for the animals that all of the staff possessed. They not only know each cat, dog and rabbit by name, but also their personalities and their needs.
This is best reflected when it comes to walking the dogs. The staff carefully select small groups of animals to go together depending on their energy levels and socialisation skills.
After being introduced to Poppy the collie, I set out on a walk with Matt and a sprightly husky-cross named Shadow, along with full-time volunteer Phil Bandy and a friendly young collie fittingly named Bowie because of his different-coloured eyes.
We walked across the open countryside opposite the centre, a task which didn't feel at all like work. But there was bright sunshine and I was warned that I may have a different outlook if it was pouring with rain.
En route, former chef Phil told me how animals had helped him through a rough time in his life, which is what made him decide to give something back and train as an animal carer. The 25-year-old started at the centre around a year ago and is working towards an NVQ qualification.
During the day I also got the chance to talk to a volunteer of 11 years, Carol Lambert. The 62-year-old became a volunteer dog walker and fundraiser after taking early retirement and she now goes to the centre twice a week.
After hanging up the leads and putting Poppy back in her kennel, came the highlight of my day - meeting four adorable collie puppies called Blaze, Crest, Ski and Disney.
They are currently in isolation out of public view and haven't met many strangers yet - so I seemed to be somewhat of a novelty to them when I walked in.
But after frantically clambering over me with their tails wagging wildly for a few minutes, they soon got down to playing together.
After a while observing them nipping each other and squealing, I reluctantly left them and went on to do some more dog walking, which brought my day to a close.
But before I left, I sat down with Kay to talk more about becoming a volunteer.
She explained that volunteering with the animals is a kind of therapy for some people, and she has seen them gain confidence in the process.
Such is the interest, there is now a waiting list to actually become an animal volunteer at the centre, but Kay explained that the centre was in desperate need of fundraising volunteers, especially since donations have fallen due to the credit crunch.
They require help with events organisation, thinking of fresh ideas and simply helping to publicise the many events such as the annual Fun Dog Show.
The centre in Kimpton Bottom is open to the public from 10am Monday to Saturday, closing at 4pm every day apart from Wednesday when it closes at 3pm.
For more information call 01438 832232 or visit www.bluecross.org.uk