I recently spent a very emotional and rewarding day with the ISPCA in a marshy forest in north Leitrim. We were rescuing an abandoned donkey who had been left on his own in these terrible conditions for four years.
It all started when I saw a tweet from the ISPCA asking people to donate €3 towards a Hay Drive to help feed a hungry horse this winter. The ISPCA, which is a non-profit organisation completely reliant on public donations, received and responded to over 1,500 equine distress calls in 2012, with almost 100 of these animals being taken into ISPCA care at the Nat-ional Animal Centre (NAC) in Longford.
This year the ISPCA expects the distress calls and demands on its resources to increase significantly. Following a wet summer the problem of feeding this winter has become difficult as hay is scarce.
Many horses, ponies and foals who were able to graze during the summer, will be left abandoned during the winter rather than cost the owner money in feed. The €3 will buy a bale of hay and feed a neglected horse for a day.
Noel Griffin, CEO of the ISPCA, says, "Naturally, re-homing dogs, cats and smaller domestic animals has a higher success rate. Horses and foals require a certain type of owner. It has to be someone who has land, a capability to stable in winter and feed during the colder frosty months."
The NAC, near Keenagh, Co Longford, is run by the most amazing team of people. Eva Ellis, centre manager, took us first to meet the dogs and cats who currently reside there. Needless to say it is very difficult because you want to bring them all home, but these are the lucky ones – they have been rescued – and there are still so many out there in distressing circumstances.
Eva explained that the centre now has 60 to 70 dogs all the time, which is double their normal quota. The same applies to cats.
Looking at some adorable Husky puppies, Eva explained, "People love Husky puppies, the blue eyes and snowflake look, but they do not realise they will grow much bigger in six months. They need to undergo serious socialisation and house training.
"They can be very destructive – all puppies can be destructive. It takes, on average, a year for the dog to mature, and a lot of work and labour goes into it. It's a long-term commitment, and a lot of people are unaware of the commitment and responsibility that comes with buying or adopting an animal.
"There is an adoption fee of €80 for canines and €45 for cats. However, we provide our animals microchipped, fully vaccinated, treated for external and internal parasites, and we cover the cost of neutering as well. So it is a fantastic price.
"Often people say to us, 'That's very dear, we can't afford that,' but if that's too expensive, they can't afford to have an animal. Because even to feed, give them their annual booster, boarding when people go on holidays, if it comes down to costs, who is going to look after the animal?"
One of the problems the ISPCA encounters is 'hoarders' – people who have dozens of dogs, maybe 50 or 100, and cannot look after them properly. If the ISPCA tries to help, it is told, "But we love them."
Particularly heartbreaking were five beautiful young collie dogs who had been found chained up in a shed, starving, and lying on the dead bodies of their siblings. They were very nervous as they had only been rescued the day before and had no idea what it was like to run around in a warm kennel. They were going to take time to be socialised.
Seven people work at the NAC, and there is a huge amount of walking, feeding and cleaning to be done every day of the year. They have some very dedicated volunteers; dogs are walked twice a day as well as running around the compounds.
"We are all very hands-on – you just have to be," says Eva.
I then set off with inspector Karen Lyons and Neil Leonard from the NAC. There are five ISPCA inspectors covering 15 counties. It seemed we drove an awfully long way, a daily job for Karen, until we arrived at our destination in a remote forest area where I saw this incredibly beautiful donkey with a black coat standing up to his fetlocks in water.
Karen and Neil approached the donkey quietly, gently luring him with a bucket. They had had a report of his plight only two weeks previously, and that his comrade had already died – indeed the bones were there, left to rot.
Karen had been preparing his rescue for two weeks by visiting him with a bucket with some food in it and gaining his confidence. She also had to put up notices of their intention to remove him due to his poor condition, having no owner, and his remaining there not being an option.
The pair worked quietly with the donkey, gently urging him up a few hundred yards towards a gate and a waiting equine ambulance, where Garda Dave Donnelly over-saw his rescue.
The donkey's coat was in a terrible state and his hooves were so overgrown he must have been in awful pain.
I watched almost amused, whilst Garda Donnelly was signing the papers for Karen, as the donkey was quietly inspecting the ramp to the horsebox and wondering how best to get up on it.
There was no shoving and heaving this guy, he put his hoof gingerly on the ramp, as much as to say, 'I want in here please, quickly – I'm rescued.' He figured it out himself and quietly walked into the horsebox – ready for the off.
Before joining the ISPCA four years ago, Karen had her own equestrian centre.
"I was teaching a lot of kids how to ride and was heavily involved in the Irish Pony Club. I got a big shock when I came here. I suppose I was naive – like a lot of people. I'd never ever seen a skinny horse until I came to the ISPCA and I couldn't believe the amount of animals that were coming in, it seemed endless.
"Unfortunately our experience today would be fairly common. When the value of animals go down, so does their welfare. When they are worth nothing, nothing gets put into them, if you see what I mean, which is sad.
"Donkeys were making €3,500 or €4,000 at one stage and people were thinking they could make a bit of money out of them, but now the market has dropped. That little donkey we found today has been left isolated for four years. We will investigate, and see if he has a microchip, which I don't think he has, which is illegal.
"All equines and donkeys have to be microchipped which allows you trace where they come from and where they are bred from. In this case traceability would be very important, so we will keep on the trail, but for now he is safe, he is going to get the treatment he needs and please God get a good home.
"I think sometimes when people see the ISPCA they are worried, but we don't just go in and take the animals from people; a lot of it is just talking to people, that is very important.
"If a person sees something they are worried about, we'd encourage them to call, and let us have as much information as they can, because if we don't know about it we can't help. People can leave their name and number if they wish, but they don't have to. We will go out and have a look. We'd ask people not to worry, even if there is something wrong, we can work through it."
When we got back to the NAC, the donkey was put into the care of Cathy Griffin who looks after equines. About a dozen other donkeys were romping around – they were over immediately, led by 'The Governor', to investigate the new arrival.
I hadn't realised how totally sociable donkeys are. One tugged at hubbie Brendan's coat for attention, whilst another pulled a label on my handbag. They just want to be part of everything, just like a dog or cat. I hadn't realised either that donkeys 'pair up', be it two males or male and female, and get very distressed if they don't have their pal.
Oh, by the way, the donkey now has a new name – I had said he looked like a movie star so we christened him... Valentino.
The National Animal Centre is open to visitors from Wednesdays to Sundays, 11.30am until 4.30pm. To donate €3 to the Hay Drive text HAY to 57802 or donate online. Please report any animal in distress to the ISPCA helpline 1890 515515; www.ispca.ie