AS a little girl Helen Robertson didn’t have a dog, but now she has no fewer than 14, along with five cats, five ferrets, a parrot and a giant tortoise called Duncan.
It’s a veritable menagerie, although that’s OK, because Helen and her husband Ian, own Frankham Fell Boarding Kennels near Fourstones.
As well as offering ‘holiday lets’ to pets whose owners are on vacation, they have also worked with the RSPCA for the last five years providing a sanctuary for abandoned cats and dogs until they can be re-homed.
And last summer they extended that welcome to bunnies of no fixed abode when they opened Rabbit Land, a ten berth hutch for homeless bunnies. Hungry Horace and Hoppit are amongst the fluffy residents. “Horace loves his food, as his name suggests,” Ian said.
Funded by the RSPCA’s Northumberland West branch, Rabbit Land at Frankham Fell is the charity’s only safe haven for these furry creatures between North Yorkshire and Scotland.
“We’ve had 27 in total so far and have managed to re-home ten,” said Ian.
Whilst they like to re-home rabbits in pairs as they are social animals, some, like Horace and Hoppit, who are clean and litter tray trained would make ideal house rabbits as Ian explained.
And adopters need not worry about the health of their animals. Jan Ormiston, chairman of the RSPCA’s Northumberland West trustees, said: “They would normally see a vet enroute to make sure there are no underlying issues.
“Then they are all neutered, inoculated against myxomatosis and microchipped before coming here.
“We have a re-homing co-ordinator and if people show an interest they can come and look and will then be home checked.”
Ian added: “You do need to keep on top of cleaning them and in the winter they are in hutches a lot of the time so the size of the hutch is important. They like to be outside as well, ideally with a run.”
“I didn’t have any dogs when I was growing up, but I worked with greyhounds since the age of 15 at Brough Park in Byker, Newcastle and I had a Saturday job at Robinsons pet shop in the Grainger market. Now my hobby is my job.”
Heidi Cleaver is the RSPCA inspector who covers West Northumberland. She said: “They can make quite delightful pets. The more they are handled, the better they are. So many people wonder why they bite and scratch, but they do need that socialisation.”
Whilst most of the cases Frankham Fell deals with are simply pets that can no longer be cared for by owners who are perhaps ill or deceased, the kennels do occasionally see cruelty cases.
The most shocking of these, according to Ian, was when the RSPCA asked them to take in three shih-tzus that were barely recognisable as dogs, because their fur was so long and matted with food and faeces.
In fact they were in such condition that they were forced to drag themselves along the floor using their front legs due to the mass of hair. An RSPCA officer rescued the dogs from a house in Linton Colliery, Northumberland.
The abused dogs were called Lacy, Molly and Angus. Diane Dixon, from Newbrough, who works at the kennels adopted Lacy. She’d had no intention of getting a dog but she had lost her German Shepherd the previous year and realised there was a big hole in her life.
An elderly German Shepherd dog also found had to be put down as it was in such poor health and the owner was banned for life by magistrates from keeping any more animals. Ian said:
“I had the New York Times call me on New Year’s Eve about that case. But it’s fair to say we don’t get the really badly abused dogs usually. People die and there’s no-one to take their pet; or a dog or cat is abandoned or is lost on the street and can’t find it’s way home.”
Frankham Fell kennels were established in 1980 and run by vet Stuart Davies and his wife Judy. When they retired, Helen, who had been a kennel assistant there and Ian bought them out. Their grandaughter, Laura, still works with the Robinsons.
Amongst the more bizarre pets they’ve provided bed and board for was a bearded dragon made homeless during last year’s floods. “The lady who owned it, didn’t know what to do with it,” Ian said.
But Helen, who has her own reptiles, wasn’t fazed in the slightest.
Duncan the Sulcata (African Spurred) tortoise came to Helen about ten years ago. “I got him from a reptile shop in Newcastle,” Helen recalled. “Apparently they had sent the wrong type of tortoise and they didn’t think they’d be able to find him a home because they grow so huge – some more than two and a half feet long and they can weight up to 240 lbs.”
Duncan is happy at Frankham Fell however, where he’s got his own little greenhouse, complete with tortoise flap. “And he’s a great lawnmower,” Ian added.
Helen admits she’s crazy about her four legged friends. “I didn’t have any dogs when I was growing up, but I worked with greyhounds since the age of 15 at Brough Park in Byker, Newcastle and I had a Saturday job at Robinsons pet shop in the Grainger market. “Now my hobby is my job,” she said.
One of her latest additions is a puppy. Tigs was one of 10 husky-mastiff puppies the couple took delivery of on Christmas Eve after their mother died. There were originally 12 puppies in the litter and the owner kept two whilst Frankham Fell hand-reared the other ten. Helen kept Tigs and the other one is still needing a home.
“Everyone said they wouldn’t all survive but we hand reared them and have managed to re-home all except one.”
Jan Ormiston believes the Robertsons are worth their weight in gold.
“Without them we would not have anywhere to put our dogs and cats. We have our charity shops, but they are the most important part of Northumberland West. They are what we are about really and we have forged a really good relationship over the years. We work really really well together.”
And as Ian says, the animals they manage to re-home often return as paying guests when mums and dads go on holiday.
“The people who take their dogs from us often come back as clients,” he said.