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Wheatley’s unsung heroes
Under the shadow of Wheatley's landmark windmill sits the outwardly modest yet thriving West Oxfordshire Animal Rescue. Marilyn Shepherd greeted me and led me straight to her paddock to see the horses.
"I'm hooked on animal rescue," she confessed, "so I've given my paddock and one of my barns over to the animals."
The first two horses I met were miniature Shetlands. "That's Barley," said Marilyn, pointing to a chestnut with a long mane. "We rescued him from a circus that was in difficulties. He'd been taught to stand on his hind legs as a trick and that had damaged the joints at the top of the back legs. He spent a long time in equine hospital and it took ages to get him back to health."
Barley's companion Harvey was saved from the meat market at a very early age and looks in fine fettle. In contrast, Lady, a black horse in the adjoining field, has obviously had a harder past before being cared for by the Rescue.
Marilyn pointed out the curly coat. "She wasn't fed properly and now she has Cushins disease. It is a deficiency in the pituitary gland, so she doesn't shed her winter coat in summer and we have to clip her. When winter comes, her coat goes all curly. So far, she doesn't need any drugs, but as the disease progresses, she will."
Then we met Dishcloth, who came to the Rescue as the result of a marriage brea-up. She had bad knees, but they have been fixed. Unfortunately, the horse also has a number of tumours, quite a common problem in greys, and thus a limited life expectancy.
"All the horses that come to us are here for the rest of their days," Marilyn said. "We never turn an animal away, but horses are our biggest expense. Apart from feed, we have vets' bills, drugs, the farrier and the dentist. As you have seen, some of the animals have serious problems, so vets' fees can be pretty big."
On our way back to the barn, Marilyn showed me her own horse, which she has had from a foal. Sadly, her pet has just developed Equine Metabolic Syndrome, essentially diabetes, and has a diet of hay. When let out into the paddock, it has to wear a muzzle to prevent it eating sugar-rich grass.
Our entry to the barn was greeted with a chorus of welcoming miaows and I was introduced to the hotel guests.
Black cat Billy is a Liverpudlian. Belying his birthplace, Billy is agoraphobic.
"When he first came here, he was so bad, it took us a year before we could even touch him. Now he is the most adorable cat and wants to make friends with all the others."
Released from his cage, Billy rubbed around me before galloping up and down the corridor and seeing what was going on.
Billy will spend the rest of his life at West Oxford, because his phobia will never be completely cured enough to allow him to be rehomed. The joyful cavorting I witnessed can turn to apprehension in an instant and then he panics.
Black and white Frankie is a lovable bruiser who is on the mend from a serious abscess on his back, so serious that it had reached his backbone. Only a scar and some missing fur are witnesses to his suffering.
Marmalade kitten Lucky just wants someone to take him home. He hurtled up the chicken wire like a feline fly and thrust his front legs through the mesh to be stroked. Who could resist him?
Unless there are long-term problems like Billy's, all cats are for re-homing. Last year, West Oxfordshire Animal Rescue re-homed 189 cats.
All the adult cats are checked by the vet, neutered and micro-chipped. Would-be adopters visit the cattery, then Marilyn conducts a home visit to see that all is as it should be. The new owners sign an agreement promising to care for the pet and return it if they are unable to maintain the commitment.
West Oxfordshire Animal Rescue was founded in the 1970s by Janet Butler and all the animals were cared for by fostering. Two years ago, Julie Jones took over. After some fundraising, the cattery was established in two stages. Julie looks after small animals like rabbits, guinea pigs and rats at home, and Marilyn has kittens at home too.
The group does not take dogs.
All the staff are unpaid volunteers, including Julie and Marilyn's daughters. Pupils from the John Watson special needs school in Holton come up once a week for work experience. While I was there, a young lady called Jess was cleaning cages and socialising with the cats; she began on work experience and now comes one day a week.
Funding is an ongoing problem. Much of the income is derived from the group's charity shop in Wheatley, supplemented by bingo sessions and raffles.
"We really need more people to help with fundraising' admitted Marilyn. "Not only tin-shakers, but to take items to car boot sales and help organise the bingo. The cattery had to be done in two stages because of finance and, as you can see, the cages have lino floors but the corridor doesn't. Lino is so much easier to keep clean."
"The horses are a big expense and we are always looking for sponsors. There is no set amount, whatever people can afford. It's the same with the cats, we ask for a donation from anyone who rehomes a cat. All our sponsors get a mention in our newsletter.' "The dried food for the cats is organic and provided free of charge by Oxford-based company Organipets. Local firms often donate prizes for raffles and bingo.
Next on the horizon - if they can find the money - is a separate hospital unit, where pets can be isolated for illnesses like cat flu.
Truly, these carers are Wheatley's unsung heroes.
Julie Jones can be contacted on 01865 873324 www.woar.co.uk