Steph Oliver, Wirral Animal Sanctuary

She sells sanctuary: Meet Wirral’s new home for forgotten animals

Three-year-old Jackson is a rescue dog from the WirralNo one’s really sure what breed Jackson is.

Our first reaction is Staffordshire Bull (there’s definitely some staffy in there), but according to owner Steph Oliver he could also have Boxer, Rottweiler, American Bulldog, and Great Dane in him.

No one knows because three-year-old Jackson is a rescue dog who has spent most of his life in care.

“Jackson was a stray as a puppy and rescued by a family, but they fell pregnant and decided there was no room for another dog,” Steph tells us as Jackson tries to eat the Dictaphone.

“He’s three and has spent most of his life in a shelter. His last stint was for a whole year and no one would take him on because he was too big or found him scary-looking. He’s so soft and he’s the best protector.”

As if to prove a point he makes his way over to Pippin to instigate playtime. Steph has only had Pippin for five days and he’s glued to Steph, visibly anxious. His entire head fits into our palm and is flecked with scratches. We’re shocked when we’re told he’s probably only 10 months old.

The miniature Dachshund will never grow beyond his current tiny size and could do with more meat on his bones; something which Steph is addressing. “People think he’s younger but I think he’s about 10 months now.

“Pippin was allegedly left in a house with 15 other dogs left to starve and fight with his mum and brothers in the Lake District. He’s really nervy and insecure and has had zero toilet training. He’s just existed for 10 months in a house with other dogs that are probably inbred. He’s always crying.”

Jackson, though, is hungry for a game of tug of war. “We’re confident they’re going to be best friends, they sleep on the sofa together now and Jackson wants to play with him, so he’ll hopefully bring him out of his shell. Jackson dispels all the myths about big dogs.”

This is the start of Steph’s Wirral Animal Sanctuary.

Charity begins at home

We’re in Steph’s house, and we’ve come to talk about her new charity. At 28, she has pressed the reset button on her life, leaving her career in social work after having an epiphany about what she wants to do: opening an animal sanctuary to try and house abandoned animals that would otherwise be destroyed.

As well as Jackson and Pippin, Steph has three cats (one, Belle, a Sphinx rescue) and things are moving fast. “To see the progress we’ve made in three months is insane. We’re applying for funding for a charity shop and have seen a couple of units.

“I’ve given up everything to do this. I had a career in social work before this, and it was fine, but it wasn’t me and what I wanted to do. I had an epiphany moment one day, and Jackson is the inspiration.

“We’re now a charitable incorporated organisation rather than a charity which means we can employ people and own a premises, which makes sense going forward.”

But charity’s a tricky subject at the moment, especially with 92-year-old poppy seller Olive Cooke’s death still fresh in the public conscious, with the Fundraising Standards Board recently announcing Olive received more than 3,200 charity mailings a year.

Steph’s approach is markedly different with Wirral Animal Sanctuary, though, despite her admitting it can be uncomfortable asking for donations. Instead, she prefers a service approach to fundraising; meeting people face-to-face at boot sales and community events to raise awareness of the sanctuary, offering them unique incentives to donate.

“People may think it’s cuddling animals but it’s not; it’s hardcore fundraising. I don’t like asking for money, though… No one likes it! If you create something at your events that are fun or interesting, people are more willing to donate.”

Bricking it

Wirral Animal Sanctuary's Buy a Brick initiativeSteph and Jackson have previously visited cub scout troops in Oxton as well as Beavers in West Kirby to spread word. She’s also hosting car boot sales to generate revenue, and has other fun events planned over the course of 2016. Crowdfunding is helping, too.

“At a Hoylake event we did fancy dress for kids over Christmas. We previously had donations of fancy dress costumes, so we got a photography background and took pictures of them dressed as elves and fairies and got parents involved, too.

“We took the family photos and edited them, and the photos went on Facebook so people could download them for free, but donations were welcome, too. It was our best event so far and raised around £137.

“We want to provide something fun. We’re doing an event called Strut Your Mutt in Birkenhead Park in June along with the Heart of Egremont, and it’s a fun dog show with competitions. There’ll also be doggy paw prints where they can dip their paws in clay and kids can write the dog’s name with a stick and keep it.

“We’ll also be doing photos and other events, as well as raising awareness because people still don’t know who we are.”

Another idea that’s building traction is the sanctuary’s Buy a Brick programme, where a donation of £5 goes straight to its construction when ready. The donation is held in restricted funds, and doesn’t go toward admin fees or other costs.

“We’d like somewhere with a stables, and buildings with the potential to be converted into kennels, catteries, and more. Even if it’s something that needs working on, we’re willing to do it.”

Fresh thinking

So why another animal rescue on the Wirral? There are loads of dog and cat rescues around already, surely? A post on Wirral Animal Sanctuary’s blog highlights the sheer strain on existing organisations and the RSPCA, and a wider dismay at the eventual fate that awaits the animals when they can’t find a new home.

“A lot of people ask why another rescue? Well, they’re all full (and we’ll probably end up full as well) but if we can take in 20 dogs and 20 cats that’s 40 lives saved, which surely can’t be a bad thing.”

One template Steph hopes to emulate is Freshfields Animal Rescue Centre, a non-profit started in 1979 by Lesley Tarleton which has expanded into Liverpool and Wales.

“I look to Freshfields who have the farm animals and the little furries. It’s achievable. That started with one animal and went from there and now has two centres and 10 charity shops, so it can be done.

“If you owned a ferret on the Wirral and needed to get rid of it for whatever reason, it couldn’t be rehomed. The nearest place is Freshfields in Formby which is usually full or there’s a ferret shelter in Manchester. People will just let them out onto the street.

“Not many places take rabbits and other small, furry creatures bar some parts of the RSPCA, or places that take in other larger farm animals. I’ve worked at places where people have just turned up with a goat at midnight and left it.”

We then get into another area of animal welfare that we didn’t know was so rampant on the Wirral. People buying micro pigs then abandoning them when they get too big. Apparently, they’re really potbellied breeds and grow bigger.

“The micro pig one’s odd too, but they grow into pot-bellied pigs and people don’t want them anymore. Even farms that don’t want animals anymore – companion horses struggle to find a home because people want a horse they can ride.

“People get alpacas without looking into it and regret it. Rehoming will be the main aim, but we’ll keep them as residents if we absolutely can’t find anywhere. Myself and some other volunteers have experiences with exotics; I know of someone who took a skunk on as a pet… There are some animals that just don’t work in a home environment.”

Land ho!

Jackson visiting a primary school on the Wirral

By this time Jackson and Pippin have curled up together and are fast asleep.

It’s fantastic to see rescues get paired with the right home, and though Steph admits some have called her plans ambitious, she looks well on course to achieve them. Steph appears to have an acute business brain, and though the road to eventual sanctuary will likely be long, she’s fervently laying the foundations for success.

“We’d love to buy some land but it’s expensive; we’re leaning towards something already built that needs tweaking to start with,” she says.

“Something with 24-hour accommodation for staff; we want to be a place where the police can come at 2am if they find a distressed animal. People also often just dump animals outside shelters and they won’t be found until opening hours.

“You can use stables for all kinds of animals, not just horses. We could have a riding arena and rent it out to instructors or dog agility groups to help with the running costs. We not only have to think of it as a charity but as a business, too. We want to help abandoned animals on the Wirral and for them to be safe.

“We’re also going to be doing the Wirral Air Show and booking our diaries up for over the summer as well as boot sales. People have been amazing and donated so much stuff, and Champion Storage in Upton have been helping us house donations as we sell them on eBay, and we’re also more than happy to drive places and pick up donations.”

She also confesses that she finds it hard to delegate but it’s something she’s working on and succeeding with. We say goodbye to Jackson and Pippin and note down a final call-to-arms from Steph.

“It’s growing. If people want to volunteer that’d be lovely, even if it’s just an hour a month to get involved. You’re more than welcome. We’re also looking for business sponsors, too.”

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