The end of the festive season is a busy time for animal charity Helping Pets North East. Adam Luke meets the woman who runs the organisation.
“Do not buy pets as gifts. How do you know they are going to be wanted?”
Christmas and its aftermath is a busy time for Helping Pets North East, who do their best to warn people against ill-advised animal buys but inevitably end up picking up the pieces when cats and dogs are rejected.
Vicky Withers, from Walkergate in Newcastle, helped found the organisation back in May 2012 and now covers a patch from Bedlington in the north to Stanley in the south and Prudhoe in the west.
She explained: “People think they will simply splash out on a pet for a loved one but they don’t consider whether the recipient really wants one or whether they can afford to look after it. It is more than just the one-off price of buying it, as food costs and vet bills mount up.
“And too often people get rid of their old animals when they get a new one. They are not disposable. They are animals and they have feelings.”
The remit of Helping Pets North East, which gained charitable status at the start of 2014, is to rehabilitate and re-home stray and unwanted animals across the region, with a focus on traditional domestic pets.
To do that, they utilise more than 20 foster homes throughout the area and at any point have up to 50 animals in care - with the hope of eventually finding them loving homes.
Vicki, who is also a veterinarian nurse and runs a pet-sitter business, takes in animals herself but is also on-call around the clock to help when an animal is in need.
The 41-year-old could be asked to step in when someone cannot care for their pet or when pets are simply kicked out and become stray.
She explained: “Most of the pets we get are given up by owners or their owner has died.
“Most of our animals are cats and a lot of them come to us as unwanted kittens, and this can be put down to a lack of owner education - they don’t understand their cat will get pregnant or they sometimes encourage it as they think they can make money from selling the kittens.
“That only works in spring when there aren’t many about, while in summer you can’t give them away.
“When it comes to stray dogs, they have to be reported to a council dog warden before they reach us, and if we don’t know the owner of a suspected stray cat we have to advertise them for seven days before we are able to take them in, neuter and foster them, and then put them up for adoption.”
The most common colours of abandoned animals are black or black and white.
Vicki said: “These are seen as boring colours and people don’t want them. At one point we had 30 black cats in foster care. Black dogs are also harder to re-home, with the exception of labradors.”
When I met Vicki in a Heaton coffee shop, she was about to embark on a rather different mission - but one that often results from owners abandoning their pets.
She was on the hunt for feral cat colonies - another task the charity takes on - which are surprisingly common across Tyneside.
“I am the only person from the charity who deals with ferals and it is my job to respond to call-outs, find them and capture them in a humane cat trap with a pressure pad on the mat inside which lowers the door, because they can’t be handled.
“The cats can be quite happy living together but unless you are able to neuter them then they will just keep reproducing and the problem will never be solved.
“Feral colonies can form very quickly as all it takes is for the mother to be thrown out her home and although she will not be feral, her kittens will because they do not know human contact.
“As a society, we do not accept feral dogs on our streets but the reality is there are hundreds of feral cats in the north east but you may not know if they have an owner or not.”
As we head to capture four feral cats in a Fenham garden, Vicki explains that owners are often ignorant of the benefit of neutering cats.
She added: “Dogs only get pregnant twice a year but cats will season until they get pregnant and males will fight over females, spreading disease.
“It’s the same problem everywhere. I have worked voluntarily abroad at Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands with Sheffield-based Twinkle Trust. They go over twice a year and in one week catch and neuter 300 cats.”
If Vicki is able to catch feral kittens before they reach 10-weeks-old, they can be fostered and tamed, before becoming pets for families.
But if they are older, they are neutered and then returned to the streets.
“I have neutered several feral colonies around the North East and the healthy cats are quite happy living in the wild and do not cause problems for communities. In fact, many neighbours enjoy feeding them and having them there.
“If there are people out there with feral cats in their garden or neighbourhood, they shouldn’t just ignore the situation as it won’t improve without intervention.
“Last year, the charity caught and tamed almost 50 feral kittens and since we set up, thanks to Facebook mentions, word of mouth and vet referrals, we have helped about 500 animals across the board.”
Among those 2013 missions was a trip to a Throckley cul-de-sac where Vicki trapped and neutered 10 feral adult cats before releasing them back to the same area.
The charity also took in and tamed 13 kittens from the same colony, leaving the group stable and unable to grow. It had started out as four abandoned kittens who kept on breeding with each other.
Rachel Clarke, who runs the charity’s administration, said failing to control colonies can be deadly to all pets.
She said: “As an organisation that is committed to animal welfare, we work towards doing what we can to help control the local feral cat population. By following the policy of trap, neuter and release, we help to keep the local feral population to a minimum and as healthy as possible.
“Feral colonies can spread disease such as FeLV (Feline Leukaemia Virus) and FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus).
“Working with the feral population is a very important practise and although costly to do, we ensure that the adult cats and the kittens are no longer at risk and the feral cat population remains as much under control as possible.”