Magnificent – or mad? The meowing sound came from behind a shed door on the edge of a housing complex on a blistering hot day in rural Malaysia. British tourist Ailsa McKnight went to investigate, expecting nothing more than a flustered cat to come scuttling out. But when she opened the door a horrific sight greeted her. Metal cages containing an assortment of diseased, dying and flea-infested animals were stacked up. Pet rescue: Ailsa’s cats had been left for dead in Malaysia until she intervened There were six cats, a couple of rabbits and a completely hairless dog — its skin a mass of weeping sores. Even the most ardent animal lover could have understood if the 45-year-old marketing executive from Milton Keynes had simply shut the door and walked away.
After all, what could she do? Thousands of miles from home, with her return flight booked in two days’ time this was — quite frankly — not her problem. But Ailsa didn’t do that. Instead, she spent the next 12 months trying to bring the cats to the UK, spending her £12,000 life savings. Sadly, the dog didn’t survive long enough to be helped, while the rabbits were re-homed with some nearby expats. Ailsa is a typical example of what locals in less affluent foreign holiday destinations have come to regard as an eccentric Brit, with a soft heart, even softer head and big wallet who is prepared to go to huge lengths and expense to adopt strays from abroad.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says 100,000 pets are brought into the UK each year, under strict quarantine laws designed to stop the spread of diseases, such as rabies, into the country. But with quarantine kennels costing up to £2,400 for the usual required stay of six months per animal, on top of the cost of transportation, it is an expensive business. No regrets: Ailsa used her life savings to give Suzie and Smokey a happy home in the UK Ten years ago, the Pets Travel Scheme was introduced, allowing pets to enter the UK from a list of countries without the need for quarantine, providing they have the correct inoculations and certificates. This will be extended to all countries from January 2012. Even so, the cost of moving an animal from abroad will still top £1,000.
Julie Tsiakmakis runs an animal rescue charity on the Greek holiday resort of Halkidiki and has helped countless tourists save strays. ‘In Greece, with no shelters or neutering programmes, strays are rife and unwanted litters are often dumped in the tourist areas where they’re likely to be pitied and fed. ‘Then, at the end of the season, you find many disappear: poisoned or rounded up and culled. No one knows who does it: whether it’s the council or the big hotel owners.’
It was this practice that inspired the 44-year-old — who lived in South Shields before marrying her Greek husband, Marions — to set up her charity, Halkidiki Animal Rescue, in the resort. Funded by public donations, it organises the neutering of strays and helps tourists with the health checks needed to transport pets home. ‘Watching them curled up in a pool of sunshine on the sofa, I know I did the right thing’ ‘Contrary to what everyone says, the British aren’t the softest nation when it comes to animals,’ says Julie. ‘The Germans and Dutch are just as sentimental.’
As are Austrians: earlier this month, crystal heiress Fiona Swarovski booked a private jet to fly a stray kitten 310 miles to a high-end vet in Vienna. The rich socialite had fallen in love with the cat after it appeared at her villa on the Italian island of Capri. Although no Austrian heiress, Ailsa McKnight was happy to spend £4,000 bringing the cats to the UK. ‘Would I have done it if I’d known the final bill from the outset? Probably, yes,’ she says. Ailsa, who lives with her software engineer partner Dave Cooke, had gone to Malaysia with her mother, Lily, to visit her dying grandmother. She found the crates while on a walk. ‘They were probably sick pets.
The Malaysians think it a huge waste of money to treat a dying animal.’ Ailsa paid a vet to examine them and, after being told they were all treatable, decided to bring them home, leaving them in the surgery while she made arrangements from the UK. ‘It was the vet’s fees that pushed the costs up,’ she says. The problem doubled when the cats reached UK quarantine last June, as one gave birth to four kittens. Puppy love: Judy rescued Tremor from China where he was surviving as a stray ‘At one stage, I ran out of cash,’ remembers Ailsa. ‘I was attending a conference for work and didn’t have £10 for the entrance fee. Defra warned if we couldn’t afford the quarantine bill each month, it could put the cats down.’
An appeal in the local paper — with pictures of cute kittens — touched the hearts of local animal lovers and businesses who made up a £4,000 shortfall — meaning Ailsa was finally able to bring the cats home in December last year, rehoming all but three of them. Today, Suzie and Smokey — two of the originals from the crates — live pampered lives in Ailsa and Dave’s four-bed detached house in Milton Keynes. Sadly, their brother, Mouzer, died earlier this year. Ailsa has no regrets. ‘Watching them curled up in a pool of sunshine on the sofa, I know I did the right thing,’ she says. Like Ailsa, veterinary nurse, Judy Blythe, knows all too well how common sense can go out the window when a cute animal is involved. ‘After a natural disaster, when there is a danger of disease, one of the first things the authorities do is round up and destroy all the stray animals’
The 53-year-old mother fell in love with a stray dog while volunteering in China in 2008. She’d been in Chendu treating bears who’d been rescued from farms that supply traditional Chinese medicine when the Sichuan earthquake struck. She immediately volunteered for the rescue effort. It was during a trek to a mountain region when her party realised they had company — a couple of domesticated dogs. ‘We called them Tremor and Quake,’ says Judy. ‘After a natural disaster, when there is a danger of disease, one of the first things the authorities do is round up and destroy all the stray animals.’ ‘But there was something about Tremor,’ says Judy. ‘We just clicked.’ So it was with a heavy heart that Judy said goodbye to Tremor when she returned to the UK in June. When she went back to China in September 2009, Tremor was still without an owner, while Quake had been re-homed. ‘He knew me immediately and we picked up where we left off,’ she says. Part of the family: Now Tremor enjoys a pampered life in Shropshire When she returned home in December, Judy suggested bringing Tremor to the UK to her husband, Simon, 57. ‘He said no: it would cost £4,000 and we had two dogs.’
But on the couple’s 30th wedding anniversary in March last year, Simon surprised Judy. ‘I unwrapped a picture of Tremor with a card that read: “Are you coming to get me?”’ Unknown to Judy, Simon had arranged to bring Tremor to the UK. He finally joined the family last November and is enjoying his pampered new life in Shropshire. ‘I never thought I’d see him again, but now he’s here he feels like part of the family,’ says Judy.
[[[ *** RESPONSE *** ]]]
£12000 could fund an entire centre (albeit in somewhat rural settings) for a year in the 3rd world that could take care of a score or more dogs. Is a single ‘fat cat’ dog justified when his fellow poochies are starving or being chopped up for meat being strays? China needs as many people philanthropists as dog philantropists, but funds are being totally wasted when used like that on a single animal Judy.
You could do 20-100 times more with what you are spending on a brand name collar or ‘brand name’ boutique toy or brand name feed. There are plenty of bored stray animal lovers that you could fund in the 3rd world from there, how about contacting some of the locals (not those tend towards politically motivated ‘kitten killer’ stunts) to take care of the animals you could not bring overseas? . . .