Phoenix Animal Rescue in France is a heart warming tale of a couple whose passion has become saving and re-homing animals. Richard and Sheelagh Johnson set up Phoenix, a charitable company now officially registered by the French authorities. We talk to them about how it all started…
Sheelagh says: “When my husband, Richard, and I first arrived to live in the Dordogne in 1991, we were quick to notice the number of stray animals. It was many years later that we realised many thousands of unwanted or abandoned animals were without homes. The regional animal shelters, the SPAs, were hopelessly overcrowded and euthanasia often the only practical solution. So in our own small way, we began to help them rehome cats and dogs, especially those considered ‘unhomeable’, such as the elderly and handicapped.”
Tell us how Phoenix came to be officially registered with the French authorities – we’ve not heard of that happening before with an animal charity in France…
In 2001 we became officially registered as a charity – an ‘Association Loi 1901.’ This status allows us to be in receipt of funding – essential, as before we had to dive deep in our pockets for every euro. Phoenix is registered with the DSV, the French equivalent of the UK’s Defra. Phoenix is a non-profit making organisation, run on a voluntary basis. We have no paid staff and rely entirely on the goodwill of our helpers/supporters.
What does the charity do?
Phoenix is a network of foster homes, not a single adoption centre. The dogs and cats are fostered and integrated happily into family life before they go on to their permanent homes. We operate on the principle of ‘small is beautiful’, concentrating on only one or two newcomers at a time, so as to give them maximum care and attention before offering them for adoption. Some stay, and become permanent members of their foster households. We don’t put animals down. At Phoenix, every unwanted animal becomes a wanted companion.
It’s not just dogs and cats you help is it?
We also rescue, rehabilitate and rehome horses, donkeys and ponies as well as some injured wildlife.
We know that you have volunteers helping you to run the charity – can you tell us what the volunteers do and how anyone wishing to get involved can help?
Without paid staff, Phoenix relies heavily on the generosity of the many hard working volunteers who support our work. They undertake the day to day organisation, arrange and assist at fundraising events, rescue and transport animals, act as foster homes, as well as advise and support people wishing to adopt animals.
The charity does other work too, doesn’t it?
We act as intermediaries between people wishing to adopt from local Shelters and the Shelters themselves. We also run a service linking people with animals to rehome with people who are offering homes, thus avoiding the unnecessary stress to the animal of being taken into care. We give advice on all aspects of animal care and, more particularly, on the French animal welfare system and we take our aims and animals into pre school nursery and into the classroom in order to develop a responsible attitude towards animal welfare right from the start.
Did you keep pets as a child?
I was raised in a normal, but animal mad, family and we shared our home with stick insects, baby birds, snakes, tortoises, rabbits, guinea pigs and mice.
When you arrived in France did you bring pets with you?
We arrived with a modified horse box trailer which contained our three dogs, seven cats and lots of mice as well as another horse box for three horses.
What animals do you have now?
We have two horses, four dogs, four tame cats and three cats in the loft plus seven hens, seventeen pigeons and three ducks.
What are the difficulties and challenges of your work?
There are two particularly difficult areas: administrative and emotional.
Complex French bureaucracy is challenging, when an identified animal is rescued it can be very difficult to identify the owner because of change of address and it’s sometimes difficult to reunite an animal with its owner because the owner has lost the ID card! The emotional fallout of the work I do can be terrible, every week I have to make life and death decisions because the SPA is overcrowded – Phoenix cannot take them all. I have many sleepless nights and am often successful in last minute reprieves.
The work that Phoenix does is just the tip of the iceberg, 100,000 dogs and cats are put down every year in France.
Tell us about the rewards
We’ve been successful in being able to influence attitudes towards animal welfare : for example some local communes now realise the importance of neutering cats, we have worked with veterinarians on reduction of fees for the sterilisation of animals and have liaised extensively with SPA’s, especially the one at Bergerac, where my husband Richard, is on the advisory board. The Bergerac SPA now neuter cats on entry to the pound and there has been an improvement in the environment for the animals. On a personal level, it’s wonderful to see a sick dog or cat recover after care and treatment and go on to a permanent home and to meet someone unexpectedly who tells me how pleased they are that they gave an animal from Phoenix a home.
I am very fortunate to be able to devote my life to the rescue and rehoming of abandoned and injured animals. My passion for animals is my raison d’être.
If someone wants to adopt an animal but they’re not in the Dordogne where you are based – can you help/advise where they can go?
The charity is based in the Dordogne but anyone, anywhere in France can adopt one of our rescued animals or we can give advice about the nearest French pound or Animal Welfare Association.
Many people arrive to make a new life in France and want to get an animal – please consider adopting an animal who needs a home from Phoenix or one of the many other animal refuges.
If you are interested in giving an animal a home either as a foster family or permanently or if you want advice on animal welfare in France see the website for Phoenix Animal Rescue www.phoenixasso.com