Dog Adoption Diaries: Volunteering at Mayhew Animal Shelter

written by Andrea Mills

Volunteer diary from the Mayhew Animal Home

When the Mayhew sisters first set up their animal home for “the lost and starving dogs and cats of London” in 1896, they could not have known how far it would come by the 21st century.

Having volunteered at other animal homes and rescue centres in and around London, the Mayhew in Kensal Green stood out for me in terms of excellent facilities and professional care. All the permanent staff and volunteers are dedicated to ensuring the dogs, cats and rabbits (and when necessary, a variety of other animals) enjoy the best possible stay. From the well-kept garden of the feral cats to the immaculate runs of ‘Rabbit Towers’, the centre is run smoothly and efficiently by a hands-on team, completely committed to the cause. On arrival at the centre for a three day stint as a volunteer, I was impressed by the high standards and fell in love with the animals.

Day: 1 – Thursday 21st August 2008

On the first day, after a health and safety briefing, I was introduced to the team on kennels. With room to accommodate about 20 dogs at any one time, the kennels resemble a canine hotel chain in terms of stress-free comfort, with all the trimmings. Calming orchestral music is piped down through speakers to relax the dogs, as many have come from difficult and sometimes abusive backgrounds. Each room offers the pampered pooches a big basket, blankets, toys and even a television, to ensure the set-up is as close to what the dog will come to know when rehomed with responsible and caring owners in the future.

The kennels are kept scrupulously clean, so while trying not to get distracted by the gorgeous Staffordshire terrier puppies, I got down to helping out with the hosing down, scrubbing and drying. As well as the daily kennel cleaning, staff and/or volunteers walk each dog four times a day. Depending on the animal’s age and experience, they are walked either in the garden, in the immediate vicinity of the home or driven further afield for a longer walk. I was lucky to walk all different types of puppies and dogs in the garden and around the block. Without exception, they were a delight, and I felt so proud walking them, pretending they were mine and wishing I could take them all home.

Feeding time proved a big hit with all the dogs, but trying to ensure the puppies stuck to their own bowls and did not eat each other’s grub was a task in itself! In the afternoon, there is also time for socialising with the animals. This is as important for the dogs as it is enjoyable for the helpers! By cuddling, playing and just being around the dogs, they experience regular interaction with people and are kept stimulated. I must admit it was a labour of love.

With the last of the walks done and dusted, it was time to go home with a happy heart. Every evening, the night staff take over, on hand to look after the animals throughout the night.

Day: 2 – Friday 22nd August 2008

The next day it was all change as I helped out with the Mayhew cats. The home is currently at bursting point with almost 200 cats (a purry, furry mix of kittens, domestic and feral), so there is no room for any more for the time being. This meant there was a huge amount of cleaning to be done. After a thorough briefing by one of the helpful members of cat care staff, it was time to get down to business. Each of the domesticated cats is housed in a spacious area with a top shelf for their baskets and toys, and a ground floor space for their food, water and litter trays. It was lovely reading about each cat before going inside and meeting them. While giving each cat’s area a morning clean, the occupants rubbed against me purring, and it was very motivating to do a good job for them. I can safely say I don’t clean my own home anywhere near as well as that!

I got quickly and completely attached to two cats in particular. One was a black and white cat called Linford, a real poster boy with the longest whiskers I’ve ever seen. He was very distracting, even posing for photographs for me, and I found it hard to leave him. Then, a few marvellous mogs later, I met Kojak, a big, cuddly tabby with brilliant green eyes. I sat down and tapped my lap, only to have the feline fuzzball land promptly on it and settle down for some serious adoration, which he welcomed in true Garfield-style. Both of these beautiful boys have since been rehomed to very lucky people.

The sheer number of cats meant cleaning took most of the morning. In the afternoon, I helped to wash out the litter trays in the garden and get them ready for the next morning. Latex gloves ahoy! All the while, the feral cats watched from a safe distance in and around their luxurious outdoor homes.

The last task of the day, and it was far from a chore, was to go in the kitten block and assist with the socialising. Four kittens were placed in a separate games room full of treats and toys, and I was left for an hour to play with them. I had kittens on my head, in my hair, climbing up my legs and chasing toys. At one point, they all appeared hypnotised while watching a plastic fish on a rod flick past them. Then, the spell was broken as they leapt up and over each other to be first to the catch of the day. By contrast, the next cat to join me in the play area was a very timid cat called Mushi Mushi. Her mother had rejected her and she had had a tough time ever since. It was difficult to get her to come close, but rewarding when she responded to the famous fishing rod and overcame her shyness to play for a while.

Day: 3 – Thursday 28th August 2008

On my third and final day at the Mayhew (for now!), I sneaked back to cat central under the guise of helping with the cleaning. I ended up spending far too long with the gorgeous Kojak, before his new owner came to pick him up and I turned frog green with envy.

Next, I had the opportunity to experience the events, fundraising and community service side of the Mayhew. Based in a nearby office, the events organiser explained the different dates in the calendar year, all set up to raise funds and awareness of the centre. It costs £2,000 a day to keep the Mayhew up and running, so these organised events are crucial. The events are arranged for a number of reasons, including staff and volunteers giving out information raising awareness of the work of the Mayhew, offering advice on caring for animals, providing neutering vouchers to try to reduce the number of unwanted litters and collecting donations to help fund the centre. From local supermarkets to stalls at Earl’s Court animal exhibitions and the annual Christmas night, attended by celebrity supporters of the Mayhew, small-scale and large-scale events take place at a range of locations throughout the year.

I learned how the Mayhew also makes a point of sharing the animals with the wider community. Staff regularly take a different dog, cat or rabbit to local hospitals or rest and retirement homes so that sick and/or elderly people can benefit from the animal interaction. It was amazing to hear the range of events and activities that the Mayhew is involved in, and I know of many friends and colleagues who would be happy to help out, too, if only they knew about the animal home.

In the afternoon, I was busy helping out on reception. There were people coming in with their pets for vaccinations, while others were filling in forms with a view to taking on a Mayhew animal. The telephones were ringing almost constantly and the calls I took ranged from lost pets and found strays to queries about vaccinations, rehoming, animal welfare and breeds currently available at the centre. It was interesting to find out firsthand what the Mayhew has to deal with on a daily basis.

As the staff and volunteers whizzed through reception walking dogs, carrying pets to the vet for vaccinations, collecting deliveries of animal food and showing members of the public around, I couldn’t help thinking that somewhere, the Mayhew sisters must be looking down on the home and smiling at the legacy they’ve left behind.