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A retreat for all beings

Our columnist Maria Slough meets Billy Thompson, founder of The Retreat Animal Rescue

I n the picturesque village of High Halden in Kent, UK, you will find The Retreat Animal Rescue Sanctuary, a haven for broken and abused animals that offers sanctuary to people, too. Now home to over 1,250 animals, the story behind this special refuge started some 40 years ago with a little boy named Billy who dreamt of having a pony.
\"I always wanted a pony,\" Billy tells me, \"But my parents said that was a little girl's dream and my sister, Lil, got the pony. I did all the mucking out and was always at the yard and each time somebody was going to have their pony shot, I would plead with them to let me keep the pony. I got the naughty ones, the sick ones and the old ones and by the time I was 14 years old I had gathered 11 ponies. But never once did I think 'one day I will have my own rescue'.\"

As a 14-year-old, how did you fund the care of 11 ponies?

\"Well, I've got the best parents in the world. When we were little, Mum and Dad struggled financially. We lived in London and my sister's pony was kept in livery in Kent, so every time I rescued a pony my parents would have to find an extra £40 a month.
That doesn't sound like much nowadays, but this is going back 40 years. At the yard one day, someone told us about a stray Shetland so I went to find him. He had warts all over his face but my sister and I still took him back to the yard. The yard owner would not let him in as his warts were infectious, so we decided to take him home! We got this pony called Ricky… and we took him home on the 132 bus!
Can you believe it? He is 38 now and lives with one of my greatest friends, Zoe. That's what we would do; I was 14 and my sister was 11 and we would take care of things.\"

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What came first, the retreat or being vegan?

\"Oh, definitely being vegan. To our shame, my sister and I used to ride. One day, we came across a field of cows. I'll never forget - the cows came to the fence and Donna, the girl riding with us, whipped their faces, she just hit them because they had come to say hello! We were mortified. Two weeks later for my friends' - who were twins - 14th birthday their parents hosted a kiddies' get-together.
All the food was vegetarian and after tea we watched a video called Farm to plate. It was the story of a cow. Well, I couldn't believe what I saw. I felt disgusted and treacherous. Why had we never thought of this? We love animals? It was two days before Christmas and my sister and I went home to Mum and Dad and announced we were vegetarians. We were a traditional south London family who ate jellied eels and all those ghastly things and Mum cried; she said 'This can't happen, you'll die'. On Christmas Day, our plates had three different meats on it with potatoes and vegetables - my sister and I ate around the meat and just ate the vegetables. Dad looked at me and said, 'I'll give you six weeks'.\"

\"Whilst working, I was still going out at night collecting up feral cats and feeding the travellers horses, instead of hitting the clubs\"

Four years later, the same friends whose parents screened Farm to plate shared some brutal facts about the dairy industry and together they visited a dairy farm. \"It all seemed so picture-perfect, until they showed us the 'nursery'. I couldn't believe what I was seeing - innocent calves packed into veal crates.
These crates had been banned but a simple renaming of them meant the farmers could continue with the cruelty. Even worse than the cruelty was the injustice, so once again we went home and told Mum and Dad, 'We are going vegan'. I look back on Mum and Dad trying to keep a roof over our heads and give us everything that we needed, so veganism thrown into the equation was tough.\"

Did you feel different?

\"I think the difference between vegetarianism and veganism is huge. Vegetarianism is just about what you eat, you don't really understand the vast contribution to animal cruelty you're still making. As a vegan every decision you make, not just about what is on your plate but where you go in the world; how you earn money; how you fundraise; everything has to be considered. Your eyes are finally opened and you are awoken, and it doesn't matter how much you are doing, you want to do more.\" Billy embarked upon his career but always helped animals and destiny soon came knocking. \"Whilst working, I was still going out at night collecting up feral cats and feeding the travellers' horses, instead of hitting the clubs.

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Subconsciously, I knew I wanted to live in a big family of animals. The Retreat then just sort of happened. I had a loft apartment I shared with all sorts of animals and Mum and Dad had bought a pub in the country where all of my horses and a few sheep and goats lived, but it wasn't good for business to have all these animals everywhere. So Mum and Dad kindly bought more land next to the pub to keep the animals on.  A couple of years later, I met Neil, my partner, who commented to our vet that our place was like a retreat for animals and needed a name. On the next invoice the vet wrote 'The Retreat' at the top and from that day we had our name, and so we grew.\"

The Retreat spent the first 20 years on that land, until Billy and Neil bought the house next door and sold both for £700,000. That funded The Retreat as it is now, with a little extra help from his parents. How wonderful that those six weeks that Billy's Dad had predicted all those years ago, led to this moment with their support running throughout Billy's entire journey.
\"My Mum, who is also vegan now, volunteers three days in the café a week, and Dad will come maybe four times a month and wash up for us. He is very kind and supportive and said to me recently, 'I know how disappointed you would be if I died a meat eater', so, he is nearly there. They are an absolute integral part in all that we do to care for the 1,250 animals we have and, in our plan, to expand further.\" Pigeons; aquatics; wildlife; horses; cattle; dogs and cats all inhabit the 50 acres that make up The Retreat, who operate a genuine no-kill policy and have saved 20,000 animals in 30 years.

All the Trustees, including Billy's sister Lil and most of the volunteers are vegan, and the site offers two lodges for rent and an award-winning vegan restaurant whose slogan is 'We don't save them to serve them!'

What does being vegan mean to you?
\"Justice! For me, it's aligning my thoughts with my actions. If you really care about animals there is a justice for the animal in a person being vegan. I have to believe there is something to build on in most people to achieve this for animals. I celebrate every tiny step that someone takes to becoming vegan and living compassionately. I'm an apologist and a realist and if that converts more vegans than me hitting people with a metaphorical stick and saying, 'wake up', I can live with that. Once you meet them, really meet these animals you just can't eat them.\" On their website you will read, 'We are pressing for a more enlightened world where humans remember their dignity and show compassion and love to all others, regardless of sex, race, age, gender, disability or species.' I have a feeling that this kindly man, Billy - gentle of voice but wild of passion for justice for animals - will achieve all this and so much more .

Follow Maria's photography journey at mariasloughphotography.com and Instagram at @mariasloughphotography

VeganLife

The lifestyle magazine written by vegans for vegans.