Claire Hider shares her experience of the Scottish Animal Behaviour and Rescue Centre (SABRC), north of Dundee
The warmest of welcomes awaits anyone who visits the Scottish Animal Behaviour and Rescue Centre (SABRC), just north of Dundee.
The fact that it’s a welcome from two friendly young sheep just makes it that bit warmer and woollier. Peter and Paul are fairly recent additions to SABRC-they were this year’s lambs, born and orphaned in the spring-but they have enthusiastically embraced the role of official greeters at this inspirational educational centre. Peter and Paul share their home with 10 horses, nine hens, six sheep, two turkeys, four guinea pigs, four rabbits, two ducks, four dogs, three cats and a grey parrot named Charlie.
Co-founded by Anita Menzies-Udale and Lauren Eagles, the SABRC aims to deal with animal welfare scientifically through a deep understanding of animal behaviour as it would occur in the natural environment, all combined with an expert knowledge of the animals biology.
Anita and Lauren met one another five years ago while studying animal behaviour-or ethology to give it its scientific name-at the Natural Animal Welfare Centre in Wales.
Anita was already working at a horse sanctuary in Forfar, Scotland when a stray kitten called Hamish inspired her and her husband, Dave Udale to start taking in some orphaned and abandoned animals of their own. Two years ago, Anita invited Lauren to join them and in May last year SABRC was registered as a charity from their rural base in Angus. They now have an all-vegan board of trustees chaired by Michael Milne and some exciting ambitions for the future.
“Our aim here at SABRC is to build a bridge of understanding between human and non-human animals,” says Anita. “And we’re doing that by working with local community mental health teams, and by running courses-currently for horse and dog owners-to help them better understand and take care of their animals. We also offer a number of volunteering opportunities.”
But first and foremost, SABRC is about having a deep-seated respect for animals. “We never put any pressure on our non-human residents and we are most definitely not promoting animal-assisted therapy,” emphasises Lauren. “All our training is through positive reinforcement and if an animal doesn’t want to be involved with people, or with other animals, because of what he or she has been through then they don’t have to.”
This means that Bella, one of our resident horses, has been given all the time and space she requires following years of being passed from one owner to another. “Horses form very deep and lasting attachments so being handed on repeatedly can be hugely damaging for them,” explains Lauren. “Little wonder it is taking time for Bella to build up trust-but she’s now interacting with some of the other horses and showing real signs of settling down.”
Lauren and Anita explain that foals are often separated from their mums at six months old, when in the wild they would stay together for up to two years. Once sold on, they can have many owners and in some cases may be sent to slaughter if they become un-rideable through lameness or age. This almost happened to one of the other SABRC horses, Molly, rescued just a week before her scheduled trip to the abattoir.
When you meet the horses, you’re struck by their less than usual looking paddock. This has been set up based on Anita and Lauren’s understanding of the ethology of their horse residents. The middle section of a large field is fenced off, leaving a continuous ‘track’ around the edge-not dissimilar to a grassy racetrack. Around the track are shelters and generous supplies of hay, mixed in with tasty herbs. “In their natural environment, horses are on the move for around 18 hours a day and they are grazing constantly,” explains Anita. “Their digestive systems need food all the time, and they don’t actually sleep very much. Being locked in stables for anything from eight to 18 hours a day is not how horses want to live.” The paddock is an attempt to recreate-as far as possible-what a horse would experience naturally.
“Of course to some extent it’s a compromise-but then human intervention has made it virtually impossible to return these animals genuinely to the wild,” adds Lauren.
As Peter and Paul demonstrate, not all the animals at SABRC need rehabilitation. Jack-another of the 10 strong horse community-is also particularly friendly and loves working with the local community mental health team, who bring along clients living with a range of challenges including autism and severe social anxiety.
“Coming to SABRC and being with the animals has had positive outcomes for quite a few of our regular visitors,” says Anita. She recalls one young woman’s mother saying that for the first time her daughter has overcome her social anxiety and started looking forward to her visits, where she helps out with tasks such as poo picking and interacts with the animals.
For one young man with autism, SABRC became the first place he was willing to travel to on his own. “In fact one day when he was coming to see us, he spotted a white guinea pig, presumably abandoned, on the hard shoulder of a busy A-road,” recalls Lauren. It’s a story with a happy ending: the visitor alerted everyone at SABRC who mounted an immediate rescue mission. Lucky the guinea pig was apprehended and is now living happily among the other guinea pigs in the front yard, watched over by Joshua and Sion, the turkeys. “As a general rule all our non-human residents have ‘human’ names as a mark of respect but we let our young visitor name Lucky and it does seem a good choice under the circumstances,” says Lauren.
For the future, SABRC want to establish a flourishing harmless farm based on their core principles or providing welfare and rescue, care, protection and sanctuary. Education, behavioural training courses, volunteering and a vegan café all feature in their plans. Now they will be adding fundraising to their already enviable set of skills.
Meanwhile the immediate future-for Peter at least-seems to involve getting into visitors cars as kind of extended farewell. Gently ejected from the driving seat, he trots off happily for a walk in the woods with his friends Paul and retired sheepdog, Poppy.
All photographs credited to Chris Twyman.