THE RSPCA in York is 150 this year. To mark the anniversary, it is launching a £150,000 appeal to refurbish the Landing Lane animal home. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
IF EVER there was a face to melt a thousand hearts, it would have to be Chester’s.
The eight-year-old Pomeranian terrier is standing at the bars of his kennel at the RSPCA animal shelter in Landing Lane basking in the March sunshine.
He perks up at the sight of human visitors, and wags his tail appealingly. Butter wouldn’t melt.
Appearances can be deceptive, laughs Angela Hunter, the RSPCA’s York branch manager.
For all his looks, Chester can be quite a handful. “He’s a big dog in a small body!”
Anyone who has ever visited the Landing Lane shelter in search of a dog (or cat, or hamster, or even terrapin) to adopt will have become used to the sight of animals like Chester.
The shelter provides a home – hopefully temporarily, until a new, permanent home can be found for them – for up to 75 lost, abandoned or simply unwanted dogs, plus as many as 72 cats, a good number of rabbits and a variety of other small animals, including guinea pigs, hamsters and gerbils.
There are several aviaries containing domestic birds (including cockatiels) as well as injured wild birds; a ‘wildlife unit’ where hedgehogs and other wild creatures are nursed back to health after being brought in by concerned members of the public; and even a vivarium in which, during our visit, two young terrapins are splashing noisily about.
“We don’t have a specialised vivarium, so we just had to knock something up!” Angela says.
This place is a veritable menagerie, in fact: one that, in an average year, manages to find a new home for as many as 700 animals.
The shelter has been based at Landing Lane since 1979.
What most people who come here in search of a new pet probably don’t realise, however, is that the RSPCA has been going in York for much longer than that. For 150 years, in fact.
On February 13, 1864, a notice was placed in a local newspaper. “A meeting will be held on Tuesday 16th instant, at the Guildhall, York, at at noon, for the purpose of considering the desirability of forming in this city a branch of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,”
the note said. It was signed by one Henry Wood, who described himself as ‘secretary, pro tem’.
Sadly, we don’t have a record of that very first meeting. In fact, there are no further records of the activities of the York branch of the RSPCA for almost 80 years.
So we have no idea who those early members were, or how they looked after animals in need of a bit of TLC, says Sue Smith, the retired librarian and RSPCA gardening volunteer who is now putting together a history of the organisation in York.
There would have been no animal shelter back then, she says. “So I would imagine that people would take the animals in themselves until they found another home for them.”
It is not until 1942 that the RSPCA in York emerges from the shadows.
In an early history of the branch, written by a Mrs F Slater in the 1970s, she describes efforts to protect animals during wartime air raids on York.
“I well remember one Sunday evening in the early days of the conflict., Christopher Stone made a wireless appeal for volunteers to join their local Animals’ ARP (Air Raid Precautions committee),” she wrote.
“I responded... and in due course met many of York’s animal lovers. We had such first-aid equipment as could possibly be provided, although this was very meagre.
In one respect we were very fortunate – we had the use of the hunt kennels out at Askham Bryan to use as a sanctuary for any animals made homeless through enemy action...”
In late 1943, the York Animal Hospital’s committee, which was responsible for running the Lost Dogs’ home on St George’s Field, asked if the local RSPCA branch would be willing to take it over.
The branch agreed. “Thus the York RSPCA lost dogs’ home came into being, in a tiny brick building on St George’s Field, subject to every river flood,” Mrs Slater wrote.
Flooding was to be a constant problem.
“We had three floods in our first year so we were constantly seeking various temporary accommodation,” Mrs Slater wrote. “On one occasion we tried some old premises in the Shambles but alas – some ‘kind’ person(s) prised the lock during the night and all our residents became wanderers around town again.”
In 1956, Sir Francis Terry opened a new animal home at Castle Mills Lock, close to the original lost dogs’ home. A cattery was added the following year – but flooding problems persisted. In December 1959, the home was flooded for two days, says Sue Smith. It flooded again the following December; and again in December 1965, and then in February 1977. Each time, the animals had to be evacuated.
Press editorial assistant Anne Wood’s sister Paula Rose volunteered at the home towards the end of the Castle Mills Lock years, and later worked at Landing Lane.
She remembered the flooding at Castle Mills, Anne says. “As the river rose, everybody would spring into action to evacuate the animals.”
By the 1970s, the home had expanded to include a kennels and cattery, a clinic, a kitchen and two ‘reception kennels’.
Repeated flooding, and the lack of space, meant that a new home was needed.
In 1978, the site at landing Lane was bought, and a new animal home built at a cost of £262,000. It was officially opened on May 31, 1980, by Janet Fookes, the Plymouth MP who was also national chairman of the RSPCA.
The shelter has been at Landing Lane ever since. And flooding remains a problem: not least during the great floods of 2000, when animals once more had to be evacuated.
Angela Hunter accepts that moving again to escape the river probably isn’t an option. It could cost £5 million in today’s money to find the right site and build a new home says the former bank worker, who has been in charge at Landing Lane since 2009.
Part of the problem is that the animal home is in many ways a ‘nuisance neighbour’, she admits. “The dogs do tend to bark,” she says. “Nobody would want us in prime areas!”
Maybe not. But there are plenty of animal lovers in York who are grateful that this wonderful home is here.
• TO MARK 150 years of the RSPCA in York, the local branch is planning to launch a £150,000 appeal – £1,000 for every year of its existence – to raise money for improvements to the animal home.
The organisation also needs volunteers, to help with everything from gardening to dog walking. To find out more, use the contact details above.