Caring for the little unfortunates

Posted 2nd May 2024

What happens when irresponsible owners decide they no longer want that gorgeous guinea pig now she’s not quite so little, or that beautiful bunny who takes more looking after than its owners were up for?

That’s when the phone rings and Louise Norman and her husband Steve have to jump into action, as Sammy Jones discovered…

For the past seven years, Louise has run Hartwell’s Homeless small animal sanctuary from her home, picking up the pieces and saving lives.
“I became involved in animal rescue as a young child, when I would go out with my nan to trap feral cats and kittens for the Cats Protection League,” she told Pulse, “I was always bringing home injured wildlife, and the strays who seemed to find me.”

Showing compassion for our smaller breeds is a family trait – her parents Maisie and Brian are also active at Hartwell’s Homeless and have given up space at their own home to help with the saving and rehabilitation of animals, and Louise has friends who foster and help however they can.

“I set up the sanctuary because I was suffering from severe ill health and needed a focus,” Louise explained, “Having numerous health issues, I always had a passion for helping animals with medical problems and wanted to give them the best life possible.

“We are dedicated to helping the small animals most at risk of euthanasia or in immediate danger, specialising in animals with complex health and behaviour problems that are unable to be rehomed by rescues, and we offer them a permanent sanctuary with us.”

HH is not a rehoming centre, instead working as a foster space for those animals who can be rehomed: “We act as the middleman and keep them here until rescue spaces become available,” said Louise, who works with a number of local rescues for the good of those in need – regularly teaming up with Bunny Angels, The Excellent Adventure Guinea Pig Sanctuary, RSPCA Inspectorates and local RSPCA branches.
Though they are based in Hartwell – a stone’s throw away from Salcey Forest – they cast their net wide in the support of animals, working across Northamptonshire and Milton Keynes because of the woefully small number of reputable small animal rescues.

“My husband and I, my parents and friends all muck in together with the cleaning out, medicating and vet runs, and we go out trapping abandoned and stray animals…

“We currently have 20 rabbits, eight guinea pigs, two hamsters, and one chinchilla, and always try to squeeze in additional rescue cases,” she admitted, “Eight of the rabbits currently in our care were dumped in the wild.

“Since Covid, the rescue world has gone crazy. So many people took up breeding when there was already an animal crisis. The sad reality is there aren’t enough homes and rescue spaces for the animals already here, without bringing more into the world.”
Louise is dreading the upcoming school holidays – or rather the fallout that follows each year.

“We always see an increase in small animals being dumped or needing to be rehomed after the school holidays,” she sighed, “Sadly, people see them as disposable and we get asked to take them in because the children are bored and the parents don’t have the time to care for them.
“Everyone wants them while they are cute babies and they get rid when they reach adulthood. We have had sick animals handed in because it is cheaper to buy a new pet than get veterinary care for the existing animal!

“Small animals are seen as easy to care for, when in reality they are costly, time consuming and complex.”
Right now, bunnies are faring especially badly.

“The situation with rabbits is the worst I’ve ever seen, and they are incredibly misunderstood animals. Years ago, hutches were used to keep rabbits in at the bottom of the garden and they were used for meat. Sadly, the practice of keeping them all in tiny hutches is something we still see and pet shops and breeders need to better educate people on the welfare requirements when considering taking on a rabbit.

“A permanent home for a rabbit should be 3x2x1 metres, predator proof and full of natural enrichment,” said Louise, sharing the essentials, “Both sexes need to be neutered to prevent cancers, spraying and hormonal and behavioural issues, and so that they can be bonded with other rabbits. “They are incredibly social creatures and need the company of their own kind to communicate with.

“They also need annual vaccinations to protect against illnesses – we often get ‘aggressive’ females arriving here that people no longer want because of their territorial behaviour, when in reality they are hormonal, lonely and need neutering so they can then be bonded with a friend – when that has been sorted you will meet a calmer, much happier pet.”

The continuing crisis with soaring numbers of people wanting to give up their pets means there has been a huge spike in people abandoning them in the wild.

“It’s a weekly occurrence,” Louise told us, “Owners think that if they abandon them into a field or hedgerow they will live a lovely wild life. “The reality is that as a prey species they are killed by predators or hit by cars.

“A couple of years ago we were called to assist the RSPCA catch six baby rabbits abandoned at Knowlhill. Sadly, most were killed by dogs, or drowned in the water as they tried to escape the dogs. We caught two of them – and one died of shock soon after.”

There was only one survivor, and lucky little Knowl, as he was christened, now lives at home with the Norman family. Teggy is another resident, and has been with the family for a year, He arrived in appalling condition.

“Teggy was found straying with back teeth that had huge pointed spurs, and just one wobbly front tooth.

“His mouth was so painful he was barely able to eat and was drooling so badly that he had painful sores on his chin and front legs,” she remembered, “He didn’t move at all and was terribly malnourished. He wasn’t strong enough to survive the surgery he so desperately needed.

Will hop for cash – Steve is running the MK Half Marathon to swell funds for the charity this month

“After a seven day stay at the vets we brought him home and syringe fed him to get his weight up.

“He slowly improved and became strong enough for surgery to burr down on the spurs on his back teeth. He now looks and acts like a totally different rabbit,” she smiled.

It’s a lovely little story of success against the odds, but if people were responsible to begin with, little Teggy – and others like him – wouldn’t need to endure such horrible situations.

Especially when the answer is so simple.

“We are having to turn away animals weekly from people desperate for help,” Louise admitted, “If people went to rescue centres to adopt animals it would create a space to save another life.

“The more people continue to buy from breeders and pet shops, the more they will continue to breed them for money.”
While you might be able to turn the page on this story, Louise can’t switch off from her work: “The only rest I get is when I’m asleep, but I often go to bed feeling awful at the animals I haven’t managed to help, and wake up full of anxiety.

“There are many days we feel like giving up and going back to a ‘normal’ life, but every single life matters and while we can’t save them all, we can make a difference to as many as possible and will keep fighting for them,” she said resolutely.

In 2023, Hartwell’s
Homeless intakes were… 51 guinea pigs • 32 rabbits 11 hamsters • 6 budgies 2 tortoises • 4 mice 3 gerbils • 3 chinchillas 2 ducklings

It’s not just a generosity of time that Louise and her family give – they use their own funds to care for and feed the animals. Simply, there are no paid staff.

They do have an Amazon wish list where you can purchase supplies, or if you’d prefer, donations can be made directly to their veterinary account.

Visit Hartwells Homeless Small Animal Sanctuary.