Helen Davies has been an animal lover since her childhood days and has gone on in adult life to help rescue thousands of dogs and cats from a life of misery or a needless death.
The Rainbow Centre opened its doors officially in January 1997 but Helen’s affinity with, and compassion for, animals stretches back to her earliest days at the Ann Street home shared with her parents and four siblings.
“We always had a dog at home,” she said. “I used to feed some wee stray cats that would come round to our house. I would take my dinner out and feed the cats because we didn’t have any cat food or anything like that. In them days you just fed the dogs leftovers.
“I think if you have a pet in the family it’s just a really good thing, it makes you care about animals. When our dog died we were all broken-hearted so it teaches you about grief and compassion.
“It’s really important people have a pet and people are less likely nowadays to have a dog for their children, which is very sad I think.
“Quite often on internet I see people taking young children out to hunt and they are killing rabbits and things. I think that totally destroys any empathy or compassion children might have for animals. It’s bad not just for the animals but it damages all of us in a sense because that is going on under our noses, and it sort of becomes acceptable. They are not killing them because they have no food they are doing it for sport, for fun.”
While Helen has now taken a step back and left the Rainbow Centre in the “good hands” of current staff and volunteers, she recalls vividly the incidents that led to its creation.
It started with Helen getting a six-month old mongrel named Harvey out of the dog pound.
“He was a beautiful dog. We had him a year and a half, and somehow he got poisoned. Somebody poisoned him. I was really heartbroken, as indeed were my son and daughter and that.”
Considering a new pet, Helen returned to the pound. “That day there were three dogs in every pen, and the USPCA were running it at the time, and the dogs were howling and barking and clawing at the gates, and I was so upset about it,” Helen recalls.
“So I went to the Sterritt & Henry’s gardening and pet shop in Shipquay Street and man who owned it, I asked him would he sponsor some leaflets and he said he would surely and I started an adopt-a-pet scheme. It was just something I did over the phone and if anybody was looking for a dog I put them in touch with somebody who was looking to get rid of a dog. That worked out very well, but often there were people looking to get rid of dogs right away and I had nowhere to put them.”
Around this time Stuart Keys, chairman of the NW Animal Welfare Group, offered assistance and Helen enlisted his help to try and set up a small emergency facility. A newspaper ad resulted in a lady from Eglinton contacting Helen saying she had an old pig pen she would donate rent free. It was all hands to the pump as Helen’s husband, son, sister and brother-in-law joined her in leading the charge to build the new shelter, with supplied donations by local builders.
It quickly became clear however that a new premises was needed and by 1999 Rainbow had moved to their current home on Ballygudden Road, with a team of volunteers helping to renovate the site.
Helen said that ever since those early days, the “deluge of animals” has never stopped.
“At one stage we were rehoming 1,000 animals a year. And every animal we rehoused was vaccinated and neutered, wormed and de-fleed and nowadays they’re microchipped as well. It’s a big job. We also do pre-home checks and follow-ups. Now there are other sanctuaries and they all do that same thing. I think we set that template and those standards. And we all work together, all the sanctuaries.
“You get fabulous homes, and what I found over the years the worst cases you got in got excellent homes. Some still go to England with the Dogs Trust and get great homes.
“It saddens me that so many people will go to a breeder when there are so many lovely, good-natured dogs in rescue centres and in local pounds. And 80 per cent of them are pedigree dogs now anyway.”
In terms of cats, Helen recalls taking two phonecalls two days in a row from different women, each with 40 cats and appealing for help.
“People can get cats neutered for £5,” she advised.
Another problem that has proved persistent is unscrupulous puppy farmers and back-street breeders.
For Helen herself, while she has handed over the reigns at the Rainbow, her concern for animal welfare remains as strong today as it ever was. In fact, after 30 years of vegetarianism, Helen has become a vegan and says she feels much better for it.
“The only problem I would have if you are out for a meal you can’t really have a dessert, because I have a sweet tooth, but there are now restaurants that have vegetarian and vegan menus, which is great. I think things are moving that way. I know quite a few people that are vegan now.”
As well as taking on two Rainbow dogs, Dolly and Lulu from, Helen has spoken at numerous animal welfare rallies and will speak at another one in Dublin next month.
And it looks like the apples haven’t fallen far form the tree, as Helen’s daughter Leigh is also a deeply committed animal lover, helping out at the Rainbow Centre when she can and joining her mother at rallies and events.
“My son Ivan lives in Canada and he and his wife and children are big animal lovers- his wife’s father is a vet so they’re big into animals,” Helen adds.