We love chatting to inspirational people in Somerset and every once in a while, we meet someone who blows us away with their commitment, determination and kindness. Step forward Liz Stewart, who we were privileged to spend an afternoon with a little while back.
Liz founded Somerset and Dorset Animal Rescue over 30 years ago and with her husband Colin, has saved the lives of over 34,000 animals in need.
When we sat down together over a cuppa at their rescue in Wincanton, it was an emotional chat to say the least. The cruelty Liz has seen during her time rescuing animals left me shaken, tearful and thanking every lucky star that this amazing lady has dedicated her life to fighting cruelty whenever she sees it... being a voice for animals in Somerset, Dorset and far beyond.
As Liz tells it, when she first started helping dogs all those years ago it was a bit different to the set up now:
“I just naturally began helping when my friend used to send me photos of dogs who needed homes. The dogs were going to be euthanized in the Liverpool area, so I’d talk to people I knew closer to home and go round with a big photo album, to show people the dogs they could save. I always had in my mind who would be suited to which dogs, so I’d just chat to people really and plant the seed. We’d then make the long weekly trips to collect the dogs and bring them to their new forever homes”.
Liz saved 5,000 dogs with her photo album and her car... and word began to spread. Soon she built up a tiny team of volunteers, Liz and Colin cobbled together enough money for a transit van and added weekly drives to Wales to the list, as after only a week in the pound there, dogs would be destroyed.
“You just care and you can’t stop. It’s not really a choice. I think Colin wishes he’d married someone who liked flower arranging”, she jokes.
As the number of animals needing help grew (with cats, birds and more joining the fold), Liz and Colin knew they had to find somewhere they could set up a base – a place where animals could stay with them until they were rehomed, or if that wasn’t possible because of the things they'd been through, a place that could be a sanctuary for life for long-term residents. Residents like Max - a Staffy who'd been passed from person to person in pub to pub, Benji -a beautiful Greyhound cross who'd spent most of his life in a crate in a flat until he came to the Rescue, Lola - a street dog from Bornio who'd been treated with tremendous cruelty and Spot - a Staffy cross who'd been used in dog fighting, but now loves his kisses and cuddles despite it all.
It must’ve been fate that led Liz and Colin to their base 18 years ago... Balsam Farm, an old, run down, broken building with some land they could buy cheaply because of its state. They’ve basically rebuilt it from the ground up and it’s taken years of love and hard graft, with Colin doing the building work himself to save money. If that and the rehoming wasn’t challenging enough, Liz and Colin have fearlessly campaigned to help other animals too.
They borrowed £15,000 to save 50 beagles being bred by a company supplying dogs for vivisection, raised £37,000 to save a further 127, raised enough money to save and rehome 15,500 battery hens, saved many New Forest, Dartmoor and Exmoor ponies from slaughter, like Star here...
... and following the tsunami in 2004, Liz headed to Sri Lanka to rescue dogs in need there.
As Liz explained:
“ I originally went over with a friend who’d been working there and I just couldn’t turn away. It’s hard to take in the scale of what you see and I knew I had to do something. There were so many animals in need, so many disabled. With no-one to care for them they just die in the streets where they’ve often been deliberately knocked down, injured or badly hurt.”
Liz raised funds to help set up a Rescue there too - Animal SOS Sri Lanka - so sick and injured animals can now be taken off the streets and live in a four-acre purpose-built Rescue.
It’s not easy. The things Liz has seen would haunt most of us really, but what we are in awe of is that she rolls up her sleeves and digs deep to help the animals that no-one else will.
She visits when she can, has helped set up vaccination outreach programmes, makes sure dogs are spayed and with the generosity of public donations, sends food and medical supplies to help the dogs. Paddling pools are also a must for those that have been knocked down and no longer have use of their back legs. In fact one of those, Pablo, has just had wheels fitted instead and according to Liz, now “goes like the clappers”!
Back in Somerset, there are also many lovely stories of happily homed hounds - and the annual Fun Dog Show that Somerset and Dorset Animal Rescue organises every Summer, sees many of them come back with their families to support it...
But with the heartwarming, also comes the heartbreaking.
When we visited Wincanton we met a beautiful soul, Dolly, who had been rescued from a shelter in Egypt after being deliberately knocked down and left for dead. She was rescued by two amazing Somerset ladies, Alex and Claire, and Liz offered her shelter at the Rescue. Dolly had truly terrible injuries but with their help and public donations, she was able to learn to walk again - and eventually run, with the aid of some very clever boots.
Although Dolly recently passed away, she knew so much love and care in the last months of her life – care that she would never have experienced if it hadn’t been for brilliant Somerset people never giving up on her, and the thousands of other animals that just need a chance.
On November 24th, two more dogs are arriving at the Rescue to be given their chance of a new life - this time escaping a harsh Romanian Winter on the streets. Say hello to 9 month old Kiko...
and to 7 month old Bodhi...
And it's not just the amazing hounds who need help. The Rescue is always full with beautiful cats (in ‘Sam’s Stray Cat Rescue', the cattery which is run from the site) including these lovelies who are now safe and waiting for their forever families to find them:
There's also chickens, rabbits, pigs...
... and ponies, like Oreo, who Liz took in because he was going to be shot as he couldn't be ridden.
"The fact he can't be ridden didn't matter to me. He's my mate" Liz tells me... and each day brings a new arrival. Liz and Colin never really know what will come to them next!
Liz and Colin are helped by a small group of very dedicated volunteers too, who juggle their own full-time jobs to care for over 80 animals. The rescue is also a non-profit organisation and totally reliant on fundraising and public generosity - and of course, vets bills mount up. The fundraising helps to chip away at this and thankfully Liz and Colin have some very understanding local vets.
There are also no paid staff at all at the Rescue, because as Liz says:
“People are giving us money for the animals, not for staff. Every penny we get goes to them and they always come first”.
I’ve got to say, I’ve never really been one for having a ‘hero’... until I met Liz. She is seriously mine. A humble local lady who just calmly gets on with her purpose - giving a voice to animals who can’t speak up for themselves, and saving their lives.
She has two jobs in local supermarkets so she can keep on doing what she does, and she never stops working tirelessly to stop suffering. With Colin by her side, they’ve created an amazing safe place for animals in desperate need.
“We’re just ordinary people that care”
says Liz, but I see two extraordinary people that face cruelty head on - and do what they can to make all the difference in the world.
Somerset and Dorset Animal Rescue is having a Christmas Fayre at the rescue on Common Lane, Wincanton, BA9 9RB, this Sunday November 18th, from 2pm. Your doggies are welcome to bring you with them ;) and of course, proceeds go to help the animals.
You can also follow the Somerset and Dorset Animal Rescue on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and for any donations (whether financial, food or bedding), please do get in touch with the Rescue on 01963 32279, or via social media.
Check out their website too, if you would like to adopt an animal or want to volunteer to help out.