Johnny Reggae

Lost & Found In Battersea

31st January 2014

A new book on Battersea Dogs & Cats Home has some heart-warming tales while offering an insight into life at the oldest institution of its type in Britain.

Jack Watkins dips in.

If, like me, you found yourself flipping through the TV channels in the soporific state that traditionally overtakes a vast percentage of the population late afternoon on Christmas Day, you might have chanced upon a programme by the entertainer Paul O’Grady, called For The Love Of Dogs, about the inmates of Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. O’Grady’s warm and chatty manner was just right for the moment, and the subject was one he clearly identifies with (he is an ambassador for the charity), but he had plenty of competition in the charisma stakes, as a succession of mutts vied for his, and our, affection.

Buddy

The undoubted star was a three-legged Staffordshire Bull Terrier called Buddy, who had been taken in at Battersea after his owner had been made homeless. No-one quite knew what had happened to leg number four, but Buddy clearly wasn’t letting it hold him back, and he struck up such a rapport with O’Grady that there was even a clip of him making a scene-stealing guest appearance on his O’Grady’s chat show. Sadly, though, the programme ended on a down beat. Alone among the dogs featured, Buddy was the only one who, by the conclusion, had yet to find a new fosterer.

Every year, around 9,000 dogs and cats – lost, abandoned or neglected – are taken into care at Battersea. It’s the oldest institution of its kind in the UK, having celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2010. The policy is never to turn a dog or cat away until a new home can be found, if reunion with the original owner proves impossible. At this time of year, the old saying ‘a dog is for life, not just for Christmas’ resonates with even greater poignancy, and with much of the country still struggling to manage the domestic purse strings, the well-meaning, but ill-judged Yuletide present of a pet invariably leads to a rise in the ranks of the abandoned.

Apparently, if no owner comes forward to claim an animal within seven days, it becomes the property of Battersea and can be considered for rehoming. And there’s no time limit on their stay –it’s as long as it takes to resettle the animal. Many dogs are short of confidence or in poor health: the result of neglect, maltreatment or malnutrition. But, with luck, their rescue from the streets comes just in time. One of the most heartwarming perks of the job for staff at the Home is witnessing a nervous dog steadily regaining its appetite for life after weeks in their care, and departing, tail aloft this time, safe in the love of an appreciative new owner.

Yet it’s not necessarily one-way traffic. Anyone who has ever had a pet dog can vouch for the life-affirming qualities it can bring, and a new book, published by Michael Joseph, Lost & Found: True Tales of Love and Rescue not only gives an insight into the workings of Battersea, but also shows how these dogs, once rehomed, can transform their new owners’ lives.

If you’re a sentimentalist, you’ll definitely shed a tear reading the chapter on Harper, a lurcher who helped young Ben come to terms with a very rare skin disease. Harper was found wandering alone on a golf course, with the scars of dog bites still very visible on his legs, before being brought to Battersea. The memory of the bites had left him so traumatised that he’d start shaking with nerves and curl himself up into a tiny ball at the merest sight of another dog. But the bodily scars he carried mirrored those that Ben incurred from his own condition and they seem to have derived strength from each other’s company as they both embarked on the road back to health and fitness.

If there’s a little catch in your throat at the end of Ben and Harper’s story, it kind of goes with the territory, and it’s counteracted by much in the book that will make you laugh, too. And it’s clear that there is a lot of love on offer among the staff at Battersea. When prospective owners come to the Home looking for a dog they are allowed to visit the kennels. By and large, for obvious reasons, it’s younger dogs who get chosen first, but there can be advantages in a taking on a more confident and house trained older one – especially if you are a first-time dog owner.

Johnny Reggae, a Jack Russell-Terrier cross from Peckham, was such a one. Though he sounds like a swinger, he was all of 17 and certainly didn’t look like one in the skin, but his eventual adopter was seduced by the wording in his advert, explaining that he was ‘looking for someone to share his passion for good company and food in his twilight years’. When, after an endless series of rejections by prospective rehomers, he proudly marched – or should one say, hobbled – out the front door at Battersea on the end of a new lead, an announcement rang out over the tannoy: “Johnnie Reggae is leaving the building…”

It turns out that Johnnie Reggae was named after a 1971 song by ska band The Piglets, in which he was referred to as a ‘real tasty geezer’ and, reaching the age of 19, he went on to become something of a star on Battersea’s publicity material, including a calendar slot as Mr April.

In amongst the stories in Lost & Found, there are also little snippets of useful information for those considering taking on a dog. If you have a family, for instance, a terrier might be a good choice; they tend to be family-orientated and intelligent, while possessing a sense of fun. And not every dog at Battersea is necessarily ‘difficult’. Quite often they have ended up there after being well-loved by an owner who is simply no longer able to cope and has had to go into a care home, for example.

Meanwhile, here’s some good news to end with. Buddy, the three-legged Staffie and star of Paul O’Grady’s show, is reported to have found a new home at last, on the back of his Christmas TV exposure. Not only is it thumbs up for Buddy himself, but it’s a favourable piece of publicity for an often unfairly maligned breed.

See www.battersea.org.uk for more details about Battersea Dogs & Cats Home

Lost & Found: True Tales of Love and Rescue Penguin/Michael Joseph £6.99

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