Running an animal rescue and rehoming charity over the last four months has been a rollercoaster ride in a theme park called Uncertainty. How normal life now seems in January and February as we began implementing our strategic plans, oblivious to the juggernaut around the corner.
Coronavirus became a real threat in early March and our initial coronavirus guidance was based on the government’s ‘containment phase’ advice. Our centres and shops stayed open, with stricter guidelines, but we were already considering cancelling events planned for May, the projected peak of the infection.
By 18 March, things were changing rapidly, and further advice was issued by the government moving into the ‘delay’ phase.
The furlough scheme was announced on 20 March and that weekend, as the crisis was clearly escalating, we took the decision that we would close the shops and the centres. I spent Monday preparing guidance for our managers and employees, only to have to change it all that evening when lockdown was announced.
From the rehoming centre point of view, we wanted to ensure that we managed our animal numbers so we could still provide the right level of care if we ended up with a skeleton staff. The Tuesday after lockdown was announced saw us rehome unprecedented numbers of animals in one day, delivering them to the new owner’s homes to ensure they didn’t have to stay in rescue over lockdown.
The weeks that followed were a whirlwind of guidelines and webinars. The government’s 5pm briefings were regular viewing, trying to keep abreast of the changes and webinars, especially around furlough became staple viewing for me and my HR Manager.
Directing operations from home involved working 10-hour days in the first few weeks just trying to keep up. It reminded me of those plate spinning acts popular in the 60s or 70s, a tweak here and there just to keep them all spinning.
I did laugh at one stage as someone said to me ‘But I’ve never experienced anything like this before’. I may be old, but I certainly wasn’t around at the time of the Spanish Flu! Joking apart, I was very aware that as CEO I was expected to know all the answers, and to lead the charity through this minefield. Everyone reacted differently to the situation, some were blasé, others panicked, and everyone else was somewhere along that continuum.
As an animal welfare organisation, our animal care staff were designated as key workers. Trying to treat everyone fairly as an employer was incredibly challenging at times but I have to say every single one of our employees has been amazing. We took the view not to furlough any animal care employees at first, as the messages at the time were that huge numbers of us were going to be laid low with the virus or have to self-isolate and we couldn’t risk having no one to care for the animals when we run a seven day a week, 365 days a year operation.
We restricted our animal intake to emergencies only and our centres were soon in demand to help animals from households affected by coronavirus. Eleven-year-old cats Ella and Etta’s owner tragically passed away due to Covid-19 and with no family to care for them, we were called upon to taken them into our care (under very strict protocols). They struggled initially to cope with this sudden change to their lives but are now ready to find their new home.
Another casualty was a deaf three-month-old puppy whose owners could not get the support they needed to train him during the pandemic, so asked us to help. To save him being in kennels, Sully is being fostered by a member of the centre team and is coming on in leaps and bounds – literally!
We know that demand for our services is going to increase as life returns to some sort of normality.
As a charity we are completely reliant on donations from the public and my major concern was that many of our sources of income dried up overnight – fundraising events, pet boarding, rehoming and our three shops. Legacy income also took a downturn and charities were reporting an estimated loss of 48% of their income.
We took up the challenge of creating innovative online fundraising activity and have had particular success with virtual tours of the centres and live links to the antics of a litter of kittens born in lockdown.
Understandably over the last few months animal charities have not been part of the bigger conversation, where the focus has been on human care charities. However, the government’s continued refusal to provide any funding for animal rescue charities will have a serious impact on the lives of the animals that need our help if charities like NAWT are not able to survive.
No-one can predict the future at this stage, so the old adage applies: ‘the hard work puts you where the good luck can find you’.
One of the great things about the rescue and rehoming world is the collaborative and supportive links with fellow charities and it has been invaluable over the last few months to have the opportunity to use those networks to confidentially share experiences and ideas, as well as a few irreverent ‘you couldn’t make it up’ moments.
We are currently getting to grips with the government’s latest risk assessments and guidelines as we move into the next operational phase and we continue to keep a nervous eye on income and expenditure.
Life-changing events like this mean there is no normal to return to, and we are already planning what the new normal will be for NAWT. It’s oddly exciting and a bit scary, but good change always is.
For me it feels like I have been battered by a hurricane over the last few months, but the ship is thankfully still on course and I haven’t yet depleted my rations of wine and chocolate.
Clare Williams, chief executive, National Animal Welfare Trust