FEATURE: A day in the life of an animal rescue officer

Fox cub
Fox cub

ON the face of it Richard Thompson could be mistaken for Hastings’s answer to Steve Irwin or New Zealand’s Lion Man.

Decked out in khakis and a polo shirt and with a tinkerish, eccentric glint in his eye, it does not take much to imagine the wildlife officer jumping into a pool to wrestle a croc or playing rough and tumble with a tiger.

Staff at Mallydams RSPCA Wildlife Centre, Hastings. Claire Thomas, Nikki Lambert, Joanna Pirker, Richard Thompson

Staff at Mallydams RSPCA Wildlife Centre, Hastings. Claire Thomas, Nikki Lambert, Joanna Pirker, Richard Thompson

However, seeing him ankle-deep in bird poo feeding pungent dead fish to a marauding gang of baby herring gulls it is fair to say life as an animal rescuer is not always as glamorous as it can seem on the small screen.

“We have to clean out this room two or three times a day,” he laments. “Because there are so many gulls in here (he estimates more than 50) there is a lot of mess.

“You clean them out, feed them, and then have to clean them out again.”

A bit like the never-ending maintenance work on the Eiffel Tower or Sidney Harbour Bridge then? “You could say that,” laughs the animal expert - broom in hand, sweeping large swathes of what can only be described as liquid filth down a nearby drain. Just one of a near book-sized list of jobs which have to be done each day at Mallydams.

A nestling Barn Owl

A nestling Barn Owl

The 55-acre site in Fairlight was given to the RSPCA by local art teacher and animal-lover Horace Quick and today houses not just a wildlife rescue building, but an education centre, outside aviaries, pools for injured seals and a woodland conservation area.

Staff have worked closely with local schools to try and teach youngsters to respect the natural environment and regularly invites wildlife spotters into the grounds, which include a badger observation post deep in the forest.

Now though, according to its manager Bel Deering, Mallydams has shifted its focus to helping young people who may not normally benefit from such opportunities - and that includes young offenders and others on the fringes of society or struggling to find work.

“We are trying to concentrate on the more disadvantaged people,” she explained, “we have to prioritise where we can achieve the best results for young people.

“These days teenagers have so much stress so sometimes it is nice to go somewhere different and relax.”

And the approach seems to be working. One of the employees who works with disaffected and often troubled teens said she noticed a change in almost all the youngsters who visit Mallydams - with the emphasis very much on leaving your troubles, or offending record at the gate.

And Bel added: “It is great to see young people grow in confidence and develop new skills.”

The centre also hosts parent and toddler sessions for young mums and dads and is currently building a storytelling arena in the woods which already resembles something out of a fairy tale.

A bumper £245,938 Lottery grant is being earmarked for more education work and staff are also trying to raise £50,000 to pay for extra members of staff through the busy summer months.

But, however impressive the educational side of Mallydams is - and it certainly is - most people, including myself, only know it through its work rehabilitating animals.

And this reporter wants to see a seal. Or at least some birds.

Enter Richard Thompson - or to use his rather grandiose title, rehabilitation officer.

He says he has worked at the centre for ‘15 years - not quite man and boy’, but it is clear to see that despite being older than his colleagues, he still has a child-like enthusiasm for the job - something I imagine is vital when faced with the mountains of mess and less than enviable task of food preparation, which includes cutting the feet and heads of dead chicks to give to foxes and birds of prey. To say I struggled to suppress my gag reflex is putting it mildly.

But it isn’t all mucking out and drudgery. Over the years, explains Richard, he has seen some rather rare visitors alongside the plethora of gulls and pigeons. “We once had a racoon,” he says, “and another time we found an iguana in a skip at Pebsham tip.

“We also get a fair number of snakes, a poisonous spider and ten chinchillas which someone had dumped in nearby woods.” Mallydams, you see, does not just take animals from Hastings. Oh no. Its catchment area spreads as far as the capital. In fact, on Richard’s guided tour we see a peregrine falcon from London and no end of injured birds from Kent - all here in 1066 Country to receive expert care.

Many will leave for the wild once they are fit enough but, as Richard explains, the release rate is actually lower than one might expert - albeit for good reason.

“We have nearly 3,000 animals come to Mallydams each year,” he says, “and we manage to release around 40 per cent of them.

“However, a lot of animals are only brought to us when they are in a very bad way so some are beyond help and have to be put down. If an animal survives the first 24 hours the release rate goes up to 80 per cent. We are here to make sure animals do not suffer and that can mean helping them get better, or, sadly, putting them to sleep.”

Of those who are released, around 20 per cent are mammals, of which hedgehogs make up a large proportion. The rest are birds, either chicks who cannot fend for themselves or older birds nursing broken wings or, like one particularly poorly gull on site, illnesseses like botulism.

Veterinary nurse Nikki Lambert is one of the team which has to assess incoming animals and guide their treatment.

She has been working at the centre for four years, having moved to Hastings from Seaford to do so, and says she wouldn’t swap life at Mallydams for the world - even if she does sometimes face the heart-wrenching decision on whether to treat an animal or not.

“It can be hard,” she admits. “I have to assess whether animals need treatment and if they are suitable for releases and that can involve difficult decisions but we do all we can to give the injured animals a second chance.”

And, of course, for every bird or mammal which cannot be saved, there are many who are.

“It is a very rewarding job,” says Nikkie. “We had a common seal pup which had a bite on its front flipper and broken bones. We amputated part of the flipper and helped build it up and then released it back into the wild. That was really rewarding.”

Ah yes, the seals. Sadly for me (although thankfully for the local seal population) there are no seals currently on site. Richard says Mallydams treated and released around 16 seals last year and expects a rush in the coming weeks.

I am however, shown an array of owls, birds of prey (including four baby kestrels) a baby heron and what seems like thousands of gulls.

Claire Thomas, another wildlife officer, reveals a particularly fiesty bird, an oyster catcher, is set to be released later that day at Pett Level and there are plans afoot to return the peregrine falcon to a plot in London in the coming weeks.

And the hard work does not stop when the animals are shown the door. Richard explained: “Our birds are tagged and we have a lot of monitoring programmes - including one we are doing radio tracking of hedgehogs.

“It is important we do this so we can see if what we are doing at the centre is working.

“If the animals we release are doing well, we are obviously doing something right. If not, then we look at what we could do differently.” Quite clearly, there is more to Mallydams than initially meets the eye. “I do not think people realise quite what we have to go through to help release animals,” says Nikki.

“It is not as simple as someone dropping off a bird and a week later we let it go.

“Most people do not realise the effort we go to.” But is it worth it? “Of course,” says Nikki. “Coming to work here is a pleasure every single day rather than a chore.”

Even if that does involve cutting up dead chicks and preparing frozen rabbits? “Yes,” smiles Claire. “They have already been killed by farmers so really we are just recycling them.

“The first few times it is not nice, but you get used to it.”