Here at Wild at Heart Foundation, we’re no strangers to dogs with more unusual needs than most. Familiar as we are with the brutal conditions in which millions of strays the world over live in, it’s sadly ceased to be surprising for us when we hear of dogs who’ve suffered horrendous wounds at the hands of humans. Limbs lost in traps or car accidents. Ears cut off. Eyes shot or stabbed. Bodies peppered with air-rifle pellets. Noses gouged out.
It was this last kind of abhorrent abuse that led us to Peggy. In December 2018, just as Christmas fever was beginning to set in, we were contacted about a sorry tale that we just knew we had to help with. A puppy had been discovered in a field, abandoned in a box with her ears and tail slashed to ribbons, and – most disturbing of all – her entire nose gouged out. That this was the work of human hands was immediately obvious, though the reasons for committing such a horrendous act of mindless cruelty are, as always, near-impossible to fathom. What we did know was that this was a dog who would be overlooked by most, written off as “too damaged” and therefore not worthy of saving.
In spite of everything that had happened to her, Peggy remained a sweet, loving and happy dog. In January 2019, Peggy flew to the UK where she was treated at an expert facility, and found the perfect family to give her the love she so sorely deserved. With her amputated ears and tail, and her tailor-made nose, Peggy certainly is a one-of-a-kind dog. So it was a truly amazing moment when we learned that Peggy would be appearing on the first ever print cover of Wunderdog Magazine – talk about rags to riches! And thank goodness she did, because her story inspired the most remarkable chain of events…
Months after the magazine was first published, a copy found its way to Russia where it was read by Ksenia. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing! For just weeks before, Ksenia had come across a puppy whose nose, tail and ears had been cut off. Worried he wouldn’t be able to live a normal life, Mitya had visited a number of vets and even had surgery to insert false nostrils attempted; but to no success. So when she saw Peggy’s photo she knew that Wild at Heart Foundation would be able to help!
And Mitya was not alone. After reading Peggy’s success story, Wild at Heart Foundation superhero Kasey (Maggie‘s owner) began to see more stories of dogs who’d suffered similar injuries. She’d come across Millie, an innocent soul who’d suffered horrific injuries to the face. Millie was shot at close range, just like Maggie, and when Kasey saw her adorable face she knew she’d have to help.
Of course, we were only too happy to lend our support and embark upon what has now become our first rescue mission of a new decade!
And so we learned the stories of these two remarkable dogs:
This November, our team returned to Puerto Rico once again to commence our sixth high-volume sterilisation clinic to date. Sterilising over 3,000 animals in just six days was an incredible achievement, and we’re so proud as always to play a role in what has now become such a vast and record-breaking operation – we’ve come a long way from those early days when we first established a makeshift clinic, that’s for sure!
But it’s not a Wild at Heart project trip unless we’re rolling up our sleeves and getting to know the locals! And when we came across a family of “community dogs” living in our neighbourhood, and met the people who are caring for them, we knew we had to help. Community dogs is the term given to stray dogs who live on a particular patch / area. They’re known (and often well-loved!) by locals, and are usually fed by residents and business owners in the area.
Compared to the vast majority of dogs around the world who suffer a life of cruelty and starvation on the streets, we must remind ourselves of the relative good fortune of community dogs. Whilst we may wish to see them all tucked up in a warm bed under a safe roof, it’s thanks to the kindness and generosity of the people they cohabit with in their neighbourhood that they’re able to survive and experience a level of human kindness and love that is sadly a luxury on the streets.
Take the man in the neighbourhood we stayed in who looks out for a family of loveable overgrown pups; they’ve been relying on his generosity since they were tiny. Now over a year old, they’re well-fed, playful, and enjoying a quality of life on the street that few are lucky enough to know. That’s thanks to his compassion.
To help support these local efforts, we wanted to provide a service that they would otherwise be unable to offer these community dogs: we took the opportunity to sterilise and vaccinate them, ensuring that no more puppies are born into the pack (which means fewer mouths to feed!) and giving the dogs they’ve grown to love a better chance at living a happy, healthy life.
Waking up before dawn a few days into the clinic in order to allow time to catch the dogs without causing them undue stress, we headed down to the area where they sleep. Their community have helped show them that humans can be trusted so they came trotting up to greet us with wagging tails, and – after a few minutes of tentative caution – were more than happy to be stroked and fussed.
The best way to a dog’s heart is through it’s stomach, so we spent time feeding them a tasty breakfast before easing them into slip leads – easier said than done! Whilst they’re not fearful of basic human interaction, these dogs have grown up on the streets, alert to danger. As soon as they feel an alien sensation round their neck, most stray dogs inevitably start to panic, so we were sure to remain calm, soothing and relaxed, allowing them plenty of time to read the situation and eventually trust us enough to coax them into the car.
From here, we were able to take them to be treated on the island – something that we’re only able to do thanks to the generosity of our donors who support funding efforts to care for strays both in and out of our clinic. Once they’d been operated on, vaccinated, and treated against fleas, ticks and worms, they were ready to go home.
It’s always a good feeling to give a street dog the kind of treatment usually only reserved for owned dogs, but one of the most heart warming part of the experience was taking them back to their “patch”, and seeing their excitement as they realised they were home. Still a little groggy from their surgery, they perked up as soon as they realised where they were and it was wagging tails and happy dances all round!
You can read more about “Trap, Neuter, Release” method of sterilisation here.
We’ve visited the family every day since to donate food (and get our daily dose of cuddles!) and we were delighted to meet with the man who showed them how to trust. As a business owner on the backstreet where they’ve settled, he sees them every day and takes a vested interest in their health and their future. We were honoured to be able to give something small back to this community patch, but the survival of dogs like these is thanks to the day-to-day kindness of strangers.
There are hundreds of people here in Puerto Rico who give freely, even when they may not have a lot themselves, to help the strays in their area. From caring individuals to organisations large and small, this island of dog-lovers need our help. Not because they don’t have the will. Not because they don’t have the knowledge. But simply because they have been dealt a problem too great to manage alone.
Wild at Heart Foundation believe whole-heartedly in collaboration, and supporting local efforts wherever and however we can. We’re proud to be working alongside our incredible operations partners in Puerto Rico (Vidas, The Puerto Rico Dog Fund, and Humane Society US) to offer a free service that would otherwise be unavailable to local dog owners. We’re humbled to be a part of a huge movement towards lasting change. But most of all, we’re in awe of the people who share their knowledge and allow us to support their incredible rescue efforts.
We cannot help local rescue efforts without public funding – it is only thanks to your donations that we have been able to find homes for hundreds of Puerto Rican strays to date. Your generosity will allow us to support the dog-loving community here still further; please, give what you can.
In 2019, the Wild at Heart Foundation adoption team were delighted to pay another visit to one of our very first partner shelter, the incredible venture set up by an individual rescuer on the island of Lesvos. This is one of our longest standing and best loved overseas shelter partnerships. Meghan shares an insight into the visit.
We began working with in Vassilia and her shelter in 2015 to help control the ever-increasing street dog population and we are pleased to have successfully rehomed 86 dogs to date, with the number growing rapidly!
On this latest occasion, Olivia and Meghan were fortunate enough to visit Vassilia’s shelter in Lesvos. Not only was it incredible to meet the gorgeous pups we had heard so much about and were working hard to find homes for, but it was a wonderful opportunity to catch up with Vassilia who solely runs the shelter day in day out, all year round.
Vassilia pours her heart, soul and every day of her life into caring and rehabilitating dogs, ensuring that these dogs experience the love and safety they truly deserve. Her doors are always open, and the dogs are given the chance to play and socialise in a far more stress-free environment than public and overcrowded shelters. Vassilia is the reason that so many dogs in Lesvos have a second chance at life.
We were first greeted by the adorable quad of pups termed the little women; Amy, Beth, Jojo and Meg, along with Xena and Lola. Soon after we returned from this trip to Lesvos, every single one of these dogs was swiftly adopted as we had so many amazing things to report about them! In another area of the shelter we met Silke, Velvet, Nero, Pimento, Pepper and Darcy who have also now been adopted into loving homes.
Sadly, Lizzie and Mormo are two of the longest residents of the shelters:
Lizzie was rescued along with her litter of puppies nearly two years ago now. All of Lizzie’s puppies have been adopted and she has been a surrogate mother to many other litters, including my own dog, Caramel, and her siblings. She has seen many a dog be rescued and rehomed yet Lizzie still longs for her own quiet home, free of puppy duties, where she will be spoiled and loved just like all the other dogs that have left the shelter before her.
Mormo was saved from near death after being found roaming a village in Lesvos and being accused of harassing the locals. Mormo is a very excitable and intelligent dog, she loves performing tricks and catching treats, chasing after her ball and being fussed over.
After many well used years, we witnessed first-hand the state of disrepair Vassilia’s shelter now finds itself in. In order to continue providing safe refuge for these dogs, the shelter desperately needs rebuilding to allow for more enclosures so that Vassilia can rescue more dogs, as well as build a new, sterile quarantine area to help prevent the spread of disease that sadly many puppies are subject to before receiving their vaccinations, something that struck the island extremely hard last year.
Once the inevitable belly rubbing and face licking from the shelter dog’s was done, Olivia and myself got stuck in helping Vassilia with the daily tasks and soon realised how difficult the extent of the operation was to run the shelter as an individual and in the current state the shelter was in.
Vassilia continues to work tirelessly for the sake of providing a better life for her dogs. Her house is taken over by puppies to ensure they aren’t at risk of catching anything before being vaccinated. For most people this would be the dream but when you can’t take a day away from the shelter, this is a lot to cope with.
Vassilia relies on a small and close group of foster carers around the island in order to keep saving as many dogs as possible. Along with the feeding, cleaning and running various medical trips daily, she also attempts to improve the shelter through minor repair works where she can. But this is not enough.
Wild at Heart Foundation are proud to now be supporting the rebuild of the Lesvos shelter along with the kind donations and help from Matthew Lauder, another resident and keen supporter of the Foundation who lives on the island of Lesvos, and his wonderful event ‘Reigning Cats and Dogs’.
Matthew approached the Foundation about holding an art exhibition to help raise funds for a rebuild. Many years ago, Matthew found his dog, Nellie, in a desperate state, abandoned and chained to a tree, living in her own excrement. Matthew called every shelter around the island for help but it wasn’t until he found Vassilia and she immediately offered to help.
We have a lot to thank Matthew for; his ties to the island and finding Vassilia meant that we were able to forge an amazing and successful relationship, consistently helping save hundreds of dogs from a life of misery. We look forward to the future of this relationship and helping visit and rebuild the shelter within the coming months!
Back in 2017, Wild at Heart Foundation visited Puerto Rico with one clear goal in mind: to combat the rising numbers of dogs born onto the streets. With over 500,000 strays estimated to be living on the island, this is no small mission, especially when you consider that just one litter of strays born today will result in an average of 67,000 more unwanted dogs born over the course of just six years.
Having witnessed the problem ourselves, it became clear that the only way to make any kind of lasting impact was via high volume sterilisation. In March 2018 we joined forces with with ViDAS to hold our first mass-sterilisation programme on the island. In spite of terrible conditions, very little local marketing opportunities, and even rolling power cuts, we successfully sterilised over 1,000 animals in just six days! Furthermore, offering free sterilisation and vaccination services have served to help the people of Puerto Rico keep their pets safe and prevent unwanted litters.
Fast-forward a few years, and we’re proud of the work we’re achieving in Puerto Rico. Having attracted large-scale funding and operational support from HSUS, we’re now able to combine forces to run tri-annual clinics across the island, as well as supporting a number of smaller local clinics throughout the year. The scale and atmosphere of these clinics is often hard to convey; with thousands of dogs and their owners passing through a stadium-turned-surgery each day, the energy and activity we experience is utterly incomparable.
So let us invite you behind the scenes of our Spayathon clinics to share a day in the life of Wild at Heart Foundation in Puerto Rico…
The wait begins!
At every clinic, the line begins to form long before dawn, testament to the dedication of thousands of locals who are committed to playing their part in controlling the island’s escalating stray dog problem in a humane and responsible way. Despite queueing for hours, we’re always incredibly grateful to see people embracing the opportunity with such patience and appreciation, and it’s an honour to support communities in this way.
Step One: Registration
From pets and “community dogs” (the local term for dogs that take up permanent residence in a neighbourhood), to strays and street dogs, every animal who passes through the clinic begins with registration. Starting from 6am, over 500 animals each day are weighed, tagged and registered.
Step Two: Pre-Medical
Once registered, dogs wait to receive their pre-medical check up. Here, a qualified vet gives a thorough examination to ensure each animal is healthy and fit for surgery, before preparing them for sedation. At this point, owners or human chaperones hand over their dog to the surgical team.
Step Three: Surgery
A team of around 20 highly-skilled surgeons specialising in high-volume sterilisation use specially-designed, sterile mobile equipment to spay or neuter each dog that arrives on their table. Each operation is remarkably swift, with a surgeon averaging some 25 animals a day!
Step Four: Recovery
Next, the dog is transported to Recovery where Nikki and her team of volunteers monitor their progress as they come round from anaesthetic. Vaccinations, including rabies jabs, are administered, and all dogs are treated against worms, ticks, fleas and lice. They also can expect to have their nails clipped and ears cleaned.
Ready for home!
Once the dog has made a full recovery and has been cuddled back to a stable state, owners and chaperones leave with detailed aftercare information & support. We are so grateful to the thousands of people who attend our clinics, all of whom play an active role in compassionately managing the problem on their doorsteps.
We are incredibly proud of the work we achieve during the short but intense period of the Spayathon clinic; but our work does not end there. Whilst mass-sterilisation is the most effective and compassionate means of tackling the stray problem on the island, it’s too late to save the lives of those who have already been born, dumped and neglected.
Wild at Heart Foundation believe in dog; in every single dog who needs us. We cannot turn a blind eye to the instances of extreme neglect, abuse and sickness that we witness whilst on the island. That’s why we’re committed to providing urgent care to dogs like Legend and Bella, funding their medical treatment and ensuring they are nursed back to health.
Shelters across Puerto Rico are full to bursting; due to extreme overcrowding they are forced to operate a 99% kill rate, with dogs being euthanised within 48 hours of arrival. We are passionate about building a network of local fosters for the dogs we rescue, as well as a longer-term campaign to build a humane, safe and spacious shelter on the island.
Giving a stray dog a second chance at happiness is one of the most rewarding aspects of everything we do at Wild at Heart Foundation, and Puerto Rico is no exception. Thanks to our foster network on the island and links with humane shelters in the US, we have funded and facilitated the adoption of hundreds of rescued dogs and puppies.
We refuse to ignore the suffering of even a single dog on the island, but we need your help to give them the treatment, care and love that they so desperately need. It takes a team of vets, experts and volunteers to keep our Spayathon clinics running. But it takes the support of thousands to make it possible.
We are reliant on the generosity of our donors to keep our clinics running. Whether you can spare £1, £10 or £100, we’re so grateful for whatever you’re able to donate.
Please, give what you can.
“It is always with a huge mix of emotions that I return to Puerto Rico: heartbreak in the face of so many animals’ suffering; a level of trepidation at the scale of the problem; joy to be reunited with the amazing community of volunteers, fosters and animal lovers on the island who give me hope for the future; and, determination to keep fighting, to make a difference.
It may be the dogs that keeps me coming back to the island.. but its the support of our donors and followers that keeps me going once I’m there. Our team works tirelessly … 18 hour days, gruelling physical work, gut-wrenching reminders of the effect that poverty, miseducation and neglect has on the island’s canine population … but your compassion is our fuel!
I am so so very grateful to everyone who engages in an issue that is taking place so far from most of our homes .. if you would consider donating what you can, your contribution will play an active role in stopping the escalating stray problem in its tracks..
Slowly but surely, we are making a difference.
From the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of the dogs of Puerto Rico, thank you.”
Nikki Tibbles, Wild at Heart Foundation Founder
We understand there is some confusion amongst our supporters about the relationship between Wild at Heart Foundation and The Underdog International, a charity established by former trustee, Nadine Kayser and assisted by our former Rehoming Manager, Eve Moore.
There are many wonderful charities in the UK and worldwide promoting similar causes to those promoted by Wild at Heart Foundation; we have always championed collaboration where appropriate, and support all those organisations that share our values. However, in the interest of total clarity, we must specify that we are an independent charity, and are not associated with Underdog International or any of its employees.
We are incredibly proud of what Wild at Heart Foundation have achieved over the years. We are powered by a truly committed and hard-working team, and we know that incredible things lie ahead. It’s thanks to our supporters that we have rehomed and sterilised tens of thousands of dogs, and educated tens of thousands of children. We have implemented truly life-changing projects around the world, with many more on the horizon; we can’t wait to share our achievements with you as we grow.
We really do appreciate the continued support of our amazing community, who we look upon as an incredible and eclectic extended family! We know you have a choice – whether it’s the decision to adopt a dog or pledge a donation – and we’re grateful that you’ve chosen to be part of the Wild at Heart Foundation pack.
Nikki, and the team
Wild at Heart Foundation is both brain-child, passion project and raison d’etre for Nikki Tibbles. In just a few short years, this woman has transformed her personal passion into something that has now become a professional, meaningful, and truly life-changing venture. The charity’s work now stretches across all four corners of the globe, with thousands of rescue dogs adopted into loving, happy homes, tens of thousands more sterilised (preventing the unwanted birth of literally millions of puppies), and resource, educational and financial support provided to many local communities and projects around the world to help them solve the mounting stray dog problems in their area.
There’s not many people who could launch such a dynamic project, all whilst running an award-winning, world-renowned floristry business at the same time. But for those of you that have met Nikki and have seen her passion, drive and unstoppable determination to make the world a better place, then it’ll come as no surprise to learn just how much she has poured her heart and soul into making Wild at Heart Foundation a success.
Barry Karacostas (aka The Dog Jogger) took the time to chat with Nikki about the early days of the Foundation, and what inspired her to make it the charity it is today:
“The iconic florist and my good friend Nikki Tibbles chats to me about her rescue dog charity Wild at Heart Foundation. Nikki is a formidable force to be reckoned with in the animal welfare community and I am super excited to share her story.”
How did Wild at Heart Foundation begin?
I had already been helping a shelter in Southern Spain rehoming their dogs to my friends and family and recently started working with an amazing girl called Anca in Romania, rehoming her dogs that she had found outside. Anca had found a litter of puppies that were abandoned and I was looking to rehome them.
I’d spent years rescuing dogs from overseas on a personal level, often bringing dogs back with me after trips to Europe and finding them the perfect homes amongst friends and clients, and I wanted to find a way to turn this passion into something more permanent, something wider reaching. Wild at Heart Foundation had been a seed growing in my mind for many many years – in 2015, it was wonderful to finally see it blossom into the charity I had always dreamed of.
Most charities are driven by a clear sense of vision – what is Wild at Heart Foundations vision?
From the start, I knew that I didn’t want to have a charity that was just another woman trying to rescue and rehome a few dogs and do a bit of good. It’s a much bigger vision, it’s global. There are around 600 million stray dogs in this world and that is a very estimated figure. Ideally what we would like to do is raise awareness of this and to stop the mass inhumane culling of stray dogs all over the world and to stop these unwanted dogs ever being born. Therefore, the biggest vision of the Foundation is global spaying/neutering clinics and education, and education that comes from within like our project with Animals Asia in Hong Kong and China. If we can educate children to be kind and compassionate and know how to treat animals, then that stems us for good stead for the future.
I’m sure you have lots of success stories to share, but which one stands out the most for you?
There are so many! But one that stands out is about a good friend of ours called Lily who adopted Jeffrey into her family of two young children. They have since gone on to adopt another dog through the Foundation, the gorgeous Dolly, they pretty much look identical. Both are spotty, very fluffy Poodle type breeds that after being rescued from Cyprus have fitted in so well. The children are very much involved, they walk them to school, read to them and have even started writing stories about them. It’s just so wonderful how much joy they can bring to our lives and change them for the better.
Teddy before and after
What are your plans and hopes for the future?
The Foundation has grand plans in the making, and our hopes for the future include something permanent in Puerto Rico, we are looking at either building a shelter or working with an existing shelter. Continuous spay and neutering clinics and also a mobile spaying and neutering van. We also want to raise significant amounts of money and raise awareness, it’s been incredible this year, with the Adopt Don’t Shop campaign with articles in The Mail on Sunday’s You Magazine, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Woman and Home.
We have lots of plans for the future and look to expand our projects all over the world. We are now working in Hong Kong, China, South Africa, Swaziland, Romania, Cyprus, Bosnia, Greece, Lesvos, Puerto Rico and Borneo.
Nikki leading the Recovery Team at Wild at Heart Foundation’s sterilisation clinic, Puerto Rico
Many charities closely associated, collaborate well together. Do you find this happens with animal rescue charities or could more be done in working together for the greater good of animals?
I think animal charities could certainly learn from working together for the greater good of animals. Charities, like Battersea Dogs and Cats home, which is such a well-known brand and have such a powerful voice, could use that for the plight of a dog worldwide and to encourage to spay, neuter and adopt. I would love to see a lot more collaborations between the larger charities and the smaller ones, to help them grow and achieve their goals.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have met some of the amazing four legged characters you have personally adopted.I know since then there have been a few more additions to your pack – how did they steal your heart.
Oh my God! I have my six gorgeous dogs who I love more than anything in the world.
The two most recent are, my little Rita. At 10 days old she was dumped on a highway in Puerto Rico and was handed to me on the day I arrived there, and she literally slept round my neck for 10 days while I was there, so of course I had to bring her home. The second newest addition is Ruby who looks very much like my two Ridgeback crosses from Battersea, Reuben and Mazie who are unfortunately no longer with us. She was in a cage so small that she couldn’t even stand up in, all the way at the back of the shelter and she had also been deemed not rehomable. I put my hand on her cage and she put her paw on my hand, so she was taken out of the cage and obviously had to come home with me. Of course I have to mention my Big Len who was thrown down a well at six months old, Tia who was caught in a trap and had to gnaw her own tail off, little Ronnie (or should I say big Ronnie!), and last but not least Smith who was locked in a cage for three years with a broken jaw.
Essentially, I tend to take dogs that no one else wants, I don’t really care what they are, what they look like or how badly behaved they might be. I believe that with love, time, patience, security and routine they will always be incredible in their own way.
Anyone having met you would agree your energy and tenacity in helping as many unfortunate dogs that populate our world is unprecedented. We have chatted about the importance of educating the younger generation and what a difference it could make for the future. Can you share any of the educational projects that Wild At Heart Foundation is working on?
Education obviously is key for all areas of our world. It’s about the way we eat, the way we live, the way we waste. The state of our world for me is just not sustainable in any shape or form and the only way to make a difference, in all areas and long term, is through education. We need to educate children to be kind and compassionate, to be aware of what has happened to that animal to get a piece of meat on our plate. To not be wasteful to be respectful.
If people are educated they have a choice of how to behave. But without education, how can they be mindful to the decisions they are making? If they don’t know that a pig has been kept in the most horrific circumstances or a dog tortured to within an inch of its life before being killed for food in China, then change will not happen. I think we should all be armed with knowledge so that we can then decide how to act, so that means working with the younger generation who can really help change this world.
Finally, what advice would you give someone who is looking to adopt a dog?
Saving a life has to be one of the most incredible things we can do. When we say we are adopting a rescue dog, we are saving that dog’s life and that dog saves our life too. I think we need to work hard to make people aware that adopted dogs are not damaged, this is what most people feel, but they are not. They are the most extraordinary creatures.
Also, with that, is something that I know you, Barry, are strongly working on: people should make sure they are buying a dog that suites their life style and family and that is really important. Also making people aware that one in three dogs purchased are coming from puppy mills, which is another big story we are trying to get out there.
If you are going to buy then make sure you do so responsibly, meet the dog’s parents, see where it has been born and brought up and see the litter. It is so important you do your research to make sure that breed of dog is right for you and you have the time and experience needed to take care of that dog. So many dogs, especially after Christmas, are gifted or abandoned at the gates of the RSPCA or Battersea purely because it has been an impulse buy of a designer breed. But for me saving a life is the most important thing we can do.
– interview by Barry Karacostas, The Dog Jogger