Some people move to France and enjoy the relaxed lifestyle. Others move to France and do something completely different. We talk to an amazing couple from England who thought they would retire and take life easy. Instead they set up a home for elderly dogs, an undertaking that has profoundly changed their lives and bought them immense joy, as well as heartbreak, along with a lot of hard work…
Leeanne a former GB athlete and coach and Mike Whitley, an English teacher, moved to St Paul la Roche in Dordogne in 2002. Leeanne explains that both had suffered from health issues and it really bought home to them that “life is precious and jolly short. Originally we decided to go to Greece for a few years and while there I volunteered at a vets practice”. But they were too far from family and friends and after visiting southwest France bought a barn that needed renovating in a small hamlet. “We thought that this would be the last bit of DIY that Mike would have to do” says Leeanne laughing.
With them went their beloved dogs Kizzy and Teg. When Kizzy died the couple searched the dog pounds and refuges in their area for a suitable companion for elderly Teg. Leeanne says “It became evident that if you were an old dog, life was not always so good, and your ending might be premature and without dignity”. They took in a few rescue dogs simply because they couldn’t bear to see them suffer when there was so much life left in them despite their age. Mike told Leeanne that he felt they had too much love not to share it – at that point they had seven older dogs in their home.
In the summer of 2009, Mike and Leeanne set up Twilight Dogs Home. Their goal was to offer places for elderly dogs that are lost, abandoned or bereaved of their owners. Leeanne says “We are not a formal refuge, just mere volunteers with the time, space and love to share our calm home with the dogs en famille”.
‘Mere volunteers’ does not come close to describing the work that Leanne and Mike do. They now have an incredible thirty five dogs. “Far too many” laughs Leeanne “but we had rehomed four and they all came back… We are just about managing, but this really is enough for us to be able to care for and keep just about sane”.
The dogs get through about 100 kilos of dry food a week, and “if we can afford it, a couple of large wet tins a day which helps the pills go down”. As you’d imagine, an older dog is likely to have more health issues and there is at least one visit a week to the vets.
Leeanne and Mike are unfailingly optimistic and their love and unstinting care for these elderly animals that no one else seems to bother about has won them a legion of fans and some much needed support. Many of their neighbours and friends help with grooming, fund raising, collecting dogs, managing their Facebook page and website, and the many tasks needed to keep this amazing voluntary operation running. One night a month “someone will come and sit with the dogs to give us a night off”. As she talks about the much valued help they get she says with an air of surprise “When I talk about it like this it seems like a mighty effort”. It is, the pair are on call 24 hours a day and never stop.
It’s the unadulterated love and compassion that they offer that make Leeanne and Mike so special. Just read the updates on their Facebook page to understand how very out of the ordinary this pair are, though they would never accept that.
Leeanne and Mike have many stories to tell about what keeps them going and determined to try to bring comfort to elderly dogs that are unwanted and unloved. Leeannes reminisces “Wolfy was a severe neglect case and on death’s door when he arrived. He was so weak. He lay in his bed, in his own mess. Justine, a beagle got into the bed with him to make him warm. We tried to clean him, feed him, let him feel the love and healing. It has always been our aim that a dog should die with dignity, and if they come in in this state, we have to try to help them regain their dignity before they pass over the bridge. We were only a couple of years into Twilight then, still on a mighty learning curve. Wolfy came round, despite the huge mouth tumour that was growing so quickly, he felt the love of humans and canines alike. He stole our hearts. On his 19th day he managed to walk around the garden, take in the sun. On his 21st day here, he died in my arms. We loved him so so much. He regained the light in his eyes, he had no pain at the end.”
But their work is not all about sadness, and Mike recalls for him what he feels to be the happiest of stories and epitomises Twilight. “Pearl was a Setter, again a neglect case. The vet would not treat her until we had had her for a fortnight, he said there was no point… she would die, too far gone. She couldn’t bear human contact, she was starved, she bled from almost all areas. I will not continue, I think you have the picture. Pearl grew to be our star, our light. She loved life, she flourished, she lived a further 2 and a half years”. Leanne cuts in and says “She was Mike’s other woman!” and it is clear that these two are completely in tune and totally committed to caring for their animals.
“Our life is the puddings now. We have to make moments just to chat sometimes about life outside of Twilight, think things like did we send my mum a card lately, that kind of thing” confesses Leeanne. She stresses that they are very happy and love their life and smiling she says “I will share a really sad story, our monthly half days out now are a joint trip to the rheumatologist – we might even stay at the hospital long enough for a cuppa!”
Leeanne and Mike always need help and when I ask them what people can do to help they say the most important thing for them is to make people comfortable with adopting an older dog.
They get through a ton of bedding and love to have donations of towels, throws, disinfectant. There is a donate button on their website and any cheques that are given to them are made out to their vet in anticipation of the bills that are unavoidable.
A tuly extraordinary pair of expats in France…