I wondered what they would think about a portly black cat from a nice home that had all the food, toys and love a domesticated feline could ever want. They would see my good fortune in my round tummy and silky fur as soon as I walked through the gate. But I had nothing to fear from Big Dog, Holly, Sable and Topaz, just some of the many dogs residing at the Rudozem Street Dog Rescue Centre in Bulgaria. These dogs get so excited when they see a new face because they know it means lots of love and attention, but life was very different for every one of these animals before they were rescued. This is not the place to go into details but the cruelty and neglect that these courageous canines have endured goes beyond my comprehension to the further reaches of the darkest souls. This is why it filled my purring heart with joy to see Dazzle and Kalahni swishing their tails with delight as they chased their battered plastic ball across the yard looking plump and fluffy.
I travelled through cities like Sofia and Plovdiv to get to my destination and watched the scenery morph from concrete jungles into the stunning landscapes that surround the shelter. Thick forests of bristle-coned pine trees in every shade of green looked 500 feet tall and mountains so high they were capped by snow and obscured by wispy clouds that floated across this part of the Rhodope Mountains in Southern Bulgaria near the Greek border. I walked along the stony edge of a lively river that surged past the shelter with Albert, Khaleesi and Big Dog and they all laughed at me when I meticulously shook and licked each paw dry after our trek. I helped bath Pippa, a cute long-haired red-head who had got in a mess and I cleaned Stanley the puppy’s wound so that he could heal and be introduced to some new playmates, like Boomer, Punch and Wills, a litter of puppies found wandering around in the road.
It’s not easy taking a traumatised animal with no reason to trust people and helping it grow into the loving and loyal hound it was always meant to be. But Rudozem Street Dog Rescue is a place of refuge for humans and animals alike, a place of hope and restoration, of dependability and determination. And I was proud and honoured to be a part of it. RSDR founders Tony and Diane Rowles, whose commitment to waifs and strays is beyond measure, looked after me so well and I know there are many unseen hero’s working tirelessly behind the scenes to support their cause. My thanks to the lads working in the shelter who looked like scallywags from the wrong side of the tracks but who would have stood up to an angry crowd if it meant protecting the welfare of the streets cats and dogs. They cleared up the poo and kept me fed and watered so all I had left to do was the fun stuff – play, walk, talk and rub noses with the fantastic beasts at the Rudozem Street Dog Rescue.
Tilgate Nature Centre in Crawley is a nature reserve for protected and endangered species and is home to over 100 different animals ranging from reindeer and ravens to frogs and pheasants. It’s surrounded by lakes and gardens and lots of woodland and bridleways, far too much for one cat and his two-legged friend to explore in one day. I don’t think John would have the stamina! So we concentrated on the nature park and the fluffy, spikey, feathered and scaly specimens to be found within it. The beauty of nature is that it comes in so many different shapes and sizes like the spiny-tailed iguana who sat watching me from his branch. His eyes set on each side of his head as opposed to mine that face the front so I could only see one of his eyes and it was fixed on me. I started to sway back and forth, shifting my weight from side to side then dipping down and popping up to try in order to throw him off but that eye seemed to rotate in every direction and never once lost its target! I concluded that lizards can stare out anyone and accepted defeat. In an attempt to help me get over my downfall in the ogling competition with that scaly scoundral, the keeper told me that we had more in common than I might think. For example, we both had four clawed feet and a long tail and we both use body language and postures to define territory and resolve disputes. That all sounds like hard work to me and I prefer to put my energies into ensuring my daily dietary, play and petting needs are met by using whatever unique moves I have at my disposal including my irresistible purr and signature tail flick.
The sow in the field was busy feeding her piglets and every time I counted them there seemed to be more. I had 9 at the last count and these weren’t the only babies to have arrived in recent times at the park. Four pups had been born in the meerkat enclosure and were proving very popular with visitors thanks to their squeaky and mischievous natures, running around pinching food from each other and chasing the grown-ups. I had to admire their vitality which reminded me of myself in my younger days! The Asian short-clawed otters had a similar care-free outlook on life and seemed to be endlessly having fun, scurrying across their logs and splashing around in the water. The other babies we saw were the pygmy goat kids running around their rock pile and butting heads as though practising for when they are big and deciding who will be the alpha. And judging by the romantic behaviour of the tortoises, we might see some cute tortoise babies being hatched over the next few weeks. I noticed the keepers had filled their bowls with extra figs, dandelions and sweet-peppers probably to give them the strength required to bring up a family.
Petrie the one-eyed magpie cannot be released back into the wild because she doesn’t have the all her survival skills in tact so she lives with two friendly owls and passes her time whistling to anyone who talks to her and playing with her pink ball. The keepers fill the pink feeder with worms, leaves or pieces of fruit for her to roll around until the treats come out and she hops off to one of her secret stashes to hide her hoard when she thinks no one is looking. As we headed past Cinnamon and Nutmeg the Shetland ponies I caught a whiff of cat and I followed the scent until I found Kenya, a serval originally from the African savanna and now considered vulnerable due to habitat loss and persecution. Kenya was so busy rubbing his cheeks around his enrichment area and searching for the mousey morsels left in his den by the keeper that it took a while for him to notice me. With his powerful gaze in my direction, I puffed out my chest and tail so he’d have some respect for his small domesticated cousin looking up at him. Then I realised we were not so different after all as he pottered around his enclosure and settled down in a sunny spot for a nap.
Bears and tortoises hibernate in the winter but they’re not the only ones. Shad the Cat has been lying dormant over the winter period although obviously not hibernating in the true sense of the word. Real hibernation involves a sleep so deep that body temperature and heart rate would decrease and I would not be required to eat or eliminate body waste – 2 things essential to my daily routine! Since I’ve been inactive over the last couple of cold wet months, what better way to celebrate the coming of Spring than with new life in the form of little lambs as they begin their journey from carefree folly to maturity and beyond.
Gaston Farm in Slindon opens to the public in April for lambing season and gives everyone a chance to get up close to the sheep and see the lambs being born. John and I arrived just after one ewe had given birth to two little babies who were nuzzling their mum while their wobbly legs held them up. She was in what I called the ‘birthing barn’ which was a warm dry outhouse containing all the pregnant mums and sectioned off areas for the sheep who were about to lamb so that they could have their offspring safely. The shepherd told me that ewes will normally lamb without any need for assistance but sadly a few don’t make it through the birthing process resulting in orphans. Most sheep have two lambs but some have three or one, so the orphans and any lambs from a group of three are fostered by ewes with only one in order to make sure all the lambs have a mum and to minimise the risk of some mums working too hard with three lambs while others have too much milk for just one. It was all very magical and inspiring until things got icky when the shepherd took the afterbirth that had been expelled and gave it to his dog, demonstrating why his nickname was the Grumpy Shepherd!
We took a tractor and trailer ride out to the fields where the sheep live on the South Downs. It was bumpy along those country lanes and every time John got the camera lined up for a great shot the tractor driver would pull forward causing John to bounce up and down so it was difficult to get the camera steady. The driver said that the sheep in the fields had been moved there away from close supervision in the barns as their lambs had got stronger. Each ewe was then painted with a coloured number to indicate how many lambs they had produced. A green 27 was the 27th sheep to have one lamb, a blue 15 was the 15th sheep to have 3 lambs and a red 1 was the very first sheep to have twins this season. We caught a glimpse of this special set of twins just before the tractor heaved the trailer back towards the farm. By the time I hopped off the trailer I had a skip in my step like the Spring lambs cavorting in the fields and was determined that I would take a moment every day to appreciate the daffodils and bumble bees and warm sun on my belly. Goodbye winter and hello new life. Time to stock up on anti-histamines and sun-cream ready for John’s usual summer of sneezing!
Spring is just around the corner and wedding season will soon be upon us. Here at Shadow Photography John and I have been busy meeting brides and grooms to discuss the big day. From bouquets and beloveds to showers and centrepieces, everyone has their own idea of what makes a wedding day special and as official photographers we need to understand what those ideas are so that we can take pictures that reflect the individuality of each event. I’m not the marrying type myself, but if I ever met the feline of my dreams, I’d get married in a pair of wellies at a donkey sanctuary with zero flowers, no fuss and lots of cake (no raisins) .
I am very proud of my fur coat. It’s glossy, black and silky soft to the touch. A cloak like that must have provided my ancestors with a great camouflage in the forests and John tells me I blend in quite nicely on a dark carpet which must be why I can stalk my mousey so well. But on the crispy white snow of Innsbruck I stood out like a sore thumb. With my jet black fur and John’s tomato red ski jacket we looked a right pair! Luckily most peoples’ attention was focussed on the sturdy metal bathtubs that kept sliding at full velocity down a sloped twisting ice chute. John said it was the 2017 World Cup Bobsled competition and the humans dressed in shiny Lycra cat suits with protective helmets were deliberately descending the ice chute to see who could do it the best.
Bobsleigh or bobsled (not sure what the difference is) involves teams of two or four people pushing the sled down a narrow, banked ice track before leaping into it just as gravity powers it along and they rocket down the track at around 120mph. This is a popular winter sport in Innsbruck which is known fondly as the Capital of the Alps. It’s the fourth largest city in Austria yet its small enough to get around on foot. The Olympic Winter Games in 1964 and 1976 were held here and it is a hub of snow-based activity including skiing, snowboarding, skating, mountaineering and snowshoeing. The bravest of all compete in the luge competition where one or two people lay face up on a skateboard literally inches from the hard ribbon of concrete beneath them and thunder down the track without even being able to see where they’re going.
Innsbruck is known for its imperial architecture with gothic attributes like the Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof) building, a landmark structure completed in 1500 and decorated with 2,738 fire-gilded copper tiles for Emperor Maximillian 1 who was King of the Romans from 1486. We also did a bit of celebrity spotting when we went out for dinner and saw some of the cast of reality TV show The Jump relaxing in an Austrian restaurant in the old town. One of them kept rubbing John’s hair which is admittedly extremely bouncy and curly and grows at an alarming rate. One time I heard tweeting coming from his head and a twig fell out! Anyway, I’m not sure if this is an Austrian tradition or simply a quirk of this particular eating establishment but as we got to the end of the meal, there was a commotion. Apparently one of the photographers on the trip, didn’t finish all her food and was punished with a smack on the bottom with a fish! Everyone roared with laughter but I thought it was a waste of a perfectly good sea bass!
With its dry stony yellow and black terrain, the southern end of the island of Tenerife looks like the planet Mustafar where Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi fought with Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode III. It marks a pivotal moment when a vulnerable boy corrupted by the evil influences of the Emperor turns on his beloved mentor and falls from grace. As they duel, light-sabers crackle and buzz with energy while the volcanic landscape around them erupts and scorching lava turns the planet’s crust into a most dangerous battle ground. Thankfully the only battle I had to face this trip was the one with the fridge door. Said fridge belongs to two of John’s friends who often invite us over to their apartment by the beach in Golf Sur during the holiday season. Much as I appreciate the invite, I do wish they would do something about securing feline friendly access to snacks and refreshments which includes having a fridge door that I can open with my paws. Luckily my rumbling purr and ‘come hither’ eyes have the desired effect and I am usually able to get my sticky mitts on something tasty and revitalising in between naps.
This year’s trip to Tenerife was more exciting than usual following reports in the media of the island’s volcano Mount Teide getting ready to explode after a series of mini-quakes in the autumn. Apparently seismologists recorded 98 micro-quakes sparking rumours that a mega-tsunami could hit the Atlantic Ocean if Mount Teide, the highest point on Spanish territory, decided to blow. It was later confirmed that the movements were due to low intensity tectonic shifts rather than up-swelling magma and my concerns about ending up like Obi-Wan, fighting for his life on a bit of hot floating rock, were put to rest. In fact, the mountain was very well behaved during our trip and looked especially beautiful draped in a white veil of snow. We drove up the mountain side and stopped at a viewing point for John to take pictures while I watched a funny-looking tan-brown sausage dog scurrying round and round a snowman that his family had made. He looked like a hyper-active Eewok (Star Wars fans will recognise this reference) but apparently it was his first time in snow so he had every right to be over-excited.
Its holiday season once more and the time has come for those humans who celebrate Christmas to do crazy things like buying Christmas puddings (yuk), hanging lots of dangley things (fun) and putting out food for a fictional character in a red jumpsuit (weird)! This time of year means different things to different people and for some its a religious festival, for others its a time for families, and for many its an ordinary day. For those of you who are happy at this time, I wish you every joy and keep smiling. For those who feel sadness or loss, know that you are not alone and the festivities will soon be over so you can resume normal life. For those who are working, caring for people or protecting them from harm, serving them food or keeping the streets clean, thank you for everything you do. From the animals I would say, please be kind to us during this time, don’t pay to watch wild animals do unnatural tricks and remember a kitten or puppy is for life, not just for Christmas. Give a few pennies to the old folks or the rescue centres full of unwanted cats and dogs waiting to be adopted and you will have done a wonderful thing.
As for the New Year, it’s traditionally a time of reflection and resolutions. Some of my favourite memories from this year are feeding the goats at the local farm shop, meeting the elephants rescued from servitude and playing with the red squirrels at a local wildlife sanctuary. Its often the simple things in life that make it worthwhile. Shad and John wish every single one of you a happy, safe and prosperous 2017.