An animal sanctuary’s struggle to stay afloat in flood waters

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Lizzie's Sanctuary in the flood

Fionna Ashman runs Lizzie’s Barn Sanctuary, in Carmarthenshire, Wales, where about 40 rescue dogs have found refuge. Looking after so many dogs is not easy – and flood water has made things worse, forcing Fionna and a dog with cancer to reach the vet by boat…

When Doris, one of the dogs living at Lizzie’s Barn Sanctuary, became poorly last November, Fionna Ashman was concerned. While most of the dogs at Lizzie’s Barn Sanctuary remain there for their entire lives, Doris – a large, friendly five-year-old – seemed a likely candidate for rehoming.

Fionna was to start looking for a home for Doris in Spring 2023, but that plan had to be put on hold when the diagnosis came back: Doris had an aggressive lymphoma, a type of cancer which starts in the body’s lymphatic system. As can be the case with dogs, the lymphoma first presented itself with bilateral uveitis, which permanently damaged Doris’ sight. This made her adoption far less likely, but the most immediate concern for Fionna was getting her the care she needed.

“She was not giving up, so we wouldn’t either,” she says. “We made appointments to start her chemotherapy as soon as possible.”

Doris

All dog lovers would do anything to get the right care to a sick, beloved pet, no matter what. ‘Come Hell or high water’, we often say – but for Fionna it is more than just an expression. High water is a common occurrence at the Sanctuary, and with all roads and fields around it flooded, getting any dogs to the vet posed a challenge.

Fionna recalls, “When we moved here, in 1999, we were told that there could be some flooding – and it was true, but back then there were only about five or six floods a year, with water going down within a few hours. Now the situation is much, much worse, and we have been flooded thirty times already since the end of October.

“It has been progressively getting worse over the past seven years: more floods, more severe, and lasting longer. A bridge holds back the water to keep it from flooding the nearby area, but as a result, it all stays here. And it’s not clean water either, due to sewage being discharged nearby and all the properties’ cesspits overflowing regularly. I do understand you cannot protect everybody, but if some are going to be sacrificed for the sake of a majority, there should be at least some compensation to protect them –  we had nothing.”

Surrounded by high water, Fionna remained determined to take Doris to all her vet appointments – and the only way to do so was by boat

“We are in a situation where heavy rain almost guarantees a flood. It means we cannot get a vehicle out, and we cannot afford to buy something like a Range Rover or anything more suitable for the conditions, which would help a lot of the time. The council and Natural Resources Wales are doing absolutely nothing. They say they are not responsible to protect us from any damage. A neighbour was told quite clearly that the properties on this road are ‘not a priority’. Our local MP, Nia Griffiths, inquired on our behalf – and was told that there is no plan to do anything at all for us.”

Surrounded by high flood water, Fionna remained determined to take Doris to all her vet appointments – and the only way to do so was by boat.

“I can’t deny I was concerned, I was not sure how she was going to react to being on a boat!” Fionna says. “Especially as she’s basically blind now. She was a little wobbly at first, but overall she was really good – she sits down and seems to almost like it, so at least one of us gets some enjoyment out of it! When we go to the vet’s I have no guarantee that I will find the boat in the same place I left it, and that’s an added worry. So far I have been lucky, but it cannot go on like this.”

“We had to cut back on our work because of the floods. It’s a mess: getting supplies in, medication, and of course the vet visits… everything is hard. We are not getting any help or support and with the flooding issues we’re worried that a moment may come when unable to continue. This is a sanctuary mostly, most of the dogs stay with us – they are the dogs that are hard to rehome. Some are rehomed, as I had hoped to do with Doris, but many have nowhere else to go.”

While there are about 40 dogs at the Sanctuary right now, Fionna says that they could take another 10 or 12 more if not for the flooding, which brings a lot of extra work ensuring all bedding is clean and dry – and makes it difficult for anybody volunteering to help to reach the Sanctuary in the first place.

“At the moment it’s me and my ex partner, Mick, who run everything,” Fionna says. “We have two regular volunteers, who are staying in a mobile home on the property, but they can’t cope with flood after flood. I’m not sure how we could manage without their help; it won’t be easy to find replacements.”

“I cannot sleep at night when it rains, I need to go and check on the dogs. And when it’s not raining, I have nightmares about rain!”

“It also takes a mental toll, because whenever it rains we have to be on guard. One time we were flooded, the flood warning only came in while we were already surrounded by water. I have to raise floors, and move dogs in the middle of the night – I cannot sleep at night when it rains, I need to go and check on the dogs. And when it’s not raining, I have nightmares about rain! If I won the lottery, I’d move in the middle of a desert for sure.”

Moving is hardly a possibility at the moment: the area where the Sanctuary stands has been declared a floodplain, which would make selling the property difficult.

“We cannot just sell – we would have to disclose how often it gets flooded,” Fionna says. “Even if it was not mandatory, I could never omit something like this, knowing the consequences. I’d view it as a moral obligation. And who would buy it knowing the truth?”

flood water at the sanctuary

“It’s probably too late to help us – even if authorities decided to do something, it would be years before anything is actually done. I feel they should provide compensation for the blighting of our property. That would enable us to either move, or decide to stay and purchase equipment that would make the situation more manageable for us. Some areas in the country have schemes for compensation, but ours does not.”

But not all is bleak at Lizzie’s Barn Sanctuary. The dogs are happy and cared for, Doris is responding well to treatment, and rain doesn’t last forever.

“The fact the authorities are so uninterested makes life so much worse, and when it’s cold and damp it’s easy to forget that this place can be beautiful,” Fionna says. “We have fields for the dog to enjoy on sunny days. Yes, it is a beautiful spot most of the time – as long as it’s dry!”

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