Nicola Barry

Category Archives: Animals

Farewell to my Faithful Friend


DSC00066Many years ago, a young journalist cut me to the quick when he said: “I don’t know how you could waste an entire column writing about your dog.” He was talking about the love of my life, my child and my faithful friend. I don’t know what it is about pets. Why it hurts so much when they die or suffer or are neglected. Is it because your dog or cat is quite happy to be your best pal for nothing more than the odd tasty morsel or treat. He or she accepts you unquestioningly. It is unconditional love, in its finest form. Not for nothing did George Bernard Shaw say: “Animals bear more than their natural burden of human love.” Therefore, when a pet dies, our whole world collapses.


Brilliant vet

Our Westie, Coll, had Cushing’s Disease. Four years ago, we were told he had between six months and four years to live, so, every symptom, real or imagined, was viewed by us with hyper-vigilant suspicion. He lasted four years and died on May 28th at the age of 12. We spent a lot of time with the amazing Donald Mactaggart at Thistle Vets at Clovenstone, here in Edinburgh. Despite his illness, Coll was never afraid of the vet. He always jumped out of the car and trotted to the front door, without the slightest hint of trepidation. After we moved through to the east from the west in 2004, he developed his first major problem – inter-digital cysts on his front paws. Whenever we left the surgery – usually after having a cyst burst under anaesthetic, Coll would ignore us. He would attempt to sustain a massive huff, while stumbling into furniture – making a sulk difficult to maintain with any degree of dignity. The last time I left that surgery, it was without Coll. I left him dead on the table. Despite the terrible pain of losing him, I could not have left him to go through that alone. The day before he died, he seemed to be fading away in front of our eyes. He lay on the chair and barely seemed to be breathing. The following day, he was the same. He could still eat but… Coll could always eat. My friend Anne-Marie Birch came with me to the vet and Donald Mactaggart took X rays which showed that Coll’s heart was double the size it should have been. He said kindly: “I’m afraid we may have reached the end.”

A peaceful death

Donald was so dignified and caring. He was upset as well. He let me say goodbye. I held Coll in my arms while Donald administered the injection. One minute, my dog was there. The next he had gone. It was so peaceful. My guilt was assuaged by Donald saying I had done the kindest thing I had ever done for Coll. He said if I had taken him home, he might have had a massive heart attack during the night and we wouldn’t have known what to do. I also felt bad that my husband, Alastair, wasn’t there but he had to work and told me to follow Donald’s advice. There is something about Westies. No other breed can compete with that cheeky upturned face, the tiny black, damp button nose and those huge brown eyes. We miss so many things : the way his paws would hit the floor exactly the same time as I got out of bed in the mornings. I miss those ecstatic greetings whenever I come home – to have this fluffy, white ball hurl itself at me, whining, gasping, wagging its tail so hard you expect it to spin into the ether and disappear, is wonderful beyond belief. No human being could even begin to emulate the sheer, undisguised enthusiasm of such a welcome. I miss the way Coll loved opening parcels. The more paper there was to unravel, the more intense the experience. His brand new squeaky toys lasted all of three seconds before the squeak was chewed up and spat out. I miss the walks in the dell, the way he would never give up on trying to catch squirrels outside. I miss his contented grunts, his snoring, the way he ran to fetch toys and his many neuroses – particularly the look of panic whenever he passed his water bowl – because once a tennis ball landed in it and splashed him. I miss looking after him when he was ill. Pets bring so much joy to a household and to life. Once we took Coll to the Old Course Hotel where the manager was a dog lover. I was there to write a travel piece. Every evening we received a special call. A polite voice asked: ‘Is Coll ready for his tuna?’ Even though Coll was used to being spoiled, not even he expected room service – a decent-sized serving of tuna, brought by a charming flunkie, on a white china dish. Our dog was able to dine in his own suite without having to bother dressing for dinner.

Farewell my faithful friend

It has taken me three months to write this. I apologise to those who do not understand. I often wonder whether I loved my dog too much. So many of us do.  Many vets, like doctors, are on call at night and at the weekend. At three in the morning, the poor souls can be found on the telephone, listening patiently to some neurotic owner describing his guinea pig’s stool consistency in gruesome detail. We will get another dog in the autumn. Meanwhile we look after other people’s pets when we can but none will ever take Coll’s place in my heart. My Coll, I feel nothing but gratitude for the joy and love you brought us and which we returned every minute of every day. Finally, you are free from pain and the anxiety for us is over. We are slowly but surely coming to terms with the dreadful hole you have left behind.

Mark Shand dies


Asian elephant at the zoo in Hamburg, Germany

Mark Shand founded Elephant Family, the sole charitable organisation dedicated to Asian Elephants.


Mark Shand: Elephant Man

In the somewhat stuffy world of the royals, Mark Shand was a hidden gem, a man of a thousand contradictions – which makes his tragic death in New York at the age of 62 so sad. He was a travel writer and conservationist as well as being brother to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. We met a few years ago when he was in Edinburgh to launch Jungle City, a collection of animal sculptures which were displayed around the capital during the Fringe to raise money and awareness for the conservation of endangered species. Companies, charities and private individuals could sponsor an animal for £4,000 then the exhibits were auctioned off in aid of Mark’s charity, Elephant Family.


His passion for the Asian elephant (rather than the more traditional royal obsession with horses and corgis) began when he met Tara, one of four begging elephants, in Orissa, on India’s east coast.

He said, “In India, people own elephants, often a lot of them, and the animals work during what they call the “marriage season”, from September to March. Then, disreputable people blackmail farmers by telling them the elephants will eat their crops. Sadly, in India, there is always a way to make money.” When Mark first saw Tara, he said he fell in love with her. His description was somewhat graphic, “Maybe it was her eyes- dark, gentle, brown pools of kindness … or, maybe, it was the way she stretched out her trunk and, with the utmost delicacy, explored my pockets searching for hidden goodies, or the way she squeaked with excitement, flapping her huge ears, when I tentatively offered her a banana for the first time.” But poor Tara was in a pitiful condition, scrawny and starved, her ribcage clearly visible and her skin hanging in folds. She looked exactly what she was, a beggar – a beggar with a pronounced limp due to a deep-rooted ulcer caused by metal-spiked shackles used to hobble her.


Known affectionately as the Elephant Man, Mark would visit Tara regularly at her home in Kipling Camp in Madhya Pradesh, “Tara is spoilt,” he would tell people, “She eats about 250 kilos of roughage a day as well as various treats such as chapatis.” Mark also revealed that elephants love alcohol, “They can smell it a mile away. It could be the sugar.”

His love of elephants was all consuming. In the past 100 years, the elephant population has shrunk by a massive 90 per cent. Once there were 250,000 elephants roaming Asia now there are only about 25,000 left. In the early Eighties, Mark undertook a 1,000-kilometre journey through India on Tara’s back; a story told in his bestselling book, Travels on my Elephant, which he undertook with photographer and friend, Aditya Patankar. He also wrote Queen of the Elephants, the account of a 300 mile trek across East Benghal and Assam on the back of an elephant, with Parbati Barua, one of India’s greatest elephant experts and the only female mahout (elephant driver) in the world. Eventually, in 2002, Mark became so enamoured with his subject, he gave up a lucrative business selling Cartier jewellery to write books and found The Elephant Family – the sole charitable organisation dedicated to Asian elephants.

Camilla’s brother believed that if these elephants were not preserved, they would become extinct within 30 years; tigers within six years. “I am passionate about this. The Elephant Parade in London last summer made £4million, double our target. I want Edinburgh’s Jungle City to be the biggest possible success.” Marks revealed the disturbing fact that, every single day, an elephant kills a human being and a human kills an elephant. He said: “It is our fault because we humans have driven them away from their natural habitat. To cut the risk of human-elephant conflict and casualties, we are securing habitat all over Asia and purchasing corridors of land for elephants and helping local people relocate. We do this with the overwhelming support of the communities – some of whom have been plagued for years by bewildered, hungry elephants. These people have often lost crops, property – even loved ones – in human-elephant conflict.

“We make sure indigenous communities are settled safely elsewhere with good-quality housing and agricultural land. Then, we work with the State Wildlife Department to grant the corridors protected status.” I remember at that point Mark smiled and added: “Only then can we elephant-lovers breathe a sigh of relief.”


Born and brought up in a beautiful country house in Plumpton, on the Sussex Downs, Mark lived happily as younger brother to sisters, Camilla and Annabel: “We had the best upbringing in the world and I have always loved country life. I still think of that house as home, even now, long after I left.” Despite his royal connections, Mark was an adventurer at heart. He once rode a horse through the Andes then completed the London to Sydney motor race and was shipwrecked in the Western Pacific while attempting to sail round the world. He has worked with Goldie Hawn and Julia Roberts on documentaries about life in the wild. He has also written and travelled with internationally renowned photo journalist Don McCullin.

When we met, Mark was preparing to attend the wedding of Prince William and Kate with his 16-year-old daughter, Ayesha who had just told him she didn’t want any elephants, fluffy or otherwise, in her bedroom. No doubt she was duly taken to tusk.


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Fear of Bats

My fear of bats (a rant)

article on fear of bats, image of bat

Bat out of hell (Photo credit: Lee Carson)

No wonder we use the words bats and batty to describe lunacy of various kinds. For years we have lived in a graveyard, next to a church where, of an evening, at exactly the same time, bats gather around the belfry. Because these horrid creatures are protected under European conservation laws (God knows why) there is nothing you can do to eliminate them. Bats have more rights than humans, it would seem. I have spent several hours of my life waving my hands and arms in front of me like a maniac; trying to protect myself – never mind the bats. I hate them, with a passion.

Please don’t judge me. If you have never had a bat circling your bedroom at what seems like 150MPH, you will not appreciate my loathing. The worst time was when I was alone in my bedroom one night in the heart of the English countryside, when I heard a rustling noise from the corner of the room. It sounded like someone trying to eat sweets furtively at the cinema. The rustling got louder and louder. In the darkest recesses of my mind, I imagined that The Thing had started chomping its way through the wooden floorboards of that old, cold cottage and was coming to get me. My heart was thumping. I tried to conjure up harmless, Beatrix Potter type images of vermin in pretty pink gingham bonnets, wearing matching aprons and brewing cups of tea over a warm stove. But fear won the day. Bravely, I switched on the bedside light and, in an instant, my heart almost stopped. Out of the darkness swooped a winged creature from hell – an open-mouthed, hairy beast with pointed teeth, ears sticking out and horrid little clutching hands, all enclosed between large, flapping wings. Yes, you guessed it – the species we insist on protecting – the bat. Apparently, bats face extinction if we fail to give them adequate protection.

If only…

I have to admit I just wanted the winged creature out of my bedroom, alive or dead. First, it charged up and down the room as if executing some weird tribal dance. I managed to make it out of bed and rush from the room.  I then explained to my host that there was a bat in my bedroom. When we returned to search, the wretched creature had curled up into a ball and we couldn’t find it anywhere. Eventually, when we discovered the bat, it began to screech the place down in alarm.

That almost finished me off. I don’t know who was more afraid – the ugly old bat or the creature hiding behind my chest of drawers. Boom, boom. Within the hour, the bat was released, alive and well.


Bats are dangerous, mainly because they can transmit rabies. So, if you are unfortunate enough to come into contact with them, you need a rabies injection afterwards. The bad news is that docs don’t give this jab in your stomach any more. You actually have to pull down your pants and bend over for this treatment.

After it, in other countries, they smack you with a large bill.

We live in a part of the town that seems more like the countryside, with all the joys that entails. There is, however, a downside: every wild animal in existence lives close by. There are hundreds of grey squirrels with huge bodies, arms like Popeye’s and vast, clodhopping paws which look more like hands. They eat all the food we put out for the birds, they grow fat and cheeky beyond belief. It’s bad enough when you go out at midnight to throw away a piece of rubbish and something large and hairy leaps out of next door’s wheelie bin. It’s like someone leaping out of a cake when you least expect it. Every time it happens, I nearly die of fright. The last straw came one evening when I arrived home to find a squirrel the size of a well-fed Labrador, sitting on one of the large wheelie bins, having what looked like a fish supper. It was sitting up, as they do, wrapper between its legs, clutching an entire fish in its hands, guzzling away to its heart’s content. Most alarming of all, it didn’t budge one inch when I approached.

The bats are just as confident and love flying straight at you, out of the darkness; hundreds of them flitting through the treetops at twilight like some strange school of waterless flying fish. OK, so bats are an endangered species, but it cannot be right. Why not gas them – I mean sedate them, take them to some deserted spot, miles from civilisation, and release them into freedom. And before all you batty bat lovers accuse me of cruelty, think again. Most of us are afraid of something. How would you feel, if, for example, 1,000 spiders or snakes, protected by some idiotic and arbitrary rule, suddenly invaded your space?

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Hens as pets

hens as petsHorsemeat got you worried?
For a good life, try keeping hens as pets.

We were sitting at home the other day, eating these free range eggs when my husband screeched, “You should blog about this”. He is right. These particular free range eggs are the most delicious thing we have ever eaten – apart from my own cooking. Ha ha. When it comes to pets, they say if you want a good walk, keep the dog. If it’s a good cuddle you want, buy a cat. But if you want a pet which gives you something back other than the usual licks, woofs and miaows, get a hen.

In the past decade, keeping hens has become remarkably common, helped along by celebrity chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver. In this post-recession climate, as austerity bites – more and more people are starting their own little brood. It is estimated that some 500,000 homes in the UK keep hens as pets. They are cheap to feed. They don’t need to be taken out walkies. They are a source of constant, delicious eggs, way beyond organic and they don’t make much noise – unless you buy a cockerel by mistake.

Kathryn Walker is a perfect example of a modern day hen fancier. A full-time dog walker and pet sitter, Kathryn was inspired by re-runs of the Seventies hit sitcom The Good Life starring Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers. Kathryn finds her chicks interesting, comical, self-sufficient and well suited to the rural environment in which she and her husband, Steve,live.

Hens come in a wide range of colours, shapes and types, as do their eggs. Some are table birds, others more suited to laying eggs. Kathryn and Steve have a bungalow, near Carnwath, between Edinburgh and Lanark – what you might call a perfect chicken and egg situation. They also have cats, Minnie and Tom, and as well as dogs, Dot and Molly. Having grown up on a farm in Northumberland, Kathryn has been surrounded by animals all her life but when she was a child, chickens were only kept for their eggs and their meat.

Hens have never been seen as pets in the way they are now. A couple of years ago, Kathryn, who runs her own business, Animal Madness, decided a strip of grass at the back of her house could be put to good use. “I immediately thought of keeping a few free-range hens,” she says, “mainly because they do not need a lot of looking after.” She continues: “A friend gave us a garden shed. We turned it into a chicken coop and painted it forest green. Inside there is sawdust on the floor and three nest boxes.”

The cosy coop is home to six funky chickens – Wilma, Scrumpy, Pinot, Merlot, Ruby and Rosie, ranging from 18 months to 4 year old.

Kathryn says: “If you look after them properly, give them an environment safe from predators, they will thrive. Pet chickens should be free-range. They love having space to walk around. Our hens are just as much a part of the family as the cats and dogs. “I worry about the hens as much as I do our other pets.” So much so that when Scrumpy took ill, Kathryn and Steve went onto Google for advice and gave her a bath. “She was very poorly – egg bound, they call it – so we were keeping her in the house,” Kathryn says. “I filled a basin with warm water and put her in. We expected to get absolutely drenched with much flapping of wings and squalling. In fact, Scrumpy just sank back into the water, making happy clucking noises. After her bath, Kathryn dried off her feathers with a coolish hair dryer. “She was fine after that – never looked back,” Kathryn adds.

But can you communicate with a hen they way you can, say, with a dog? Kathryn scratches her head and adds: “I have noticed that hens are extremely nosey. Whenever I go near the coop, they flock round and watch me with their beady eyes. “When I talk to them, they tilt their heads to one side as if they understand. “And when I close them up for the night, if they are sitting on their perch, about to nod off, I sometimes stroke their feathers. They know me because I take them food. I am their primary carer, because Steve is out at work.”

A six-foot secure fence, which surrounds the hen house, keeps out foxes. (During the day they get to wander around a 2 acre field, pottering away beside the sheep!) Kathryn’s hens eat chicken pellets, Weetabix, vegetables, worms, you name it. “The only thing they don’t like really are greens,” Kathryn says. She adds: “They are easy to look after and children in particular love them. So that makes them the perfect family pet. Watching a chicken peck and scratch the soil is relaxing, and there is nothing like eating a fresh egg straight out of the barn. “I think people have become far more knowledgeable about food. They want organic chicken and eggs.”

Some animal charities have noticed a growing interest in self-sufficiency and a big rise in demand for egg-laying hens. Jim Duff, Scottish representative of the British Hen Welfare Trust, says he is re-homing thousands of former battery hens and has a waiting list of 800 people. The birds come from chicken farms once they no longer produce enough eggs and face being culled. To acquire a hen from The Trust, potential owners give a donation. Jim says: “Hens are fascinating creatures to keep. We can re-home as many as 700 in a weekend. Sometimes people think by taking a few hens, they are saving the world. The trouble is, the scale of battery farming is such that I may take 600 from a farmer but that still leaves him with 6,000.

It must be wonderful to have a pet which can produce ingredients for a good omelette every day, which looks decorative, and, when its eggs cease to drop, could, perhaps, make the perfect Sunday roast. Jim scoffs and says: “Most of our customers are a big girl’s blouse when it comes to eating their precious hens. They wouldn’t dream of it.”



Dangerous dogs – should they be banned?

Keeping dangerous dogs is barking

OK, the question is: why would anyone in their right mind want to own a dangerous dog?

Rick 2

The unusual suspect? Photo credit: tanakawho

No doubt, many of you will say it is the owner who makes a dangerous dog,  not the breed.


I don’t accept that for one moment.

Certain dogs – Rottweilers, some Staffies, even Dobermans – have a reputation for being both fierce and  unpredictable. Why take the chance? These days, anyone who buys a breed of dog with a reputation for aggression needs an appointment with a psychiatrist.

Vicious dogs are usually bought by people with severe image problems, people who lack charisma, the sort of guys you wouldn’t look at twice. They need something fierce to make an entrance for them. The macho status symbol sought by certain dog owners is the reason behind the vicious attacks which happen all too often.

However, aggressive dogs are no respecters of class. The Queen and Princess Anne are prime examples who hardly fit the stereotype of the lout with a dangerous dog.

Remember Christmas 2003 when the Queen came to the front door at Sandringham to greet her daughter, accompanied by her, supposedly, adorable little Corgis? Princess Anne’s Bull Terriers went berserk and decided to have their Christmas dinner early. Her dogs mistakenly, imagined the Corgi, Pharos, the Queen’s favourite, was about to attack their mistress.

That is what you call unpredictable behaviour.

Pharos howled as her hind leg was chewed to bits. There was blood everywhere and the poor dog had to be put down. Recently, at Balmoral, one of the Corgis attacked Princess Beatrice’s Norfolk Terrier. And so it goes on.

The breeding of potentially dangerous dogs should be stopped at once.

Of course, the owner can treat pets with kid gloves but that does not mean the animals will never ever turn, on a whim, and harm someone.

We all know that some breeds do, without warning or reason, suddenly change behaviour. But square-jawed, fierce dogs are considered the perfect companion of choice for people who have a macho, violent nature. You see them every day, swaggering down the street, a menace on a lead at their side, prowling and sniffing everyone with suspicion.

Every so often, while walking with my Westie, Coll, I meet a heavy-set, jowelly thug, covered in tattoos, out with his three Pit Bull terriers. Thanks to his habit of bawling at his dogs, I know he is around long before he actually appears. The dogs are always on a lead. Otherwise they could demolish Coll in minutes.

Why do people feel a need to own fierce, aggressive, noisy, dangerous dogs?

I am a dog worshipper, yet I am terrified of certain breeds. When they do attack, it is almost always children who are the victims. Invariably, these kids are scarred for life; mentally as well as physically. If they live, that is.

They grow up and grow old – terrified of dogs; afraid to walk the streets for fear the same thing might happen again.

And what is life without a loving dog to share it?

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