Arriving at the Animal Sanctuary, I’m greeted by a throng of chooks, ducks and dogs. There’s a donkey braying in the background. Upstairs in the house, a tarpaulin is spread out on the living room floor with temporary fencing and a large dog-crate. “That’s where Princess sleeps at night,” explains Michael Dixon. With a white, sulphur-crested cockatoo (Snow) perched on his shoulder he points at the French doors. There’s Princess: a white kid with a dodgy back leg, peering through the window and bleating loudly. “She’s got ligament damage,” says Michael, “but we think she’s starting to put weight on it. Shawn’s in the garage doing some feeding.” He leads the way.
The Animal Sanctuary is at the end of Govan Wilson Rd, ten minutes from Matakana. It’s been run by Shawn Bishop and Michael Dixon for fourteen years. The operation is mostly funded by themselves and donations. They moved here after they both realised that their Auckland-based corporate lives needed a little something extra. They wanted to do something good, and Shawn particularly wanted to help animals. This is the result – a few acres with a whole bunch of very diverse animals which are hurt, lost, abused or unwanted. Most are moved on to well-vetted happy homes. Some stay.
Downstairs there’s carefully organised chaos with cages and animals everywhere. Shawn is working with Claire Hesling, a vet who comes up once a month to help out. Shawn smiles at me, says, “Hi! Hold this.” She thrusts a tiny pot of clear liquid at me and carefully opens a small cage. A ruffled tui peers at us in horror. Shawn expertly removes him and holds him up to my pot. After a moment, he dips his beak in the syrup and Shawn laughs delightedly. She puts the bird tenderly into a bigger cage and Claire checks his movement. “Looking good,” she pronounces.
It’s the turn of a young grey heron next. She has been pacing, keen to get out. Claire takes her out, puts her down on the floor and the bird, Scruffy, follows her around. “We often get heron fledglings,” says Shawn. “Herons usually lay two eggs, and one chick is always stronger. When it’s time to fly, the parents simply fly up into a tree. The strong one follows, but the other often crashes and hurts itself and is then condemned to starvation or predation. We can help – herons have good rates of rehab.”
Scruffy follows Claire out to the lawn where she throws small bits of fish around, teaching the bird to chase them, fast. She’ll need these skills to survive on her own. “Young birds don’t know how to feed themselves; they learn from their parents. We have to be the parents for a while.” Claire whistles a low note each time she throws the food. “That’s so that the bird relates the sound to food, so we can call her and support-feed her after she’s let free. It’s great when they first fly – they’re awkward and angular at first, then,” – she mimics elegant flight – “they straighten out and become pure grace. I always feel so honoured to be a part of that.”
Herons are easy to feed. Kereru are ok. Kaka and kookaburras are terrible. Moreporks (native owls) aren’t too bad – we go down to the large, well-built aviaries and peer up into their cute house. Two ruru are on a perch, staring in surprise and affront. One suspects they have a resting surprised-and-affronted-face (those eyes), but they’re still ridiculously cute.
“We mostly get birds that have flown into glass – it’s our number one cause of injury,” sighs Shawn. If birds often hit your windows, Shawn instructs, hang a string of beads from the centre of each. Your problem will cease. But if you have a window fatality, or a cat which catches mice or birds, please keep the tiny corpses and put them in a ziplock bag in your freezer (but not ones you may find dead already – they may be poisoned). Let Shawn know when you’ve stacked up a few – her moreporks will be very happy with their meals.
We stroll around the outside animals who are either forever-guests or awaiting a home: a tiny white pony who’s been tortured by teenage boys, a very elderly sheep, a wise and gentle donkey, a one-ton black Angus steer, Sparky, that is truly-madly-deeply in love with Shawn, more goats (over 80 re-homed recently), two Kunekune pigs named José and Rosie. “We have some rare Auckland Islands pigs coming soon, if anyone’s interested,” says Shawn.
There are also lots of brown shaver hens. The Sanctuary has to date re-homed around four thousand of these. Four thousand. They arrive half-crazy, half-feathered and terrified but soon become sleek, happy, normal chooks. You can adopt one of your own – Shawn will talk you through it.
Back in the living room for tea, Princess gets a bottle of warm milk; it’s gone in a minute. Over homemade blueberry cake, I hear that to feed a gannet you have to push fish right down their throats, halfway up to your elbow. That if you find a penguin in trouble, it’s probably starving – because there just aren’t the fish stocks any more to feed them. But if it’s an adult, it’s over 500g and the inside of its mouth is a healthy pink, it has a fighting chance.
It’s great to have this amazing source of knowledge – and to know that there’s a boundless fount of passionate love for these helpless animals. Right on cue, Shawn points over my shoulder and squawks “Look! She’s putting weight on it! Oh wow!” Sure enough, out in the garden Princess is standing on four legs. On Michael’s shoulder, Snow the cockatoo shouts “Hello!”
Break out box (if poss)
Good to know: The Animal Sanctuary is not a petting zoo. Please don’t just turn up to see the animals, they’re not set up for visitors. If you’d like to help, Shawn always needs sheets, towels, large format newspaper, time… and money. Also if there’s anyone out there who’d like to become a special bird-carer, get in touch with Shawn – there’s a great free course available – and you’d be making a huge contribution.
www.animalsanctuary.co.nz | T: 09 422 7322