Pet-lover Pat to retire

REWIND 43 years and, if you had been walking through Exmouth s Strand Gardens, you might have spotted a 24-year-old dark-haired woman staring intently up at a first floor bay window, watching a caged budgie.

REWIND 43 years and, if you had been walking through Exmouth's Strand Gardens, you might have spotted a 24-year-old dark-haired woman staring intently up at a first floor bay window, watching a caged budgie.

That was Pat Wilkins putting a hex on the couple who had just secured her 'dream job' and were living in the flat above the animal dispensary.

It must have worked because, just months after Pat was told she was unsuccessful in her quest to run what was then known as Exmouth Dispensary for Sick Animals, the couple who had been employed upped and left.

Today, after more than four decades of re-homing Exmouth's unwanted cats and securing veterinary treatment for pets whose owners are on low incomes, Pat will hang the 'closed' sign for the final time because she is retiring.

The dispensary in The Strand is to close, but the service many have come to rely upon will continue through Exmouth's three vets: Raddenstiles, at Liverton Business Park; Howard House, in Manchester Road; and Corner House, in Withycombe Village Road.

Dispensary trustee chairman Malcolm Williams said until the end of 2009 the town's three main vets will continue to offer discount veterinary care for pets with owners on low incomes while the trustees decided the way forward for the dispensary now Pat had retired.

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He said the dispensary doubted it would be fortunate enough to find anyone as dedicated to the role as Pat, and with changing needs of owners, decided funding veterinary care was the charity's paramount role for the foreseeable future.

He said: "We didn't want Pat to go, it was her choice. But she goes with our gratitude and our blessing.

"She didn't just help the animals. She was a good people-person and a really caring person.

"We know it will be hard to find someone like her so we are looking at other options."

Such has been Pat's love and dedication for the job, she has lived and breathed the animals since accepting the post.

Living in the flat above the dispensary, she has been on call 24-hours a day, 365 days a year.

"I saw an advert and thought it was ideal," remembered Pat. "I didn't get it, this couple did. They had a budgie and it used to sit in the window. I used to go across the road and put the evil eye on it - they lasted three months!

"Mr Nightingale had faith in me and offered me the job.

"I was originally turned down because the committee thought I was too young and wouldn't be able to do it - but I did, and it was my baby for 34 years.

"I have loved the job - although there have been times when I haven't loved it.

"It was awful when we had cat flu all the way through. The kittens were dying and I remember saying to the vet 'I don't want to do this job'."

The dispensary was founded by Frank Nightingale, whose profound love of animals resulted in his setting up the Exmouth pet charity.

The dispensary worked closely with Raddenstile Vets, taking in unwanted pets and providing essential veterinary care to pets whose owners were unable to afford it

Pat said some people have returned on several occasions to offer homes to cats after their much-loved pets have died.

"Some people have said 'this is my third cat from you'," she said.

"We used to take dogs as well as cats - mostly puppies - because there wasn't really room for dogs and then there was the howling.

"In those days we used to have wooden cages - but a lot has changed.

"When I first started my daughter Nikki was three-and-a-half-years-old, so it was ideal. I didn't think I would still be here 43 years on!

"It's not been a nine-to-five job. I used to get called out in the night, but it's not safe anymore.

"I've gone out to pick up kittens from Exeter Road at midnight."

In 2001 a stray tortoise took up temporary residence at the dispensary when it was spotted hot-footing it along Tower Street.

With highlights, come low spots: with animal cruelty on the increase, Pat has seen plenty over the years.

Cats with collars embedded in their necks, a kitten which was used as a football by a gang of heartless Brixington youths, and a puppy dumped in a brook at Dinan Way.

But the cruelty case which will stay with Pat for the rest of her life happened in 1970 when a fire broke out at Dennesdene Farm, in Withycombe, where it was discovered 38 dogs - some too weak to stand or bark - were living in squalid conditions.

Dubbed by the national press as the 'horror farm' some 32 of the dogs had to be destroyed immediately, such was their suffering.

At the time of the grisly find, 28-year-old Pat said: "We've had quite a few complaints about the farm but we've been powerless to intervene.

"It was ten times worse than I had feared."

Although Pat is retiring from running the dispensary, she is not severing ties altogether and plans to join the trustees next year.

She said her final day will be an emotional one.

She said: "I have loved the job. I am very lucky to have worked for a charity that actually works and that I believe in.

"I have met some really lovely people.