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Meet the couple behind Matakana’s heart-warming animal rescue centre

Meet the couple behind Matakana’s heart-warming animal rescue centre

The Animal Sanctuary is a labour of love for Shawn Bishop and Michael Dixon who work tirelessly to rehabilitate and re-home creatures great and small.

Ten minutes up the road from Matakana village, Rodney, sits 13 hectares of rolling land flanked by 160 hectares of native bush. Here you’ll find kereru nibbling on the pink flowers and berries of ancient puriri trees, scores of happy hens pecking at their plentiful feed, a one-tonne steer, a donkey and miniature white pony sharing a paddock like the best of friends, and healthy kunekune pigs soaking up the sun’s rays. It’s true these animals live a charmed and peaceful life at the place they now call home, The Animal Sanctuary, but it hasn’t always been that way.

Tortured, abused, neglected and mistreated, these animals all arrived here to be nursed back to health by Shawn Bishop and her husband, Michael Dixon. They bought the property 17 years ago and purpose-built aviaries, barns, stables, chicken coops and shelters to rehabilitate and house animals that are hard to re-home, such as donkeys, pigs, goats, rescued battery hens and injured or orphaned native birds. Their donkey, Bartholomew, has been with them since the day they arrived, having been rescued along with his mother, Bethlehem, and cousin Solomon. Many other animals, such as Romeo the miniature horse and Sparky the black Angus steer, are now permanent residents, not required to do anything else with their days other than sleep, eat and poop.

We spent a day at the property, talking with Shawn and Michael and meeting the animals, many of whom will live out their days in peace at The Animal Sanctuary, while others will eventually be re-homed with loving families personally vetted by Shawn to ensure they can give the best care possible. It’s a part of the job that she takes very seriously, interviewing prospective owners and visiting their properties so she can be sure the animals will live a tether-free, no-kill life. “I feel like the quality of the rest of their life depends on the decision I’m about to make,” she says. “It weighs quite heavily on me.”

At any one time, The Animal Sanctuary is home to around 100 animals, but after a big battery-hen rescue or during baby goat season (when Shawn and her rescue partner save as many newborn kids as they can from slaughter), that number can skyrocket. The number of goats rescued at a time depends on how many they know they’ll find new homes for.

“Social media is our thing, so we’ll put it on our Facebook page and people share it,” says Shawn of the adoption process. “Some people want to adopt them as babies – they love the bottle-feeding process. Others will take them once they’re off the bottle. If we had homes for several thousand, we would do it.”

Shawn and Michael also have a special place in their hearts for battery hens. When they’re scheduled to be slaughtered at 18 months old (standard practice with commercial egg-laying hens), the couple will undertake rescues to save as many as they can. “When we do a chicken rescue, we use every single space we have,” she explains. “Initially they live in smaller spaces because they’re institutionalised and don’t know what to do with space, and some of them have to learn to walk.”

Their rescued battery hens Freetu and Frieda are now part of the family and will always have a home at The Animal Sanctuary. “I guess after being in cages they were the two that were able to figure out every morning and every night how to hop out [of their new big barn]. And they’d run to us with all their strength. So sweet.”

Giving injured and orphaned native birds a new lease of life is another important area of expertise. Birds come to The Animal Sanctuary from the Department of Conservation, vets and the general public, often with head injuries and spinal cord compression from flying into windows. The aim with all native birds is their eventual release back into the wild, although some like Kere – a hand-raised kereru – will stay here for life, having formed a family bond with Shawn and Michael. “The noise she’s making is the noise they make to their mothers, saying, ‘Feed me, feed me.’ I’m her mother. She came in as a naked baby found at the foot of a tree,” says Shawn. Kere was raised with a “city pigeon” called Walt Whitman and, because kereru form deep family ties, the two have now bonded as brother and sister.

Birds rehabilitated for release into the wild are not given names, nor are they encouraged to get used to human visitors since they need to be able to adapt quickly back into the wild once released. “We’ll often have kereru that come back the following year [after release] with their wild mate,” says Shawn. “Michael will be out there sawing and a kereru will land on his head and the wild mate will sit there screaming. Sometimes they even bring their babies back, which is really lovely.”

The Animal Sanctuary is a labour of love in more ways than one for Shawn and Michael. They derive no income from their work, with 100 percent of donations going directly to the animals. They pay no salaries or wages and, aside from public donations, they rely on the time and man power of volunteer WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms) to help keep the place running. They have a small but dedicated group of supporters who donate the equivalent of one coffee (a minimum of $5) per month to The Animal Sanctuary, which helps purchase feed, hay, fruit and vegetables for the animals, and pays for medicine and vet bills – but there’s always room for more.

The pair work long hours but the reward of seeing an animal experience love, kindness and respect is what gives their work purpose. “Solee was skin and bones when we got him,” says Shawn of their rescue goat from South Auckland, who now mothers the new baby goats when they arrive. “Now he’s got this big, old-man tummy. It makes me happy. The vet says he’s in his senior years, so we’ll make sure that his end days are the happiest of his life.”

How can you help The Animal Sanctuary? 

  • Give a donation
  • Become a Sanctuary Supporter
  • Adopt a hen
  • Provide a new home for another animal
  • Volunteer your time
  • Donate supplies

ANIMALSANCTUARY.CO.NZ

Lucy Slight

Lucy SlightLucy is the associate editor of NADIA magazine.

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