An ambitious shelter project that seeks to become the blueprint for animal rescue and rehoming refuges throughout the country is in danger of being stopped in its tracks.
The Loulé-based shelter, created by British expat Sid Richardson, has found the formula for a turnover of almost 200%. With a baseline number of ‘around 120 dogs and 20 cats’, ARA (standing for Animal Rescue Algarve) has managed to rehome 190 animals in little more than 11 months. Bearing in mind most shelters struggle to find adoptive families for even a fraction of their inmates, this is stellar. But authorities are adamant: because Sid Richardson constructed the shelter without a licence on land dubbed ‘rural’ it must be pulled down.
Sid Richardson disagrees, for very principled reasons. Since 2016, kennels have been prohibited from euthanasing animals. As a result, all of them are full to bursting. The situation has seen abandoned animals left to roam cities, towns and villages – increasingly causing mayhem. Despite calls for solutions, nothing concrete is coming down the line.
Thus, Sid is determined not only to rebuff the demolition order, but to challenge the law it means to uphold.
This is a fight about ‘creating a precedent’.
Says Sid, if his shelter agrees to demolish, others will end up folding too – as almost all privately owned shelters are “illegal” in some form or other, while doing the lion’s share of animal rescue work.
In other words, if he doesn’t fight, the plight of Portugal’s thousands of abandoned animals will just go on getting steadily worse.
“This could all be solved so quickly,” he told us. “All we are asking is to be allowed to continue our work until the local council is in a position to provide the necessary facilities. Up till now they haven’t, and they won’t,” he predicted. “This has become a problem that needs a new approach. I completely understand that developments per se should not be allowed on land that is deemed protected, or rural, or any other kind of category that doesn’t accept ‘urban building’. But the need for animal shelters everywhere is glaring. This is a massive problem. Every year, up to 50,000 animals are dumped, left to fend for themselves or born into the ‘wild’ due to the number of strays left unsterilised. Municipal shelters take in about 5%. Private shelters do 95% of the work and, therefore, need special dispensation to be able to do so, if necessary, in protected areas as long as they are not affecting anyone.”
The ARA shelter – purpose-built at a total cost (including land purchase) of around €1.2 million – is on a five-acre plot, in a secluded valley, far from residential areas.
Any noise, smell or commotion caused by the numbers of cats and dogs in residence at any one time “doesn’t affect anyone”, says Sid, while one of his Portuguese staff members points out that, according to the law, shelters “should not be located in urban centres”.
“That makes practically all municipal kennels in existence illegal,” he explained.
So determined are those who work for and support ARA to save the project that a petition is being launched to try and persuade Loulé council to ‘think outside the box’.
“There are two ways this can be sorted,” suggests Sid, a resident here of 25 years who runs restaurants and bars in Vale do Lobo.
“One, Loulé Câmara can campaign with us to change the law, or two – and I think this is the easiest option – they can ‘build us in’ to their territorial plan (PDM), for 2020. This second solution means the whole issue could be sorted locally. There would be no need for any kind of involvement of central government – and we could go on doing what we do best: rescuing and rehoming abandoned animals.
“This is an issue that too many people are not sufficiently aware of. The sheer numbers of abandoned animals every year are unsustainable. We need ‘new thinking’ – and penalising people who are trying and do something to improve the situation is not the answer,” he stresses.
Indeed, Sid didn’t ‘take the bull by the horns’ and build the shelter on rural land lightly. “I tried for years to come to an agreement with municipal authorities,” he explained. “But there was always some bureaucratic issue or other. In the end, I had to go-it-alone, for the animals’ sakes…”
As Sid’s workers add, the council hasn’t presented a solution for ARA’s current inmates should the kennels be torn down.
“Where do they think they could possibly go? There are no shelters anywhere in the Algarve with any space!”
Years ago, when changes to animal protection legislation were first mooted, municipal vets warned the new law ‘couldn’t work’ (click here).
Sid Richardson, however, still thinks it is “fantastic”. “It was never going to work, but it is a good thing to have it,” he explained. “The next generation will think differently. We already go to schools, give talks and see the changes working in society. The law may be ‘unimplementable’ now but take it five or 10 years down the line, and things will have changed.”
Hopes are that change will come in time for ARA and its current batch of dogs, cats and enthusiastic tail-thumping puppies.
To help ARA, watch out for details of the upcoming petition.
Loulé council’s response
The council’s ‘argument’ is simply that Sid Richardson knew from the outset that to build where he has would contravene national planning regulations. “As such, we have no alternative but to order him to demolish,” said a source, stressing that Loulé Câmara is rare in that it is constantly promoting animal sterilisation campaigns and trying to uphold animal rights legislation.
ARA’s winning formula is in its staffing ratios which work out at one human to around six animals. Thanks to an agreement with an international ‘work away’ programme, the project gets a steady stream of enthusiastic young volunteers. This sees the animals getting ‘all the attention they need to prepare them and socialise them, so they are excellent candidates for rehoming’.
As Sid explains, most kennels have such stretched staffing ratios to animal inmates that nothing can be done to smooth rough edges or correct vices.
By NATASHA DONN
Photosby: TAYA MARIA