When his neighbour moved and abandoned their cat, BEN BRUGES knew he had to step in. His family already has an ultra-timid rescue cat who would never accept another, so what should he do? Having tried big-name charities, he stumbled across the Barby Keel Animal Sanctuary and discovered a surprisingly magical world. 

Jo Proudlove met me and inducted my poor abandoned stray. I could see him instantly relax into his run, already complete with food, water, places to sleep and a female neighbour. Jo’s official title is Catteries Manager but accepted me calling her Cat Woman. She has taken over after the sad loss of Rhian Eluned Thomas, who passed away, at 49, only months before. 

Jo had been a classical musician, teacher, goat owner, and now the Cat Woman. She would get my stray a vet check, the neutering the previous owner had neglected to arrange and then pass her on to the homing manager to find the right family, checking things like the proximity of main roads, numbers of children, suitability and experience of the new owners – a process that could take anything up to a month. 

Glad that my stray would find a new forever home, I wanted to find out more. Founder/owner Barby Keel turns out to be a youthful 86-year-old living at the centre of the sanctuary in a house that’s as much adapted to animals as it is for humans; the love of animals imbues everything they do there. They are currently trying to help over 100 animals but also have at least 40 sanctuary cats (permanent residents for various reasons) that make the place a welcoming home. 

Covid has hit them hard: they lost their main annual open days which normally bring in a very welcome £12k, as well as a Christmas event. They would also normally be open every Sunday afternoon for visitors, but on 24th October they had their last special open day, only now open to help animals by appointment. Running a sanctuary isn’t cheap, with a vet bill for the last four months of £20k, for example. Then there’s feed … donations, of course, are very welcome. 

Starting in 1974 as the Bexhill Cats Club, Barby is clear about her motivation: “It isn’t just animals who are saved by our care. I believe passionately in the power of animals to heal us. When an animal comes into the sanctuary and is nurtured back to health, we are all changed in meaningful ways. We are all made a little bit better by the experience.”

As she says, “Hard life, hard work, but I wouldn’t change it.”

For more information visit www.facebook.com/BarbyKeelAnimalSanctuary or read Barby Keel’s book Gabby:
The little dog that had to learn to bark from Trapeze.

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