When Graeme Innes was preparing to leave the army after 22 years in the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery, he knew he wanted to work with animals.
So Graeme applied to become centre manager at the then new SSPCA Rehoming Centre in Drumoak, Aberdeenshire, and was delighted when he landed the role.
The whole family – Graham, his wife and three boys – moved to Drumoak, where they now live in a house on the grounds.
And it has proved an ideal fit for Graeme who has relished the role of ensuring the Aberdeenshire centre’s success.
He said: “It took a bit of getting used to – the peace and quiet up here, compared to central London.
“But we love it and I was very lucky to get the job.”
While swapping the capital city for rural Aberdeenshire was a shock to the system, sometimes working with the public was an even bigger one!
Graeme (46) said: “It’s pretty sad but you can’t take anyone at face value so you can get a wee bit cynical.
“However, there’s the other side of the coin too – people are so very generous in their support for the centre and will donate food, blankets and money.
“The footfall at the centre is really heavy, helped by its design which enables visitors to wander around themselves.
“It’s great for the 13 members of staff who work here as we don’t always have to be with visitors and can spend that time looking after the animals or out on calls.”
And there are plenty of animals to take care of – last year alone the staff dealt with more than 2000.
The vast majority are cases of cruelty, abandonment or neglect, although some animals are homed at the centre for welfare reasons too – an owner dying with no-one to look after their pet, for example.
A couple of years ago the centre also dealt with an influx of animals from owners who simply couldn’t afford to look after their pets, thanks to the decline in the oil market.
Thankfully, these cases have now diminished.
But the Aberdeenshire centre being one of only two in Scotland which houses neglected horses as well as being a satellite wildlife station, homing wildlife overnight before a driver takes it to Fishcross in Clackmannanshire, means there’s never a dull moment. And the fishing industry sees an influx of exotic stowaways too!
Graeme explained: “We get a lot of stuff in from the boats – we had a call out this morning for a wee gecko.
“The most dangerous call out we got was for a black widow spider found in a container from America.
“There’s no anti-venom for them in this country so it has to be handled very carefully and caught in a double container for safety’s sake.”
The centre is not unused to unusual pets though – it’s currently home to 22 snakes, mostly of the corn variety.
However, there is also a nine foot Burmese python and a six foot Royal python.
Graeme said: “The exotics are sometimes hard to rehome because they fall in and out of fashion.
“The Burmese came to us from responsible owners who were having a baby and it simply wasn’t safe.
“So rather than sell it on Gumtree, which we’d advise people to steer clear of for buying and selling pets in any case, they contacted us.”
However, the centre has limited space and can’t take in every animal people no longer want.
“We have to prioritise,” said Graeme, “because we just don’t have the space.
“But we do belive every animal with us deserves a second chance.
“The centre is currently home to 146 animals, many of whom have been nursed back to health by our staff.
“And there’s nothing more rewarding for us to see them finding loving new owners.”
To celebrate the tenth Scottish Animal Week, which runs from September 4 to 10, the Aberdeenshire rehoming centre is throwing open its doors this Sunday.
A special fun day is being held to let people see what goes on at the centre on the outskirts of Banchory.
A host of fun events have been lined up from noon to 4pm including a bouncy castle, climbing wall, farrier display, BBQ, ice-cream van and Drumoak Primary School’s candy floss stall.
Graeme added: “Town and Country Vets will be staging a dog show from 1pm and, barring a call out, we’ll have a police dog hander too.
“We’re hoping for good weather and lots of visitors.”
Educating future generations
Jacki Donald has a dual role at the centre. In school term, she educates youngsters about the importance of looking after animals. And in the summer, she works as an animal rescue officer, having first signed up at Drumoak four years ago as an animal care assistant.
She now loves touring schools throughout Aberdeenshire and Aberdeen City, educating the animal lovers of tomorrow. Jacki (27), of Kemnay, said: “I visited 128 primary schools in Aberdeenshire alone in 2016 and spoke to more than 16,800 pupils.
“We offer talks on a range of subjects to fit in with the curriculum, including pets, farming, wildlife and the work of the SSPCA.
“So the teachers can choose the topic, depending on what work they are doing with the children.”
And these talks are more than paying off for the SSPCA. In the last five years, the number of children alerting the charity to wildlife in trouble or cases of possible cruelty has increased by a staggering 382 per cent.
Jacki said: “Children are certainly getting the message to alert us. Sometimes they call in themselves; other times they get their parents to call in for them.
“But it’s fantastic that our education programme is harnessing such fantastic results.”
If your child is in P1-P7, it’s highly likely they already know Jacki as she’s probably visited their school. She also does talks for youth groups like the Scouts and Guides as well as adult organisations.
But if you would like to find out more about her work or to book a talk, Jacki will be at the open day on Sunday with her rescue van, so members of the public can see some of the equipment used to rescue animals in peril – and she’d be more than happy to say hello.