Alexis Fleming, author of new book No Life Too Small, lives with a brood of more than 100 dying animals. She opened the Maggie Fleming Animal Hospice in honour of her dog Maggie
By Susan Griffin Millie Reeves
In a remote part of Scotland, Alexis Fleming and her motley crew of dogs, sheep, pigs, and birds, are enjoying the good life.
Aside from the expected chaos of a 100-plus animals on site, it’s a place of tranquillity, contentment and happiness, and that’s despite the fact that death looms large in these parts.
Fleming runs the world’s first animal hospice, a place where animals, many of whom have experienced brutality at the hands of previous owners, can live out their last days in peace and in Fleming’s words, ‘have a good death’.
“If we accept life then we have to accept death. It’s one inevitability, and it can actually be a really beautiful thing. It’s going to happen, and we’ve all got it inside of us to make someone’s death a lovely thing. It’s a gift to be able to do that, so that it can be faced with dignity and acceptance,” says Fleming, 40, who opened the Maggie Fleming Animal Hospice in honour of her beloved dog, Maggie.
In her new book, No Life Too Small, Fleming recalls how the pair first met after she came across an online ad by accident.
The photograph of a brindle bullmastiff ‘small and skinny’, and ‘hauntingly sad’ caught her attention but it was the accompanying wording that sealed their fate.
Bought for breeding, 10 out of 12 of the puppies had died, so ‘it’ was of no use and the girlfriend was beating ‘it’ up – ‘10 months old. £100’, the ad stated.
Fleming wasn’t in a position to care for a dog, but she couldn’t turn her back.
“I had to turn my whole life around but it’s just what I had to do. It was never a debate,” says Fleming, who provided Maggie with a safe and happy home, and likewise Maggie supported her new owner as she battled a chronic illness.
So, it broke Fleming’s heart when Maggie died of lung cancer on a vet’s operating table seven years later.
Although Maggie was ill, it was unexpected and Fleming was beside herself that she wasn’t there at the end, but then the idea of opening a hospice occurred to her.
“It was a ridiculous idea really because I’d been very ill and going through such horrible grief at losing Maggie, but the thought was there, and was always going to niggle until I did something about it.”
The hospice opened in 2016 and Fleming has welcomed a host of old, terminally ill and abandoned characters through its doors over the past few years, including lots of canine pals such as George, Osha, Annie, Bran, B and Digger.
“I’ve never known a dog to wag a tail at me and be lying about it. Dogs are very emotional and pick up on your feelings, so, if you have happy dogs around you, you know you’re hitting the target. It’s a lovely thing because they are dependent on us, and knowing you’re making someone really happy makes me satisfied and happy,” says Fleming.
“It’s a very deep but simple relationship. I’ve got the same relationship with sheep. They very much get into your heart and your soul. I can’t imagine life without any of them.”
Baggins, a Great Dane, is one of the most recent residents to have passed away.
Before arriving at the hospice, he’d been left on his own in a garden without shelter, and almost starved to death.
“He was a kleptomaniac, spent his days winding folk up, knocking them over and thieving and thinking he’s the most hilarious guy in the world. He had an absolutely brilliant time here, but one day he looked at me and said I’m done, and I said ‘okay pal’. The vet came and he left really peacefully.
“I’m devastated, I miss him so much and always will but I’m so happy for him because it was a beautiful death, and it’s possible for that to happen,’ says Fleming, who has learnt to accept what she can and can’t control so it doesn’t become overwhelming.
“Some of the animals have been through traumatic situations, but there’s nothing I can do about their past, it’s all about what I can do for them now.”
And although people often presume she wouldn’t want to get too close to her residents to prevent greater heartbreak, the opposite is true.
“You’ve got to know someone really well to know when they’re saying ‘I’m done’ and then face that,” explains Fleming, who makes a deal with every new arrival.
“I say to them, ‘There will come a point where you don’t want to be here anymore, you’re fed up and had enough. Tell me and I promise I’ll listen’, and then we don’t think about it again. That’s the way I find that helps me and them the most. We know that day will come, and I’ve made a promise and I can’t break it but until that point, we just enjoy it. It’s just about enjoying it while they’re here.”
Although friends and family stop by to help, Fleming runs the hospice primarily by herself, which often means 20-hour days, but despite the exhaustion, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“A friend of mine said it doesn’t matter where you go here, there’s a happy face smiling at you and it’s true. It has been a real slog at times, and there have been times when I’ve wanted to chuck it all in and stamped my feet and thrown Hobnobs in the pond but it’s an amazing way to live being surrounded by happy folk. I mean, it’s not perfect, folk die and it’s traumatic and horrific at times but overall, we’re all really content and it’s just a great way to live.”
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