A woman whose compassion led her to set up the country’s first animal hospice is now concerned that too many dying humans lack the love and care they deserve.
Some years ago Alexis Fleming was bedridden with a severe chronic illness and wanted to end her own life – but thanks to her beloved dog Maggie, she made it through.
Maggie died two years later of lung cancer on a vet’s operating table and Alexis founded the Maggie Fleming Animal Hospice, based near Kirkcudbright, so that other animals would not die alone and in distress. She also set up its sister project the Karass Sanctuary for Farmed Animals.
Alexis’ days are long and demanding – feeding, medicating, exercising and cleaning so that the dogs, cats, cockerels (including a magnificent bird named Adam Jones), sheep, cattle and even turkeys are comfortable, happy and (for the sick) pain free.
Much of the idea is to make them feel loved, safe, secure and cared for. With one collie that had spent much of its life chained to a post (losing most of its teeth trying to chew through the metal) her ambition is that for even just a little while it can feel like “the best wee dog in the world”.
The story is told in her book No Life Too Small which Alexis will be discussing at the Wigtown Book Festival on Tuesday, 28 September.
But already a new chapter is unfolding. She says: “A lot of people are facing death alone and one of the things I’m interested in is doing for them the equivalent for what I do for animals. Just visiting people in their own homes, talking to them, perhaps helping them feel more comfortable and at ease.”
It’s something Alexis feels is sadly lacking in contemporary society where we fail to face death or grief very effectively.
The idea is in its early stages, and something she is considering offering locally, but it comes from a conviction that a good death is possible, one where anxieties have been addressed, old wounds healed and the end can come without fear.
She said: “The more I have done this with animals, the more I realise I want to do this with other humans – it’s having a connection with someone and that’s the key.”
These are feelings closely related to Alexis’ own experiences of desperation and the battle she faced to make it through.
And in the meantime people are already benefiting from her work – turning up and enjoying time with the creatures on her 4.5 acres of land. She says: “There are a few folk who have just left their phone at the door and gone up on the hillside to sit in a field – for a bit of sheep therapy.”
Many of the farm animals are on palliative care. Some have been passed to her by farming families who took sympathy on them including “lambs that were born blind, or a bit wonky or just not put together quite properly”.
Among the eight dogs she is currently caring for is a Staffordshire bull terrier called Benny, and another called Rupert, who has cancer and was dumped near Grimsby – who she describes as “just brilliant”.
And according to Alexis, the benefits of the care she offers flow both ways: “It certainly heals me. I can get me into some fairly tricky places at times, so when my body falls apart and I’m struggling, I’ve got to keep good for them.”
Wigtown Book Festival takes place from 24 September to 4 October.