THE RSPCA has been called in to help advise a mortgage company which repossessed a Weardale wildlife sanctuary - and hundreds of animals.
Baliffs entered the Rainbow Ark Animal Sanctuary, at Milkup Bank Farm, to repossess the property yesterday after owner Paula Campbell fell behind with her repayments.
Ms Campbell has spent 20 years looking after all kinds of poorly and unwanted animals but the recession, and rising food costs, left her hopelessly out of pocket.
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The decision by North Yorkshire-based money lender Redstone Mortgages to repossess the sanctuary has prompted a public outcry and growing fears for the fate of hundreds of cats, dogs, donkeys and other animals at the site.
However, the RSPCA last night reassured animal lovers that the menagerie was safe and well.
Britain's biggest animal charity sent inspectors into the facility to check on the animals. Afterwards it said none of them were in immediate danger or distress.
Redstone Mortgages released a statement to The Northern Echo saying it was not planning to rehome the animals immediately.
Within hours of the eviction, volunteers were overwhelmed with calls and emails from animal lovers and charities as far away as Norwich and London offering to help.
Paula Campbell, who set up the sanctuary at her home, said: “Literally hundreds of people have been in touch, some upset and angry at what has happened and others just saying they care and asking what they can do.”
Ms Campbell, who is recovering after collapsing during the eviction, set up her Christian-based sanctuary in a remote spot in Weardale more a decade ago.
FIRST AID: A police officer assists Paula Campbell following her collapse
The RSPCA at the Rainbow Ark Animal Sanctuary
She thought about giving up last year but found she didn't have the heart to turn her back on so many animals that needed her help.
So she carried on and, yesterday, a team of baliffs turned up to make the decision for her.
Crying, she said: “I was just overwhelmed, it has been my home and life’s work for 11 years.
“You come in to this world with nothing and go out with nothing, it is the work you do in between that counts, so this isn’t about the money for me it is about caring for those animals.
”I was forced to leave so many animals behind, I have been sick with worry about them.”
Eight people, including Paula , her family and volunteers, held a peaceful protest against the eviction, but to no avail as the farm was repossessed due to thousands of pounds worth of mortgage payment arrears.
The baliffs - who demanded that photographers and television crews not take their picture - ignored sanctuary volunteer John Proctor who tried to deny them a right of entry.
When they entered the sanctuary, the protestors were told they were now trespassing on private land owned by the mortgage company. No one seemed to know what arrangements had been made to feed the animals that were looking on and the scores more in the barns.
Rachel Bayley, marketing executive at HML, which manages the administration for Redstone Mortgages, said: “We cannot comment on what will happen to the animals.”
However, at a court hearing in 2011 the company pledged that the animals would be rehomed.
A distraught Mr Proctor said: “We have done everything we can do to keep the sanctuary but it’s made no difference. We are devastated, all of us here and especially Paula have only ever had the best interests of the animals at heart.
“Now our priority will be to find homes for the animals, and we are contacting other sanctuaries to see if they can take them in.”
A blockade was set up at the entrance to the farm to stop bailiffs gaining access
Bailiffs pin a notice requesting the removal of personal effects from the property
Ms Campbell’s daughter Jayne said she was outraged at the way she was treated by the bailiffs.
She said: “It was disgusting, they were awful to me, I was given five minutes to get all of my mum’s things, including her pet dogs. It’s been a horrible ordeal for the animals as well, two of our cats have run away and the dogs were obviously scared, these people had no respect for the animals whatsoever.”
Happier times: Paula Campbell at the sanctuary in 2011
Ms Campbell said she and her mother will now fight for the sanctuary through the courts.
She said: “My mum is a hard woman and a real fighter, but today she was just tired with it after fighting these people for so long.
“They knocked us down this time but we will work together and build ourselves back up, we still believe what happened was illegal and we will fight it, if only for the sake of the animals.”
Rachel Bailey, for Redstone, said: “Redstone takes its obligation as mortgagee in possession very seriously and will take all necessary steps to ensure the safety and welfare of all animals at the property.”
The RSPCA has had officers at the scene to ensure those animals reliant upon electricity were taken to a vet for priority care on Wednesday night.
A spokeswoman said: "We have five officers on site today (Thursday, January 30) who are assisting with the feeding and watering of the animals in situ and are giving advice to the people who are currently responsible for them to ensure their welfare is secure.
"Vets have also been called in on RSPCA advice to check over all of the animals."
Volunteers hope to work with animal welfare officers who have access to the site on the lengthy process of rehoming animals including cats, dogs, donkeys, horses, pigs, alpacas and rhea birds.