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Book maps life of animal Mother Theresa

PUBLISHED: 09:38 26 February 2009 | UPDATED: 15:03 07 July 2010

Meryl Harrison pictured at the feline trust shop in Attleborough.

Meryl Harrison pictured at the feline trust shop in Attleborough.

She has been described as the Mother Theresa of animals after saving thousands of abandoned creatures in Zimbabwe. Her extraordinary story is now the subject of a new book.

Meryl Harrison's new book Innocent Victims.

She has been described as the Mother Theresa of animals after saving thousands of abandoned creatures in Zimbabwe. Her extraordinary story is now the subject of a new book. Celia Wigg reports.

Living on benefits in a small flat in Hingham, Meryl Harrison remains passionate about animal welfare and saves every penny she can to send her own aid parcels to Zimbabwe to help needy creatures in distress.

Born in London 70 years ago, she emigrated to Africa with her parents and was working as a chief inspector for the ZNSPCA (Zimbabwe National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in 2000 when land invasions began, and farmers and their families were forced from their homes to make way for Mugabe's 'war veterans'.

As soon as she learned of the barbaric injuries being inflicted on the pets and livestock left behind, Meryl swung into action with her team, and for the next five years bravely battled to save the abandoned animals. It brought her world-renown and coveted honours including the BBC special award for outstanding work in animal welfare, and the RSPCA overseas gallantry award.

But it was a love of animals, not praise, that led her to embark on the mission.

“The animal rescues came about after I was watching TV at home and saw BBC coverage of a Great Dane being beaten and left lying in the sun. There was footage of other dogs being stoned and killed. I was absolutely horrified, and thought if that is happening on the farms then the ZNSPCA has got a role to play. I had no idea it was going to last five years,” she explained.

“We had some really scary moments. The illegal occupiers of the farms knew the farm animals were valuable and, even with the pets, they gave us a hard time. We were barricaded in, and barricaded out, and one day we had guns waved at us. We always asked for an escort from the local police station and in many cases we got one. But at times the police were too scared to protect us and we were left out on a limb.

“I virtually made the rules up as I went along, and we only went onto farms if there was a hostile situation excluding the farmers from coming back. We rescued literally thousands of animals from goldfish and hamsters, to dogs, cats, pigs, sheep and wildlife.”

Little Nandi, the Australian cattle dog pictured on the front cover of the book is one of the many traumatised pets that were brought to safety, and in many cases reunited with their owners.

Meryl said: “Nandi is very special. The farm had been there many years and they had a big dog that ran to the gates and war veterans promptly shot it. The family had two small children and the wife said: 'We have got to go'. We were called in four or five days later and almost the whole inside of the house had been trashed. Nandi was lying in the shower absolutely terrified and as I picked her up she yelped.

“I took her to a vet who said there wasn't an inch that hadn't been beaten. She had been tied up with wire which she chewed through and ran back to the farm because it was the only home she knew.”

The book is based on her diary account of the farm rescues, and Meryl is full of praise for her dedicated team of helpers, one of whom was also honoured at the BBC awards.

“It was a very small team of two of three black inspectors at the most, and they were brilliant. Absolutely fantastic,” she stressed.

Her decision to move back to England was prompted by a disagreement with the Zimbabwean charity's board over its decision to splash out on a new HQ.“When the country is on its knees, the last thing you want is a smart headquarters. They should have spent it on neutering campaigns, donkey harness, and things that directly benefit the animals,” she said.

“I was adopted, and I only found out since I have been over here who my mother was. My twin brother was killed by Mugabe's officers and I also lost my partner. I came here with nothing and it's very difficult to adjust and get back on your feet again.”

Celebrating her 70th birthday this week, her local charity work is now focussed on Feline Care in Attleborough and the Cinnamon Trust which helps elderly people care for their pets.

Innocent Victims, by Zimbabwe author Catherine Buckle, is published by Merlin Unwin Books priced £16.99, and will be launched at Crufts dog show on March 5.

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