'I've Adopted 70 Rescue Dogs'

I grew up actively disliking dogs. My mother was very "anti-dog" and we lived in a home that didn't welcome them. They were regarded as dirty and smelly and I felt no connection with them whatsoever.

As an adult, I started as a lawyer but ended up working in management development for a major international bank. My work involved travelling the world and I had young kids, so I was always buying gifts to bring home. Whilst in a department store in Kuala Lumpur, I bought my son, who was 2 years old at the time, a funny looking soft toy. I thought it was cute, but he hated it.

Some years later, I was at a garden show and in the distance, I saw a strange dog that looked exactly like the soft toy. I was so excited that I went running after the owner to ask her what breed it was. It was a Shar Pei. Two weeks later we had our own Shar Pei puppy who we named Kaiti. Later we wanted a companion for her and got an English Pointer. Then, shortly after, we were asked to rescue two hairy French hunting dogs. We did and our lives changed forever.

Around this time, I became self-employed, wrote a business book and as a result, spent time traveling to 58 different countries around the world. Each time I returned to the U.K., I liked living there less, and eventually I persuaded my wife to leave. By the time we emigrated to Canada in 2006, we had six dogs and two cats. To everyone else, it seemed like a huge number of pets.

At considerable expense, we took all of our animals with us. People thought we were mad. Then a few months after we settled into our new home in Alberta, somebody drove past our house and left a Siberian husky by the gate. Nobody locally knew we already had dogs, so it was a totally random act. We told friends what had happened, word spread, and people began to ask us if we could take other rescue dogs.

Once we started, request after request came in. We could have adopted a new dog every week. Before we knew it, we had 19 dogs. The number wasn't really a big deal. You get to a certain point where another dog doesn't really make a whole lot of difference!

Many came from the US, necessitating very long journeys. Once, I drove a 3,500-mile round trip to New Mexico to fetch an abandoned St Bernard, who's still with us. But we couldn't take just any dog. We had to be selective about who would fit in with the pack. With so many, it's vital that they all get on and don't fight.

A lot of the dogs have been either psychologically or physically abused; we have taken old, deaf, blind and limbless dogs, and dogs who are terminally ill. We care about them deeply; adopting them feels like the right thing to do and we enjoy having them. Early on we discovered that many troubled dogs, when living alongside dogs that haven't had negative experiences, quickly rehabilitated. So, we have always also had dogs that aren't rescues for that very reason.

One weekend, after we'd been living at our Alberta property for four years, Sharon and I were out while our son Tristan looked after the dogs at home. A group of bikers happened to take a break at the bottom of our drive, which our dogs were not pleased with. By now, eight or nine of them were huskies. They thought their home was being invaded and went crazy. They made a lot of noise. A neighbor put in a complaint to the local authorities and we got a visitation from a Canadian "peace officer." He explained that a change in local bylaws meant we could only have three dogs without a kennel license.

Dogs, special needs, rescue, rescue dogs
Mark Starmer with some of his dogs. Mark and his wife Sharon currently have 38 dogs and around 90 farm animals living on their property. Mark Starmer

We applied and at our license hearing, the neighbor who had complained claimed our dogs barked all night. Another neighbor said they were loud all the time. It simply wasn't true. As far as I know, our closest neighbor didn't even realise we had dogs. Nonetheless, our application was rejected so we had to either get rid of the dogs or move house. There was no contest.

It took us three years to find the right place, somewhere that the dogs would be safe. So, by the time we moved to British Columbia in 2013, we were up to 26 dogs. Where we live now is seriously remote and we were able to go from having nine acres of land in Alberta to now having 95 acres. Land is a lot cheaper here.

By the end of 2014, the number of dogs had risen to 47— mostly giant breeds—and we were penniless. They all live indoors, but fortunately, a wonderful friend offered to pay for a secure play enclosure for them. A 4 acre compound with 7ft high fencing was built so the dogs could run out and be free. I made a video of them being released into it that has been viewed more than 45 million times across different platforms. I still get emails about it. If only we had a penny for each time it was viewed!

It's easy to make the assumption that all dogs are the same, yet each one is quite unique with very different needs. If they are focused on us they get attention; if they are not, that's fine. Friends of ours have observed that our dogs seem to get exactly what they want and need. For instance, our Newfoundland, Abigail, wants to be with me wherever I go, but I'll see some of our huskies only when they come to me for affection. They prefer to spend their whole day playing outside.

Sadly, some of the dogs have been so damaged by their past experiences that they don't really want a relationship with humans. One of our rescues is actually a gray wolf. She's 18 this year, and blind, but she's absolutely fine and quite happy, despite having had an appalling early life. She was kept as a pet by a hunter who used to beat her to "train" her. It's not surprising she has never wanted the human connection that some of the dogs do.

We've adopted 70 dogs over the years. But if you include the ones we have found and fetched for other people, we've actually rescued more than 100. Over time, Sharon and I began to feel that while we were helping many dogs, we could still do more. We had so much land that wasn't being used, so we started taking in farm animals.

At present, we have more than 90, including pigs, chickens, sheep, alpacas, cows and horses. We are essentially farmers who don't kill anything. Now, we're planning to open the space up as a sanctuary so people can stay here and experience what it's like. It has a beautiful energy and it's great to be with the animals. We've been vegans for many years and we want to create a place where other vegans can come to refresh, connect with the animals and go away committed to making a difference in the world by helping animals themselves.

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We live in what feels like a piece of paradise, but the work never stops. Christmas Day is the same as every other day of the year. The animals have to be fed twice a day and all the chores we would do every other day of the year have to be completed. We never get to leave. In fact, we haven't had a holiday since before we left the U.K. It's a commitment you make and we made that commitment willingly because we get so much in return.

People ask if we miss the lifestyle we had before. We were quite well off before we spent all our money on animals, and when we had a lot of money, we spent a lot of money. We lived well. Now, all I can think when I look back is how much money we wasted that could have been spent in a better way. I wish we had some of it now, even to pay the annual hay bill.

I'll be 60 in 2021, and because I was a baby affected by thalidomide—my right arm is six inches shorter than the my left—my body ages at a much faster rate than a "normal" person's does. I'm not badly affected compared to many, but I already have, effectively, the body of a 70-year-old. The physicality of our lifestyle takes its toll. Our hope is that someone will eventually come and work here in our stead when we're unable to any longer. We do have about five or six regular volunteers, but things don't get any easier as we all age. If it weren't for our son's physical help, we'd already be struggling to cope with keeping everything going.

In the past year or so, our rescue of dogs has been curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our dog population is also aging. In 2019, seven died in one year and another four died in 2020. We have already lost three dogs this year—heartbreak is guaranteed if you love your animals. Currently we have 37 dogs but it's a certainty that we will rescue more eventually.

This all began 24 years ago when we took in our first displaced souls, and animal rescue has effectively been our lives, full time, for around 14 years now. Working and living with dogs and animals has refocused our beliefs and the basic principles that guide what we do.

When it comes to living with the animals, it's almost a selfish thing for us. They are incredible beings to spend your life with. We actually feel more privileged than anything else. Some people tell us that what we do here is wonderful and inspiring but I'm personally prouder of the fact that, to date, I have been able to impact the dietary choices of around 120 people. They have stopped eating meat or taking anything from animals and become vegans.

Animal advocacy is our purpose. It isn't an easy life and we live hand-to-mouth, so I wouldn't necessarily recommend others to do what we have done. But we get by, it's totally fulfilling, and we're very, very happy.

Mark Starmer lives in British Columbia, Canada with his wife Sharon Starmer, their 38 dogs and more than 90 farm animals. You can find out more about their lives and their sanctuary, Piece of Heaven Project here. You can follow Mark on Instagram @somedogsareangels.