Last week, leading to Christmas week, I was invited to visit the Island Sanctuary. Although by no means the first time I have visited an animal shelter, the experience never fails to fill me with both sadness and hope.

The sanctuary is located inside Tas-Silġ Fort, nestled between Birżebbuġa and Marsaxlokk. It was built by the British Forces as a line of defence for Fort Delimara, and until about 60 years ago was used by the 100th Signals Unit of the Royal Airforce. In what was almost a sign of things to come, one of the RAF’s canine mascots whelped her puppies there, and they were happily homed.

The Island Sanctuary lives up to its name. Any abandoned dog lucky enough to find its way there is truly blessed. As you approach the dog pens, you are welcomed by pen after pen of beautiful canine faces – some excited, some content, some hopeful and, yes, others fearful or angry.

These dogs come from many walks of life. Most have been cruelly abandoned by the family they loved so much. Others were born without a home and captured for their own safety. One of these dogs is Porto, so named because he was captured on the airport roundabout where he sheltered with his partner Mimma.

Porto and Mimma were both strays and so afraid of people it was impossible to capture them. Until, that is, Mimma got hit by a car and was left for dead. Distraught, Porto wouldn’t leave her side and that’s how the sanctuary volunteers managed to capture both. Mimma is now a lot better and still lives with Porto. This is one of the happier stories.

Sadly, the refuge is also home to dogs that cannot be homed. They were raised to be aggressive fighters and then dumped by their owners when they no longer brought in money. Still bearing the scars of their many battles, these dogs are too dangerous to entrust to new owners.

They have grown up to hate both dogs and humans and need to be penned alone. The volunteers risk life and limb by entering their pen to clean, feed and care for them. While I was there I saw an experienced female volunteer weighing less than one of these 50-kilo dogs tending to it with all the love and patience you would give to a puppy.

Some dogs are traumatised from abuse or neglect. Principessa is so afraid of people that when let out she invariably runs and hides under the bushes. Only one particular volunteer can manage to coax her out. These dogs remain anti-social and unhomable due to their terror.

For dogs that have mental scars, the sanctuary is a haven for the rest of their life, since it never puts down a dog unless it is suffering and it is absolutely necessary and when advised to do so by a vet.

For these dogs as well as old dogs that die there, a crematorium is available and their ashes are buried within the walls where they lived. The crematorium service is available to the public for many types of pets. You can take your pet’s ashes home and it is a beautiful way of keeping your loved one close after they have passed on. A donation is needed to help cover the cost of cremation.

For many of the abused dogs, the physical and psychological healing begins once they are safely within the sanctuary. With the volunteers’ help these dogs can be safely homed and the love of a new family can help them recover from trauma.

During their time at the sanctuary the dogs live in large and spacious pens, are hosed down every day and kept very clean. Their bedding is changed and laundered every day.

They enjoy a healthy diet and, best of all, they get to run around the fort’s grassy mounds every day. All dogs are neutered, receive medical care and are evaluated for possible integration back into society .

There are several young dogs that are perfectly suited to join your family. One advantage of adopting a dog from the sanctuary is the volunteers advise you about each dog’s character so you can find the perfect pet.

George and Bandit are two beautiful fox terriers who’ve been at the sanctuary for a couple of months. They would be ideal for owners who love to walk and exercise. There is also Maltija and Puffy, two pointer-type dogs and rather more sedate. These dogs have a lot of love to give.

By adopting a dog you not only benefit from your new pet’s love but you also help free up space for the sanctuary to take in other dogs that desperately need help.

Those who adopt such dogs remark that the love they get from a previously abandoned, neglected or abused dog surpasses the love they get from other dogs. Of course, this would be impossible without the dedication of about 15 women and three men who volunteer their time, tending to over 120 dogs – preparing meals, cleaning pens, as well as grooming and exercising the dogs.

Every year the sanctuary needs over €8,000 to pay its water and electricity bills. The meat, bread and vegetables for the meals cost €17,000 annually. Blankets, warm covers, towels and dog coats are always needed, as well as dog beds, leads, collars, dog toys and plastic basins.

There’s always lots to do and never enough hands to help, so any time you can dedicate would be welcome, even if it’s just to walk a dog.

If you can’t adopt a dog, you can sponsor one. If you’d like to help, call 2165 9895 or e-mail You can also see some dogs available for adoption at .

Dr Debattista is a veterinary surgeon.

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