A REMOTE farm in County Clare is giving a second chance to animals who have suffered cruel and abusive treatment under their previous owners.
Catriona and Pat Lowry set up the Hilltop Sanctuary to help former pets who had been mistreated by those who were supposed to take care of them.
Hilltop is not a registered charity, meaning they don't receive any financial help from the Government, and take the animals in out of sheer love and compassion.
"People ask me 'Are ye mad?' when we tell them we don't get any funding," Catriona tells The Irish Post. "I don't see myself as a crazy cat lady-- I'm quite rational but some might say overly sensitive when animals are involved.
"Pat is definitely more practical and reminds me that we have only so much space! Fostering is my way of taking more rescues in... but we often fail at that and they stay forever."
Pat and Catriona first met when Catriona used to feed hungry horses around the area, and at the time, Pat owned one dog-- the couple now take care of a whopping 67 rescues, including horses, donkeys, dogs, cats, rabbits and pigs.
Each of their animals are cared for in a specific way depending on their needs, and none are left behind: 13-year-old blind dog Tyke came to Hilltop after being rescued, along with a number of other dogs, from a 'hoarding' situation.
He and his friend, younger boy Brie, have a cabin all to themselves as they would be uncomfortable with other dogs: Catriona says creating the perfect space for each of their animals is "very important to us... to create these perfect spaces for these animals who had less than perfect starts".
"We recently had a man doing work at the sanctuary and Pat laughed when he asked were we fooled by whoever sold us a blind dog. Sadly, I guess some people find it hard to comprehend taking on animals with various issues or disabilities."
Reminiscing on her time feeding the horses she found in unfit conditions, Catriona says it was "frustrating" to see the horses being neglected and left to fend for themselves in barren fields, and "more frustrating when nothing was done when you reported them".
After five years, Catriona had to leave that life behind-- but her sanctuary means she can truly help neglected horses to have a better life.
"There is a chronic equine crisis in Ireland, and behind that statement is unimaginable suffering," she says.
Catriona knows this from first-hand experience-- this summer, a donkey was rescued by Limerick Animal Welfare after it was found being beaten by up to 20 youths in an inner-city housing estate.
"When he arrived to us, he was trembling and really shutting down, his hooves were in an awful state and his body was trying to cope with lack of body condition by growing more hair.
"He is only two but has endured a lifetime of suffering in such a short time," Catriona says. "But day by day he has learned to trust humans again."
This is clear by photographs of Eli now-- cheekily grinning at the camera, enjoying the brisk countryside air and hanging out with his new best friend, pony HollyB-- another abused animal who had to be saved from a group of youths who were beating him.
"It was like these two rescues knew each other from the city and they bonded immediately," Catriona explained. "HollyB is more responsible for Eli’s psychological recovery than us.
"He showed him how to trust again. He showered him with affection and even tried to get him to chase him. It was magical to see. Now they are constantly chasing each other!"
Some of Hilltop's other animals include pigs who were found with whip marks and who were initially terrified of humans.
"They were afraid to get out of the box they arrived in and had to be forced out," Catriona says. "It took many of us one full day in torrential rain to rescue them-- along with a huge carrot cake!"
As for their group of rabbits-- found dumped with domestic rubbish on the street-- Catriona admits she knew nothing about caring for the animals at first, but learned quickly when one rescued rabbit began pulling out her fur the very next day.
"I panicked that she was extremely stressed but the vet informed me she was building a nest and hence we have 8 rabbits now!" Catriona says.
"The adults are now neutered so no more surprises," she adds.
All of Hilltop's animals find peace and security with them, although sometimes it can take a while for rescues to learn to trust.
"It might take days," Catriona says, "or in the case of Peaches, one of our oldest rescue ponies, it took years."
"Pat was shocked one day when he was rubbing a horse's head as he was looking at something else-- and then he realised it was Peaches who had come to his hand. He was delighted."
"But then again," she says, "the greatest reward is probably when a rescue bounces back from near death."
"That happened to Cillian, a rescue foal, too young to be taken from his mother, who was literally thrown onto a city street. He arrived to us so sad, constantly calling for his mommy. He refused milk replacement, he refused any help so we wrapped him up and kept him warm and
gradually got him to drink.
"Animals are truly amazing," Catriona continues. "The moment we thought Cillian was really giving up, all the others in
the adjoining stables just went so still, it was as if they knew.
"But we weren’t letting him give up. Pat put him in a horse box again and drove him to this very wise, old-school vet who gave him a new lease of life.
"It is recoveries like his that are so rewarding."
"Between all our animals there are many survival stories," Catriona says. "And all of them get plenty of attention."
The sanctuary has now reached full capacity however-- and due to a lack of funding, despite help from the Leonard family, the Burns family, Limerick Animal Welfare, My Lovely Horse Rescue, An Cat Dubh, Babydog rescue, O'Connor's vets and many more, Hilltop cannot afford to make any more space to help more animals.
"Hilltop Sanctuary is something we choose to do so we don't complain when there are no personal luxuries of holidays," Catriona explains. "I guess the animals are our family who simply need support and care."
Incredibly, Catriona reveals she was shown this future 11 years ago: despite being sceptical, a friend dragged her to a fortune teller and she has never forgotten what she was told.
"She told me I would one day be surrounded by horses who needed my help. She even showed
me a card with a girl leading terrified horses through a dark valley."
"I rubbished her prediction and laughed, I told her I didn't even have a dog-- but ten years later all she said came true, and I still find it hard to believe."
"Yes, our annual vet bill is often the price of a car, but honestly a new car would never give us the
same fulfilment as the animals do-- and knowing we have played a part in actually saving lives and helping them to have a new beginning-- well, it’s priceless."
To help pay for a new shed which would allow Hilltop to take in more animals in need of their help, Catriona and Pat have released a calendar showcasing some of the rescues which have found happiness with them.
The shed would make more room for new animals, and provide the space to store bales of hay-- but the bigger dream, Catriona says, is to buy the field next to the farm-- expanding Hilltop Sanctuary even more.