Tracey Cooper's animal sanctuary

Tracy Cooper has battled life-threatening illness for years—but what she really cares about is her mad menagerie of animals.

Kia the Rottweiler

Sitting in the vet’s waiting room, Tracy Cooper was worried sick about her Rottweiler Kia. Two hours earlier, at her cottage in Ardleigh, Essex, she’d called her rescue dogs in for their night-time feed. The husky, the five Cavalier King Charles spaniels, the retriever and the other Rottweiler bounded up, as usual. But Kia just sat there, licking her stomach.

Kia had only been with Tracy a few weeks. A woman from Luton had had to get rid of Kia—seven young children and six Rottweilers were, she’d discovered, too much to handle. Tracy took two dogs. Kia had been spayed the previous day, but the stitches had somehow come away and the dog’s insides were hanging out like a cow’s udder. “I don’t know how long she’d been like that,” Tracy remembers.

The 48-year-old had set up her pet-rescue service in 2001. Since then, Tracy has taken in thousands of unwanted pets from all over the country—looking after between ten and 100 at any one time. She finds most of them new homes, but some, like Kia, she keeps.

The emergency vet bandaged Kia and gave her anti-inflammatories, but there was no chance of survival. Tracy wouldn’t accept that, though, and the next day persuaded another vet to operate. Kia survived, vindicating Tracy’s persistence. But this was just the latest example of her refusal to give up on seemingly lost causes in a lifetime of care for vulnerable animals—and personal survival.

 

12 Months to Live

At 27, Tracy had been diagnosed with breast cancer and given 12 months to live. Two operations on her right breast followed, along with six months of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and group therapy. She had the BRCA1 gene mutation that suppresses the ability to repair damaged DNA and produce tumour-fighting proteins. But despite what three doctors told her, Tracy pulled through.

“I had a two-week-old baby, Poppy, and a four-year-old son, Ben,” she says.  “No way was I leaving.”

But someone left—Tracy’s husband. Thinking his wife would die and not wanting to be alone with two young children, he ran off. “There was no discussion, no arguments; he just went without even telling me, and never came back,” Tracy says. “Ten years later, I found out he was in America. I was heartbroken; he was the love of my life.”

And while Tracy struggled to come to terms with her loss, four years later, the cancer came back. Another operation and more therapy followed.

 

Starting up the sanctuary

It was in her cancer support-group meetings that Tracy first had the idea of working with animals. Other sufferers would ask her what she wanted to do with whatever time she had left. Tracy didn’t know at first. Just spend time with friends and family, she supposed. But then she remembered that she’d always loved animals, having grown up with red setters and cats.

Working full time as an administrator at financiers Merrill Lynch and battling cancer, Tracy didn’t follow her dream in the nine years that followed. But she became tired of City life—chasing money and dealing with shallow people. The final straw came when her boyfriend Sean Hicks and her best friend Mo Chbani were caught up in the World Trade Centre attacks on 9/11. They’d survived, but Tracy didn’t find out for some while after. “I realised that time with loved ones was more important than cash,” she recalls.

Later that year, she took voluntary redundancy when Merrill Lynch relocated to Dublin. Soon after, she set up her first pet-rescue centre in the back garden of the house she rented in Epping. To help fund it, she also opened a boarding house for small pets.

“There were plenty of kennels and catteries,” she says. “This was somewhere people could bring their rabbits, hamsters, gerbils and ferrets when they went on holiday.”

After two years, Tracy moved with her animals to another rented site near Theydon Garnon, Essex. Two years ago, with the help of her parents, who own a property-development company, she bought her cottage in Ardleigh, with an acre of land and no close neighbours to complain about the noise.

 

Purdy the King Charles Spaniel

Most owners, Tracy finds, either can’t afford to keep their pets or are moving on and can’t take them with them. But sometimes she gets an animal that’s been abused and abandoned. Two and a half years ago, Tracy took in a King Charles spaniel, referred to her by a breeder in Southend. Purdy would throw herself on her back and urinate all over herself as soon as someone approached her.

It was submissive behaviour—the breeder revealed that the dog had been sexually abused by her previous owner. The man’s relationship had ended and he’d decided to victimise his former lover’s beloved pet. He’d even filled Purdy’s water bowl with holes, so the dog couldn’t get a drink.

“There was talk of prosecution, but nothing happened,” Tracy says.

When she first let Purdy out, the dog ran off and hid in the bushes. It took hours to find her. “There was no chance of rehoming her,” Tracy says. “She was desperate to be loved, but no one wants a dog who behaves like that.”

But with Tracy’s care and attention, Purdy gradually regained some confidence. Although she has some way to go, she’s no longer so submissive and doesn’t flinch when Tracy tries to stroke her. 

 

Merlin the African Grey Parrot

Tracy doesn’t rehome her rescue parrots either. Not unless there’s a zoo or a specialist project that can take them. A parrot cage costs up to £600 and the birds need a very specific but wide-ranging diet, taking in crumpets, cheese, bacon, Braeburn apples, even fish pie.

Merlin, an African grey parrot Tracy took in five years ago, had pecked off half his feathers. Parrots do this if they have fleas or allergies, but Merlin was just bored. Such birds, Tracy explains, are intelligent animals that live in flocks in the wild. Merlin’s owner loved his pet, but he was away with work a lot, leaving the animal on his own in a cage. “Parrots need stimulation, toys or to forage for food in their cage,” Tracy says.

At first, Merlin bit Tracy if she tried to pet him, or even give him food. OK, she thought, I’ll feed, water and clean you and leave you to it. But over the next six months the parrot came round, and Tracy put a plastic collar on his neck to stop him plucking his feathers out.

Tracy has nine parrots at the moment. More come for boarding from time to time. The singer Marc Almond brings in his African grey, Jake—who’s been known to blast out a few bars of “Tainted Love”. Merlin, who’s much happier now he has some company, isn’t quite up to that, but he can manage a quick “I’m loving it” from the McDonald’s advert.

Life with her animals and—for the last 18 months—her new partner Colin Wood was pretty good for Tracy. But if you have the BRCA1 gene mutation you’re never completely clear of cancer. On the morning of May 2012, Tracy felt a lump in her breast. The disease was back.

 

An ongoing battle with cancer

Tracy had a double mastectomy that June, and complications meant she had to go back in for another operation in July. For three months she was bedridden and couldn’t use her arms. It took her six months to get mobile. Colin combined night shifts at Sainsbury’s with looking after the animals, as Tracy spent her days and nights in bed or lying on the sofa. But the mental effects of her condition hit her hard.

“I didn’t think I could go through this all over again, not at my age,” she says. “I wasn’t as strong as I used to be.”

Somehow, the animals seemed to know Tracy wasn’t well. “They drew back, became less demanding,” she adds.

Tracy still goes to chemotherapy every Friday. People tell her she’s tough, but she cries a lot, particularly in the mornings. “I get it out of my system, then get up, because I have to let the dogs out and feed the parrots,” she says. “If I’m too poorly first thing, I get up in the afternoon. Wander around in my pyjamas if I have to.”

Just recently, a woman from Crawley turned up with two baby terrapins in a tin. The week before, Tracy rescued two pet ducks with clipped wings, standing in the middle of the road. Two of her spaniels have recently had puppies, and a few days ago the police phoned her in the middle of the night.

“There’s a pig tied up on the A137,” they told her. “Can you come and get it?”

Then there are Tracy’s own animals. Kia the Rottweiler always comes over when Tracy goes outside. “I stroke her face, wipe the crusty bits off her eyes and she trundles off a happy dog,” Tracy says.

Merlin, meanwhile, puts his beak in Tracy’s hands these days, and even regurgitates for her. Parrots only do this to provide food for one of their chicks. “If anyone else tries to change Merlin’s water, he lunges at them.

“There are too many animals to look after, too many people who need a new home for their pets,” Tracy says. “They rely on me. I’m not going to die yet.”