Mastiff inspiration

Alexis Fleming runs one of the only animal hospices in the country. Here she talks about the dog that inspired her, how it’s paradoxically a joyous place to be – and about her own brush with death

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There are moments when Alexis Fleming can’t help but question the decisions she’s made, such as finding herself taunted on a regular basis by a turkey called Charles who’s made it his life’s mission to goad her.

“He’s a horror and loves it when I’m in a rage and thinks it’s a challenge to a fight. I’ll feed him and take care of him and make him safe, but I don’t have to like the prick!”

But then, as she fondly observes in her new book No Life Too Small, “I guess every family needs one.”

At 100-plus members, Fleming’s family is not only sprawling but unique, compiled of the elderly and terminally ill, as well as the waifs and strays that society’s turned its back on. They’re also of the feathered, fur and wool variety as Fleming runs the Maggie Fleming Animal Hospice, a one-of-a-kind haven in Kirkcudbright, south-west Scotland, where animals spend whatever time they have left enjoying the peace and contentment that they’ve been deprived of during their lives.

“I can’t change what’s happened to them, so it’s about what I can do now, and how I can create a home for them,” remarks the 40 year old who opened the hospice in March 2016.

Although friends, family and neighbours pop by to help, it’s predominantly a one-woman show, and the days are long, especially in the summer when Fleming likens the experience to “living with 120 sleep-averse toddlers who refuse to go to bed at night”.

She doesn’t mind admitting it can feel overwhelming at times. In fact, she says she had “a horrible wobble” earlier in the day, from sheer tiredness and grief at a couple of recent sudden deaths.

“I actually said to my dad when I was sat sobbing on the sofa: ‘I can’t take it, it’s too much.’ It seems like there is so much to do but it never lasts long – it’s just a passing frustration. I don’t get paid for it or get any money. It’s purely because I love them so much,” says Fleming.

“I’ve looked out on the world and thought, why does it have to be so brutal when it can be really beautiful? I just wanted to make a place that’s not that horror I see out there, and to be able to live in that is a gift. That’s the payoff.”

She wrote the book last summer, which was difficult at times, not only remembering the residents who’ve passed through and what they’d endured, but her own suffering as Fleming has Crohn’s disease, and has found herself at death’s door.

“It’s the animals that have kept me going. It’s a two-way thing. They take care of me,” she notes.

“It wasn’t a lot of fun writing the book because I had to feel it when I was writing it if people are going to feel anything when they’re reading it, but it was probably good for me to face the things I’ve pushed down, and it makes me grateful I even had the chance because I always promised to tell their stories.”

Fleming poignantly describes the troupe of characters she’s cared for over the years, making the book as much a celebration of them as a meditation on death and how it can be gentle and dignified.

“People get funny about death, and they might think the idea of being surrounded by it is morbid, but in order to really appreciate life, we have to appreciate death as well. Everyone’s going to think differently based on their beliefs and how they view the world, but it is an inevitability, and death’s not always a bad thing. If we face it with dignity and acceptance, it makes life a lot better as well.”

Growing up an only child, Fleming’s best friend was a Staffordshire bull terrier cross called Trouvee who her parents had found as an abandoned pup. When she died, her mum opened a cat rescue in her memory, which took over every aspect of the family’s lives. It’s how Fleming returned from work one day to find 17 kittens in her bedroom.

“Their need was greater than mine, so it was just normal for me. I didn’t see the sacrifices you have to make but rather how you adapt around them when you bring all these folks into your home,” says Fleming, who volunteered with animals and fostered dogs when she was older. She says she needs to be around animals to feel content but wasn’t in a position to take one on full time, until fate intervened.

Fleming with Maggie

One day in 2008, she was absentmindedly scrolling through online ads when the picture of “a hauntingly sad” brindle bullmastiff stared back at her. Although only 10 months old, the sale ad said 10 of her 12 puppies had died “so it’s no use to me”. The dismissive tone shocked Fleming, and Maggie, as she became known, was part of her life by the end of the day. It meant turning her whole life around “but it’s just what I needed to do”, says Fleming, who couldn’t help but dwell on the trauma Maggie had borne. “But that was me doing that – she was fine.”

It was the same with old man George, a 14-year-old labrador that soon joined the family. He’d spent four years in a shed “with no bed and no company”, when his elderly owner became unable to care for him.

“What he really wanted was love. For someone to notice him, to care about him, to massage his aching body, to hold him and make it better. He’d waited so long for a friend, and despite the years of sadness and loneliness, he was desperate to love someone back,” writes Fleming, but they only had 12 days together before he passed away.

Other faces joined the brood, some staying longer than others, but it was the death of Maggie in October 2015 that marked a turning point. She had been diagnosed with a tumour but had died unexpectedly of complications at the vet’s, and Fleming wasn’t with her to say goodbye.

“Maggie had died alone, but I had to cling onto the fact that she was carried through life by love, and that’s when the thought of opening a hospice found me. It wasn’t something I’d ever thought about and it was a ridiculous idea really because I’d been very ill but once it was there, it was always going to bother me. I suppose I’d kind of started the hospice before Maggie had even died without realising it because I’d taken on Osha, a terminally ill bullmastiff, but it took me six months to say I’m properly going to do it.”

Five years on and Fleming now cares for dogs, cats, pigs, birds, lambs and sheep, which she has a particular affinity for, especially the late Gimli, “the biggest, woolliest bastard of them all” on the four-acre site, which survives through donations from the public.

“I’d love more land but don’t have the time, money or resources just now. It’s knowing your limits,” she says. It’s why she has to turn animals away almost every day, which is “incredibly hard but it would become unmanageable”.

“I’ve got to be able to do it on my worst day by myself, and it would be unfair of me to overload the land and ruin it for everyone here. That’s not the point of it. This is somewhere to have a content life, not to cram as many animals in as possible and then they’re all miserable,” explains Fleming, who makes a quiet pact with every resident when they arrive.

She tells them there will come a point when they’ve had enough, and when that moment comes, they need to let her know and she promises to listen, “and then we don’t think about it again”.

“It’s just having that communication. I can feel when they’ve almost given up. They’re heavy, like they’re done and don’t want to fight anymore. That’s the worst possible moment but that’s when the promise comes in.”

As it did with Bran, an ancient dog who’d been abandoned on the streets of Edinburgh before arriving at the hospice. Despite only being given a few weeks, he lived for three more years before leaving behind his “creaky, worn-out auld body… with dignity, peace and love” in 2019. And Baggins, the kleptomaniac great Dane, who “left really peacefully” this summer.

Death might hover over this rural commune, but it’s a joyous place to live.

“It’s the simplicity of it that I love. With a lot of us, we all carry around so much, all these things lurking in the background, but with content animals it always just seems more peaceful. There’s less background noise,” says Fleming. “We all need that reason to get up, and I can go outside, in the sun and the wind, and be with them. It’s not only good for my body, but good for my mind and my soul.”

No Life Too Small by Alexis Fleming is out now, published by Quercus (

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