London | Lord of the Rats

Because I’ve been trying to be proactive and find friends and happiness and whatnot recently, I decided to do some volunteering in London.

It’s a bit of a moral conundrum for me, because while I don’t think I’m intrinsically bad at heart, I also, if I’m honest, don’t have the compassion of those wonderful people you see working food banks and soup kitchens. You know the ones I mean—those motherly, gentle people who seem to exude love from every orifice, who would happily give up their every waking hour without a second thought, just to bring a little warmth into the lives of those who need it most.

Those people always make me feel guilty, because while I have volunteered plenty of times in the past, I mostly do it for me. I volunteer because it gets me out of the house, it makes me feel like I’m a good person, and it’s a nice way to meet people. This is as honest as I can be about the matter. I used to believe, when I first moved to London two months ago, that I wanted to volunteer out of the kindness of my own heart. This was disproved, however, when I first began Googling volunteering opportunities in the city.

There’s surprisingly little that requires you to get your hands dirty. All the soup kitchens around me are fully staffed until later summer. All I could find was a range of places that needed volunteer website managers and copywriters and SEO people, which is what I do for a living. This is how I can be so sure I’m not volunteering for benevolent reasons: if I was one of those gentle kindly people who just cannot stop caring, I’d take the copywriting work and do it from home, sitting alone at my desk at all hours. But I don’t do that, because that would plunge me once more into a lonely depression, and I’m far too fond of my mental health for that. I want to help, yes, but I also want to have a reasonably nice time while doing it.

I grew disheartened with my searching until last week, when I found an advert for a wildlife centre that needed volunteers. I read the description: they wanted helpers in to clean out the animals and feed them. A little footnote mentioned that you must be comfortable with handling dead baby birds, which are food for the lizards and snakes.

Lizards and snakes! I was thrilled. I didn’t love the idea of having to plunge my hand into a vat of dead birds, but I figured it was probably less macabre of a task than it sounded. Likely they gave you gloves, or one of those litter picking sticks.

The wildlife centre is south of London, and I took the train out there last week, one hot and sunny Wednesday when the sky was deep blue and pocked with pleasant little clouds. My induction was at 2pm, and three other volunteers arrived at the same slot. After donning facemasks and washing our hands, we were let inside the sanctuary for our introductory tour by a woman named Rose.

Rose was one of those kind and gentle people, deeply in love with animals of all shapes and sizes. As she led us through the complex, past little stables marked with signs saying ‘FOXES’ and huts marked ‘BADGER’, I gazed around in wonder at the stunning green oasis of wildlife, not one hour from my home in Streatham Hill. Vets in scrubs bustled from one small outhouse to another carrying poorly critters. Birds chirped and swooped for scraps of pet food dropped on the floor. White ducks were sitting in the sunshine on the grass, quacking to one another, and a sprinkler had been set up beside a large duck pond, turning it into a makeshift water feature.

We took a seat at an old picnic table beneath the shady boughs of a tree, and introduced ourselves one at a time: there was a man my age named Sammy, and two middle-aged women with grown-up children who wanted to put their newly reclaimed free time to good use. They were called Sarah and Claire. Claire had worked at the wildlife centre some twenty five years ago, volunteering when she was a teenager.

I felt absolutely elated as we sat in the sun and listened to Rose explain the comings and goings of the farm. My silly romantic head was swimming with visions of the cute animals I’d be saving—foxes I would bond with, chicks I would nurse to adult fatness, baby deer I would bottle feed each day until they grew antlers, badgers I would establish a tough mutual respect with. Then it was time to explore the complex.

We passed by the owl habitat, from within which 19 young tawny owls sat and watched us from on high, all sitting perfectly in rows on various platforms in their cage. From the darkened entrance of a stable marked ‘FOX’ I saw a pair of bright, inquisitive eyes staring at me from the blackness, then the flash of a bushy tail as its courage failed and it fled back into the safety of the den.

“Now,” said Rose, as we came to a stop outside an outhouse, “this is where we keep the birds and hedgehogs. We get a great many birds brought in here. Right now we’re in orphaning season, so there’s a real influx of birds without mothers, the poor darlings. ”

We stepped inside the hut, and at once I had to steel myself to the smell. It wasn’t so much an animal smell—dung, dog food, urine-sodden newspaper—as the kind of smell you’d have imagined to have hung in the air on the wards Florence Nightingale used to work on. It smelled like a lot of living things being very ill in very close proximity to one another.

Bracing myself against the whiff, I wandered the cabin peering into cage after cage. Dozens of bedraggled pigeons stared back at me, their feathers all ruffled and spiked up on their heads as though they’d only just woken up.

“There’s  an awful lot of pigeons here, isn’t there,” Sarah mumbled to me as we gazed at the sickly menagerie.

“Yes,” I agreed quietly. “A bewildering number of pigeons.”

I’m not talking about wood pigeons either, which are, in their own fat way, quite pretty. These were city pigeons—greasy and angular and lopsided. I nodded a silent ‘good luck’ to the pigeons, in the way a visiting politician waves vaguely to the inpatients during a hospital visit.

I left the hut and followed Rose across the lawn to the badger den. It was an enormous ring, with a walkway around the top which you could stand on and look down into their play area. Sadly they were all asleep and I didn’t get to see them. Rose’s advice, should any of us ever become trapped in the badger cage if the badgers were released accidentally, was to shout really loudly. I made a mental note.

Beside the badger coliseum was a kitchen. It became swiftly apparent, however, that this was one kitchen I wouldn’t be rustling up many crisp and cheese sandwiches in.

“This is where we prep the food for our guests,” said Rose. “Different animals have different diets, which means you need to make sure you give them the right mixture to help them grow strong.”

A girl in a green t-shirt waved to us from across the kitchen, where she was stood mashing something into a bowl. Rose showed us around the back of the kitchen to a large whiteboard, on which was detailed the food requirements of each ‘guest’ and when they had last been fed.

“Now this,” said Rose, pointing to a large top-opening freezer, “this is the rat bin.”

Alright, she might not have called it a rat bin, but that’s what it was. She flung open the freezer door and hoisted out a bag of around one hundred deceased white rats, vacuum packed, spooning each other in tight little rows. Then she dropped them back into the bin and picked up a sealable bag full of fluffy yellow chicks, frozen solid like Jack at the end of Titanic (spoiler).

It was at this moment, I’m afraid, that the doubts I’d been suppressing about the wildlife centre boiled over. I pictured myself grabbing a furry handful of rat and slinging it into the badger arena. My pupils grew large and my mouth hung open.

“Of course, back in the day,” said Rose, “anybody who wasn’t happy to prep the chicks and rats for meal times wouldn’t have got a look-in as a volunteer. If you absolutely can’t do it, however, nowadays we make exceptions. But it’s easy once you get used to it.” She dropped the hundred dead chicks back into the freezer and closed the door. “All you need to do is mash them up and serve them on a plate with some veggies.”

Ex-fucking-cuse me?

“Nobody had said anything about mashing them up!” I hissed to Claire beside me.

“The chicks pop when you slice them, it’s gross,” she grinned.

“No!” I gasped.

I was mentally tapping out further and further with each passing minute. I hadn’t signed up for this shit. I’d been hoping my first day as a wildlife volunteer would have me handling Bambi and a warm milk bottle, not a fistful of chicks and a mallet.

“And this,” said Rose after she’d finished plucking stray feathers from her fingers, “is the roadkill bin. We sometimes use roadkill to feed the badgers and foxes. But not always. You can’t feed a fox to a fox.”

It was a freezer like the others, only this one she quite conspicuously did not open.

“What a good idea,” said Sarah. “If I mow down anything in the future I’ll make sure to scrape it up and bring it in.”

“Fantastic my dear,” said Rose. “I always carry a shovel in my boot, just in case.”

Nope, nope. I’d logged out.

We explored the complex a bit more—Sarah got locked in a rookery for a while—but I couldn’t think of anything beyond bursting chicks. Maybe it would toughen me up, I tried to reason with myself. Maybe sawing the legs off of a hundred rats per day would make me more of a man, like Bear Grylls or Bill Oddie.

Lastly we entered the duck hut, wherein some 30 ducklings were tumbling around on newspaper and straw beneath a heat lamp. We all cooed over them for a while, until I got a bit flustered and went outside.

What the hell is the hierarchy in this place? I wanted to yell. Why is it fine to bulk buy dead chicks and rats, but you will spend weeks of your time to save one duckling? Why can people bring in a sickly rat they find on the pavement, and you will desperately defibrillate it back to life and nourish it and release it into the wild, but you buy ten thousand of them per month pre-throttled and packed into bags like a row of staples?

And it was mostly pigeons at the centre, anyway. Hundreds of the buggers. I don’t know about you, but I don’t really care for pigeons. They die all the time. I was watching telly once and one flew into the window and died immediately. Even pigeons don’t care about pigeons. Their legs fall off and they don’t even realise. They just get on with it.

I peered into one of the hut windows and watched two women in veterinary scrubs wiping sweat from their brows as they fought to resuscitate a crow.

“What are you doing?” I felt like tapping on the glass and saying. “It’s a crow. Just leave it.”

At the end of the tour, we were asked if we would be returning to volunteer.

“Yes definitely,” I said.

Sarah drove me back to the train station. I asked her what she thought about the wildlife centre.

“It’s not very… glamorous… is it?” she said at length. “I suppose I’ll do it. I’ve plenty of time. But I tell you what, I’ll not do any euthanasia. If they ask me to euthanise anything, I’m out.”

I agreed that I also didn’t want to do any euthanasia, and thanked her as I climbed out of her car.

She drove away and I bought a packet of crisps from a vending machine, then boarded the train that would bear me home to London, out of the little village, never to return.

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