Imagine going into work and being smothered in a sea of slobbering kisses and bowled over by a stampede of adoring furry admirers. That’s what many animal entrepreneurs experience when they arrive in the morning – instead of a grunt from the office grump. From devoted dog walkers and alpaca farmers to pygmy goat breeders – they adore their careers.
One adventurous spirit is Laoise Downes, once a PR executive with her own marketing company and now the happy owner of a dog-walking and minding service called Outpaws.
Downes originally set up her marketing company in 2003. “I put my heart and soul into that business,” she says, with one of her beloved dogs on her lap. “It thrived for many years but with the sudden decline in business due to the recession, it folded in 2011. So I pulled up my sleeves and enrolled in a communications course in DCU.”
On graduating, she worked on radio and music documentaries, but found her heart wasn’t really in this line of work.
“I found it tough carving out a demanding and unpredictable path in the communications business and trying to make ends meet. My marriage had broken up and I felt like I was existing but not truly living.”
She decided to follow her passion and set up a dog-walking service in her local Dublin 4 area instead, and she hasn’t looked back. By merging her passion for animals, particularly dogs, into a lifestyle career, she found contentment and a fulfilling career.
“Animals are incredibly therapeutic. They live only in the present moment, which helps me to stay present. Every day, they teach me something new about love, affection, forgiveness and consistency. I don’t have any children, but I feel that love through my family of woofs. It’s so rewarding to watch them grow and adapt to the world around them.
“Since setting up Outpaws I’ve met fantastic like-minded people through dog-walking groups. The exercise is also fantastic and I feel more energised than ever before. It’s true what they say – if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life!”
Every day is different for the Outpaws gang, consisting of healthy dog walks and regular doggy day-care clients. Downes’ morning usually starts at 8am, when the canine clients are dropped off and ends about 5.30pm with the last pick-up from day care. “Myself and my pet dogs often visit elderly clients at their homes in the local area to cheer them up. We might head off to Herbert Park, Dodder Park, Sandymount Strand and Killiney Hill.”
Downes often works weekends too, when she offers a dog-minding home service, along with grooming from a local parlour so the owners can pick up a spotless, pampered pet. Another package is Wedding Woofs for clients who want their furry friend to be at their wedding.
“Working with animals is certainly therapeutic. I get to wake up every morning always grateful and looking forward to the day ahead. I know that everyone isn’t in a position to follow their dreams, or just change career, but if I was to offer any advice it would be to make sure whatever you do, that every day counts for something and means something to you.”
Fancy sharing your couch with a meerkat or discovering a hen in your bathtub? Welcome to Animal Magic Wildlife and a typical evening with Rosie Campbell and her partner Denis McCarthy. They live in Kilmallock, Co Limerick, along with 130 wildlife pets, many who have been rescued or rehabilitated. They also have two grown-up sons.
“We have been in business for 20 years and we give lectures and animal displays to educate children and students about the nature of many wildlife species,” says Campbell. “We do lots of chats for schools, colleges and birthday parties and we bring along our colourful collection of birds, reptiles, meerkats, tortoises, rabbits, chinchillas, hedgehogs and ferrets so the audience can engage and interact with animals.”
They also offer falconry classes with Ballyhoura Falconry displays. “There is a lot of interest in birds of prey in Ireland and quite a number of people want to pursue it as a hobby.”
Campbell has an eagle eye for spotting bird behaviour. “You can train a wild bird but never truly tame it, so you have to respect their boundaries. In fact, birds of prey don’t like humans very much and can be quite unpredictable and a little aggressive. However, they are very intelligent, and we are lucky to have the space for them to fly,” she says.
One of their pets is a talking raven called Bran, who is very clever. “Bran comes out with all sorts of funny remarks. He is able to use tools and do tricks for the children. However, he also likes to steal things like my house keys and hide them in all sorts of strange places!”
Their oldest bird is a 34-year-old African-spotted barn owl and they have a kestrel called Emma, who is very good with children. On top of all this, they have two teenage sons – Cal and Donncha – who enjoyed growing up with animals. Although sometimes they have found a bird in the sink or a roaming tortoise in the wardrobe!
Campbell frequently gets rescue requests from wildlife rangers, farmers and neighbours who may have come across an injured animal.
“It’s a labour of love,” she says. “We will never be rich on it as we plough money back into animal food, shelters and equipment, however, it’s our passion and we wouldn’t change it for the world.”
I caught up with Paul and Elizabeth MacDonnell and their herd of elite, prize-winning alpacas at Hushabye Farm in the foothills of Slieve Bloom in Co Laois. How did they acquire such a cute bunch of cartoon creatures who hail from Peru?
“I did a bit of research into grazing animals, but I didn’t want the usual run-of-the-mill like cattle or sheep,” says Paul. “I got interested in alpacas and sourced a small breeder in the south of England at first. We started out eight years ago with three alpacas – now we have 70 in total.”
Paul and Elizabeth are committed to breeding top-quality alpacas and providing their customers with the expertise and support to make their dreams of alpaca ownership a reality. They are ably assisted by their four young daughters.
The alpacas come in 22 different shades, creating wool full of diverse hues.
“We employ a professional team of guys to come and shear them as their fleece is so fine. The wool is sent on to high-end craft spinners who specialise in alpaca wool. We would like to invest in fine-wool spinning equipment that is geared for the production of their fleece, which is too fine for mainstream machines.”
The MacDonnells’ four children love their Peruvian pets and visitors come to experience walking, petting and learning about this unique herd. Hushabye Farm also hosts small spinning workshops. The family has restored a quaint stone cottage where tourists can stay on their woolly wonderland holiday.
‘Wilds of Peru’
“The good thing about these animals is that they can tolerate extreme weather – from very hot to freezing cold – although they probably deem our weather quite temperate in contrast to the wilds of Peru.”
Their herd is growing apace, with lots of baby crias born every year. The alpaca female usually has one offspring per year. Three boys and 22 girl crias arrived this year. The males are hired out to stud. The docile species are in demand for wedding photos or might visit nursing homes to cheer up the residents.
“They are also great for minding poultry and will keep the foxes at bay – but you always have to watch out for dogs as once they travel in packs they are unstoppable.”
Paul would love to get more people to invest in alpaca farming, as there is a strong industry for producing blankets, quilts and jackets.
“There is an Alpaca Association of Ireland and together with the help of Enterprise Ireland we want to grow the industry by breeding more quality animals. The numbers of livestock aren’t sufficient as yet and the wool yield not high enough to get orders from businesses like Avoca. They could sell all our current output in a day,” says Paul.
“The wool is super-soft, hypo-allergenic and in big demand by the consumer at home and abroad.”?
In an idyllic valley in Co Carlow lies Turra Lodge, where the Kelly family live along with their miniature horses and pygmy goats. Sandra Kelly and her husband set up Turra Lodge pet farm 15 years ago.
“We got into the pygmy goat business by chance really,” explains Sandra, who has five children.
“The children all loved animals and so a steady stream arrived from pygmy goats, to miniature pigs, to hens and ducks. However, the pygmy goats are the easiest to mind as they are very hardy and great little pets. Now we sell a few goats every year from our 40-strong herd.”
The playful goats potter around in the paddocks. “They have little horns but never use them unless they were saving themselves from a fox – but they are very friendly with children and no bother at all.”
Pygmy goats cost about the same as pedigree dogs – about €300 for a female and €400 for a non-castrated male.
“We tend to sell castrated males as they are much easier to mind. Full males are a bit messy.”
David Kelly breeds the small horses and is helped by his sisters Alex and Sassy. “They have six right now, but they require a lot of attention, especially when foaling. The American miniature horses resemble their full-size counterparts. The horses have a look and temperament of an Arabian horse. They are high-spirited and always ‘on’ but are small enough for anybody to manage and feed. We particularly enjoy showing them and our main focus is on breeding halter horses for international competitions.”
In halter shows, the horses are judged against the breed standard. A high-quality American miniature has a balanced, elegant silhouette in the show-ring. They are lined up nose-to-tail to demonstrate their best profile.
Miniature horses retail for about €10,000 in the States and can fetch up to €20,000 if they are well-bred. David worked on a ranch in Texas to get a real flavour of a horsey career. However, when he came home he decided he needed a fall-back profession and studied software development and now has a job in IT. Sassy is doing her Leaving Certificate so this year they are enjoying a bit of down time before rebuilding up the herd.
Turra Lodge Farm may be a tourist attraction in the future, but they are keeping it in the family for the moment. This year, they raised money for autism with an open day during the summer. “The children realised that their animals can help and offer love and support to the wider community,” says Sandra.