The Polar bears of Churchill

Day 1

3am. Ouch. I should be used to these early starts now. I have caught coaches to the airport at around 4am for Brown bears, huskies, moose. Now I was jumping out of bed bright eyed and bushy tailed (I wish!) in the hope of viewing some Polar bears this coming week!

Everyone who asked me where I was going on my next trip would gasp and say “Amazing!” And I would cross my fingers and say “I hope so!” You never know with wildlife. They don’t always make a point of coming out and saying hello. But at the price of this trip I was hoping for success even if they did throw in a ticket to the luxury lounge at the airport! And a lot of good movies on both flights, first to Toronto, then to Winnipeg. After such a long day (and what felt like a bit of a grilling at Toronto- did I really look that shifty?), it was lovely to be stopping at a hotel right next to Winnipeg airport. Before the day was over (how many days- still the one!?) we got to meet our guide and everyone else on the tour. And pick up the warm clothes I had hired- very much needed!

Our guide was impressive, very welcoming, very approachable, I liked him straight away. And he said there had been a LOT of successful bear viewing on all the tours! This is exactly the right season, literally after our tour, when the temperature and the ice changes the bears will move on.

The company has a very good relationship with Polar Bears International, the polar bear conservation charity, and Churchill, the town that we were to spend the week seeing the polar bears, (polar bear capital of the world!) well, they are also passionate about conserving the bears. The polar bears have grown up with only the tundra buggies passing through, so they are perfectly used to them, hence why we are so lucky how close they come. With the extremely bumpy roads also helping to keep anyone else apart from the tundra buggies out!

Anyway, it was really fantastic to know how much this company really cared about the wildlife. How excited we all were to get to Churchill and get started!

Day 2

Not quite such an early start, but early nonetheless. All meeting for breakfast together gave everyone a chance to get to know each other. I was surprised to be the only one there from England! Everyone else were from Australia, Phoenix, Florida, Winnipeg, Switzerland, Germany. I did however happen to live in the same town as the Florida couple’s best friends that they stay with every year! Small world!

After a very delayed flight we eventually made it to Churchill. The snow had been too rough there when we first took off so we had to sit and wait and wait.

On the plus side, as soon as we made it to Churchill, we pulled over in the bus, because a polar bear had been sighted and was being transported back to the wild! In a small town like Churchill, the bears do sometimes venture a bit far! So after a rather slow start, we saw a polar bear straight away! Later on that day, we saw a fox too!

The rest of the day involved a tour of Churchill, a lot of beautiful snowy landscapes. I loved our accommodation and adjoining pub ‘The Tundra Inn,’ it was so cosy and characteristic. I could have stayed there a long time! I decided I love Canada!

Day 3

Polar bear viewing time!

After breakfast it was on board the bus followed by our tundra buggy and we were chugging along for the rest of the day on board. Huge white vehicles specifically built as the safest way to view polar bears for everyone involved. At the back, you can go outside, making sure you have no food or drink on you, or you can also get some brilliant photos from inside the tundra buggy with the windows open.

I spotted one of the first polar bears! It was like the Sweden wildlife trip again, the satisfaction of shouting “BEAR!” and watching everyone stand to attention!

And what an unbeatable sight! To see such a glorious animal mooching through the snow, something I had only ever seen on TV documentaries, right there in front of me in the wild…just breathtaking.

It took a while, but all of a sudden it was polar bear central! Normally around late morning on these tours you manage to come across a good sighting of a group and that’s a good opportunity for the morning coffee stop. And time to take millions of photos and videos. Ditto afternoon lunch stop.

We stopped to watch a group of sleeping bears. We kept thinking one of them was going to get up..a stretch every so often showing off some impressive, huge, hairy paws, occasionally putting his head up…but no. You can’t blame him, he looked very cosy!

We were very lucky to see a pair of bears sparring. Thought to be a pair of young males. Looked worse than it was. I imagine a real fight would be a lot more ferocious and probably blood involved! But we saw them standing on two legs, teeth bared, we could have watched them forever!

Grand total of twenty three bears spotted that day! What an experience! Both our guide and our driver said we were extremely lucky with our viewing so far with regards to the amount we saw and bear activity. Sparring, rolling in the snow, digging for food. But the following day of polar bear viewing was even better…

Day 5

What?! Where’s day four? Well, let’s face it, we’re all here for the polar bears, day four was great but it wasn’t a day on the tundra buggy, viewing polar bears. Climbing aboard that tundra buggy for the second time, I was buzzing.

We had a different driver and both drivers I thought were fantastic. Both kept us supplied with lots of goodies in the form of Halloween candy, cookies and Baileys if we so wished in our hot drinks!

With many years of experience between them, both had a lot to say which everyone wanted to hear, including an eventful story when a bear opened the door on one of them once!

Today we had a VERY close encounter. A polar bear was walking towards us getting closer and closer and before we knew it, he was right in front of our vehicle! All of a sudden, it was polar bear central all over again as one polar bear climbed up at the tundra buggy in front of us, and then went on to lick the tyres!

There is a lodge on wheels that people can stay in for a holiday during this season to view the polar bears all day and all of the night! It was by the lodge today where we stopped for a long while as the polar bears descended in large numbers! One of them was lying under the lodge!

We saw more bear sparring, which I couldn’t stop videoing. It was like being in any amazing wildlife documentary.

The cherry on top of the cake? The mother of all finishes to end this amazing day of spotting FORTY polar bears? A mother and two cubs! And in true finale style they kept their distance first of all, then proceeded to come closer. I’m not sure I will ever see anything as wonderful as the polar bears in the wild. This beats them all. I’m in love with polar bears and I’m in love with Canada!


Horse riding trip rambles!

The saying goes (or at least the saying I’ve heard!) “seven falls make a rider.” My ex had never sat on a horse and when I quoted this, he said, “So all I need to do is get on the horse and fall off seven times!” He always had the ability to outsmart me!

I have been horse riding since I was five years old, it is my favourite hobby. Yes, I have fallen off over seven times! (That’s not me trying to say I’m a good rider!)

I expect every rider remembers their first fall. My ride was a very cute Shetland pony. Well, cute until he decided cantering to the rear of the ride was just above him. Or maybe he was just bored! He proceeded to bolt, after he had had his turn, and buck me off! It was extremely un stylish, that’s my style. My foot was still in the stirrup, so rather than a simple exit it was more of a dangle. I was very much left hanging! I can’t even fall off properly!

The next crash landing was a few years later, then I managed no falls for quite a long time. I actually remember saying to a friend how I’d only ever fallen off twice. Well, is there any better way to jinx yourself?

At this point, I was jumping and after saying that, it was one bump after another! I would get home, my mum would ask how it went, I would say, “fell off,” she would roll her and eyes and despair. Not again! But I learnt lots and never had a tantrum like some I could mention.

After the panda volunteering in China, I turned to horse riding holidays. I choose trips in Cheshire, Scotland and Cambridge.

It is unfortunate that the Cheshire trip goes down as memorable for the reason that I got to China in quicker time! Storm Doris really didn’t want me to get to Cheshire! One packed train stopped…and then turned back. Then it was all progressing slowly on the next train…then we broke down in the middle of nowhere! Three hours on a broken down train in the middle of nowhere. We also had a pregnant lady and out of order toilets. Out of order unless your pregnant and don’t have a choice! One guy joked, “Is this going to be one of those is there a doctor on the train situations?” Luckily not! But it was a fireman assisting us all down off a very tall ladder off the broken down train and onto another when it finally arrived!

I will say that the short break in Cheshire was wonderful, completely worth it. Lovely horses, fantastic stables, but that journey is all that gets talked about if ever it gets bought up!

One riding break is memorable for a completely different reason, the most charismatic, bulldozer of an instructor! She looked like the loveliest elderly lady, but I soon discovered she could bellow better than anyone I know!

First full day of riding, I had a bit of a giggle at the way she spoke. She had come across as so sweet, but as she strolled past a groom helping someone with their stirrups, she bellowed, “TOO SHORT! NO, NO, NO, MUCH TOO SHORT!”

That same groom later talked me through where we were going for our hack.

“WHY ARE YOU GOING THERE!” That bellow again!

She was such a character!

The next person to get the bellow was a friendly man I was having a riding lesson with. A few failed attempts at getting his horse into the canter had our instructor yelling so hard I was surprised she didn’t bring out the cane!


Another failed attempt. She then told him that she was going to tie his hands to the saddle and until he had control of his hands, he had no hope of controlling the horse.

At one point she opened the gate and motioned for us to follow her out. We started to head back towards the stables.


There was the bellow again. We were supposed to follow her into the field.

“I’m the pied piper. You follow me!”

“We’re the rats!” I said.

You couldn’t help liking her. She clearly knew her stuff, I learnt so much from her the short time I was there.

She explained how you don’t fall off from a horse going fast, you fall off from a fast horse  suddenly stopping. She explained about going with them if they bolt, something I have been told many times, sometimes during!

We had to ride up a very steep hill. We were given  very firm instructions to keep our hands down and sit forwards. The horses do speed up when they go uphill but the other guy’s horse really went for it and bolted! My horse was described as not the brains of the operation, he very much follows the herd, so we had two horses bolting and two rider going with them and our instructor barking out orders and making us do it again!

After we had collected our horses for the second time there was a silence.

“Now,” she said calmly. “I don’t like excitement. And that was verging on exciting. So I think we’ll leave it there.”

All in all, three different fantastic horse riding trips. They have allowed me to explore different parts of the UK while doing what I love best. Nothing beats a hack in the countryside (except when your horse decides he is scared of pigs!). Horse riding trips will definitely be back on the itinerary in the future!



Every pet has their own moment of food stealing glory!!!

If you have a dog, or most likely any pet, the chances are there will be at least one memorable story involving stealing food, that will be laughed about and bought up forever more!

Jack had a moment of glory a few years ago, I had had a very long working day and was looking forward to consuming the whole of the home made pizza, courtesy of my lovely Mum! However, a new customer on the phone put a slight delay on preceding s, never mind, Mum is in the same room as my dinner remains…I thought it was safe…nevertheless this Muppet puts down her plate, looking forward to finishing said remains after talking to and booking in new customer. Alas, it was not to be. The booking all went well, but heading back to pizza, just like, well, a dog to his dinner, what actually greeted me was an empty plate, and a mini schnauzer across the room, demanding toys to be thrown, the delicious remains clearly long gone, aside a little bit of evidence on that gorgeous schnauzer beard!!!

What then ensued was me telling Mum off for not stopping him, but she had been oblivious to the proceedings on her laptop and her argument was “I didn’t think you’d be that stupid to leave it right there!” She is of course right so I won’t ask for any sympathy and condolences for this hangry Muppet’s tragic loss. Hangry is such a brilliant word. Yes, she is of course right, so despite the disappointment I can quite happily laugh, as the story is bought up many times, and my customers regularly have their own dog stealing food stories to tell. To be serious, there are certain human foods that are poisonous to dogs, chocolate for example is poisonous to dogs, as are grapes and avocados, just to name a few! So, most dogs have that one story that gives them their moment of fame, but as long as the food isn’t on the dangerous list for dogs, (always consult the vet if you think your dog has eaten something that could be poisonous and make them ill!!!) they are a great subject, I am always comparing dog stealing food stories with fellow dog owners! I breathe a sign of relief that it wasn’t anything poisonous, some of these stories do indeed involve a vet trip, and a hefty bill. At least all this story got was a lot of laughs at the expense of a hangry Muppet (me.)


The highlight of the wildlife watching in Sweden was of course those beautiful brown bears, but the moose are up there too! I’m a little bit in love with reindeer, I’ve seen them in Finland and Swedish Lapland so I was very excited to see some moose!

The last night was the night in the bear hide, the night before we were on the river boat watching for beavers and other semi aquatics, moose were on the schedule for the first night!

This was my first proper wildlife watching holiday, rather than volunteering and I took to this sort of holiday straight away. Not really a surprise. Everyone has their eyes peeled looking out of the windows. Suddenly the lady next to me shouted, “Moose!”The van stops, we all spin round, and there is this huge, gorgeous, majestic moose, I am just in my element. I decide then and there that I’m a little bit in love with moose too, they are so beautiful, there is something so special about seeing animals in the wild!

I spotted the second one! Oh, the proud moment, being able to be the one to shout “Moose!”

A grand total of four moose spotted that night. On the second night we were on the lookout for wolf tracks, wolf howls, the sight of a wolf is very rare in the wild, but they are there! We had a rather unsuccessful, rather long and rather un glamorous night hiking and me being eaten alive, the mosquito s were so relentless. We had to ditch the usual plan of waiting for wolf howls, it was getting so late, two people had managed to fall over hiking (not me for once!). So we went to look for more moose! The night  definitely ended on a high as we spotted a moose, roe deer, fox cubs and finally a moose with twin babies! Fantastic!

Wildlife watching holidays are so much fun! When you get back home, you have to get used to not constantly keeping your eyes peeled and getting ready to shout “Moose!” or “What’s that, is that a deer!”

Wildlife watching in Sweden

The brown bears of Sweden

So far Sweden’s Mammals had not disappointed. We had seen moose in the wild, including a moose cow with twin calves. We had seen fox cubs, roe deer, mountain hares and beavers. Not to mention absolutely stunning scenery.

Now we were heading North, off to spot some brown bears, I was very excited! We met our lovely hosts and their very beautiful dog and we were given instructions, this was important so as not to jeopardise bear sightings! No coffee as it smells too strong, only tea. If you must talk, talk in hushed tones, as is the case whenever you want to see wildlife! Even if you need to sneeze or cough you need to muffle it. Sleep on your side, the bears don’t want to hear your foghorn snoring! My granddad wouldn’t have stood a chance when it came to sighting a bear! Work as a team, take it in turns to sleep but wake each other up if the bears come.

A ten minute drive, then a twenty minute walk up the hill to the bear hide, our home for the night. Our host left us with “If you hear knocking, you can open up, you hear scratching, maybe don’t!” Truly back to nature, and that is one thing I really loved about this holiday, so peaceful. The hide consists of a row of bunk beds, a row of chairs with a letter box sized window to look for the bears. And a toilet. Basic is so worth it for brown bears though!

I tried and failed for the first couple of hours to sleep as the bears are more active late at night. I wrote and wrote to pass the time, diary entries of the holiday. It did pass the time it got later and later I would pause to pick up the binoculars, this went on and on until I heard “BEAR!” Yes! The girl next to me had spotted them, a grand total of two brown bears, one very cautious and kept coming back and then running away at great speed, which was extraordinary, breath taking to watch. The other clearly had the munchies and just ate and ate and moved around to another spot and ate some more. A lot of time passed as we watched these bears. I was blown away. Nothing beats seeing these animals in the wild, I was sad when the experience was over. Just to see them running and observing and just showing their normal, natural behaviour, it was just unbeatable. They are so beautiful and they were really quite close too!

Our host was up early as promised in the morning to walk us back. I left with some beautiful, stunning bear photos and amazing memories, very happy and hungry for more wildlife watching!

Huskies in Sweden

After I completed my animal care course at college I spent a week that summer volunteering at a husky sled dog racing kennels. At this point they were UK based, but have since moved to Norway and then Sweden.

On the last day, I got to drive a two dog sled team around their land. I spent the week learning so much including the lingo, which I couldn’t wait to confuse everyone with when I was back home. In the photos you can see the excitement on the huskies’ faces. While I look silly in my horse riding hat, because I don’t ride a bike so that was the best I could do for a helmet! It may not sound like much, but massive highlight and experience for me!

Before that on my second to last evening, my hosts the great idea of camping with the dogs. To this day, my mum says I can’t believe you agreed to that! My mum has a serious problem with camping! Of all her hates I think that would come pretty high. And I have always said I would only camp for a very good reason, such as if I were on a placement in Africa, and I would quite happily wake up to the sight of a herd of elephants or a striking looking giraffe! But I would not choose to camp, and worry about slimy things all night. Well I wasn’t going to say no. It was important to be up for anything and get a good name with these people. Plus we each had a husky and you had to be happy with a husky!

Well, it was just getting dark as we set out, I was being dopey and falling over and dropping my bag, and apologising over and over, the other two probably wishing I had stayed at home! The whole night was cursed anyway. We had only just stopped to set up camp, when the lady that was our host (they were a couple that ran the kennels) had her husband ringing on his mobile. He had had an allergic reaction to something and his face was swelling. Worried, my first and currently only camping trip was over before it had begun. The only problem was we were literally and deliberately in the middle of nowhere with three huskies and our ride home was red and swollen!

So began a long night. (Maybe not so long if I had actually camped). We had to find our way back, and now it was dark! Then we had to wait for a taxi, which took its time! Then our host had to get in the taxi while me and another girl waited with the dogs. Eventually she was back with us in the van, and the hospital next. And instead of sleeping under the stars, we slept in a van with three huskies! And woke up and went back to sleep again and again. I remember they said the accommodation was spartan but I didn’t think this was what they had in mind! I stayed quiet, I just of course hoped our host was OK. Luckily he was. That was my first and rather short experience of camping. Quite eventful. When we woke up to the puppies wanting feeding the next day, we decided on less activities that morning!

The Sweden was a long time coming, I had wanted to do this for ages, weird fact about me, I have always been a cold weather person rather than hot. I hate the heat. If you think about it, most people say they love the sun and the summer yet when it starts getting REALLY hot they also start moaning! When its cold I can layer up and still horse ride, dog walk all the things I love. So really I’m just sensible! Anyway, after life got in the way like it does, I finally got around to making contact with them again enquiring about one of their holidays with the huskies and what the possibilities are of seeing some wildlife too. Well basically, the wildlife is there, but they rarely see it! It wasn’t until I got there that they said to watch the huskies (you do anyway, you are driving them!) because the huskies will spot anything that is there!

They guaranteed snow until May, so it was April I booked a three day mountain dog sledding safari. The flights all went smoothly I went to Stockholm, bought some moose souvenirs then as soon as we landed in Lulea it looked like a Christmas card and I was an excited kid all over again. The pickup time came and went and it was soon time to be an adult again. I was panicking. It was sri Lanka all over again, but this time the phone number wasn’t ringing! What the hell was I suppose to do if no one simply showed up? Do I just buy a flight straight home!

OK, they made it in the end I was at pooping my pants point…nearly! We shook hands we said it was so good to see each other again, and he apologised he thought it was 6.30 not 6pm. So apart from bits and bobs on Facebook it had been a long while we had a lot to catch up on. I told him about my dog grooming business and my travels. He told me they were soon to be parents!

Then came the reminiscing about the huskies I got to know and love. Only one original left now, little Diva, she’s getting old though. The other huskies I had met when I saw them last had either passed away due to illness and old age or found different homes, all with loving husky experts of course, they are very thorough with who they let have one of their babies! They now have Alaskan huskies, not a registered kennel club breed or a crossbreed, but a very old breed.


I asked if they had had many injuries. Surprisingly no. Well, if you think about it with your snow suit and all the layers and the very very thick snow if you fall you pretty much go plop in the snow, not crash bang wallop!

From the outside of my cabin it was so beautiful and there was a lovely view of snowy forests and a lake. On the way I got to see some reindeer crossing the road, which was just awesome and I was like an excited kid all over again! I was reminded of when I went to Finland when I was thirteen. Still one of my favourite places. Inside the cabin it was freezing because someone had left the windows all open! Shut went the windows and on went the heaters! The bed clothes consisted of a sleeping bag, we have to bring our own sleeping bag liners. I don’t mind a bit of spartan accommodation, but a word of warning to anyone wanting to do this husky sledding experience…highly recommend, but just forget about luxury and glamour and nice hotels! To be honest if you want to stay anywhere else around there it will cost an arm and a leg.

I got myself up early the next day, making sure I was all dressed and ready for when they came to fetch me. I managed to shut myself in the bathroom and couldn’t get out! Eventually it turned out the doors were just stiff and I felt like the biggest numpty in the world, I seriously thought there was a problem with the lock and it had stuck. I cursed myself for getting up so early it would be hours before Frank would get here…at least I hadn’t left my clothes in the bedroom! Man, the relief I felt when the door miraculously opened!

I just love Lulea! I could easily live here, I have always been a self confessed summer scrooge I absolutely hate hot weather. I loved looking outside the window of the van, as we drove along, looking for wildlife, taking in all the snowy scenes. And I was very happy to be greeted by lots of beautiful Alaskan huskies of course!

They are fed a combination of meat and a special high quality kibble for working dogs. As we went into each pen, they told me all their names and their story and how much to feed them. There was also a lot of puppy cuddles going on during my introductions. Every litter of puppies they have have a theme when it comes to their names. Musicians during the sixties is a favourite of mine! But the puppies I had the pleasure of helping socialise and got to spend the most time with playing and cuddling, were Pirate, Yankee and Ranger!

I had already been given my winter suit and boots, but I was given another heap of layers, as the temperature is quick to drop!

I got told the four dogs that were going to be my team during sled training. He gave me four harnesses and we got out the first dog. I got showed how to put the harness on which looked very simple, but alas I continue to make a mess of the whole thing that whole week! He then showed me how to attach each dog to the sled whether they be a lead dog or not. There were lead lines and tug lines not to be mixed up. It was not easy leading then harnessing then attaching four crazy excited Alaskan husky dogs! And I didn’t find it easy all week. I really hoped if I came back I would get better at that part!

They pointed out the foot brake I had to step on and the anchor I had to dump in the snow when it was time to stop. And the weight mat if I wanted them to go slower. Then the lingo! When it is time to go you say OK. When you want them to slow down you say easy. “But they won’t listen to that. So you need to say it and apply the brake. When you want them to stop, say whoa. But they won’t listen to that, so you need to apply the brake.” Gee means turn left. Haw means turn right. So when the gates open I have to say Haw so that they turn left onto the track that I practise on, and not straight ahead up into the mountains, that comes later!

Luckily for me, these dogs are used to being a practise sled team, so they turned onto the right track. And off I went. Wow, what an experience and we had barely started. I am so in awe of these dogs, they just love to run! You can definitely tell how excited they are to get going, and they don’t want to stop. When I had to use the gee command to get them back through the gates, I kept getting it wrong and so around we would go again. I had a great team, and like when you finish riding and you give your horse a pat, you always have to go and thank your team when you have stopped. Shower them with praise!

So when all the huskies had been well praised and safely unharnessed and back in their pens, a quick cup of coffee before our first mountain safari! A different team for me, and a team of strong, champions for my host. I got warned about some of the corners on this trip, and not to come around them too fast but at the same time not to come around too slowly and not make it! With these huskies there was no chance of going too slowly! So the gates were opened and this time we were going straight, on wards and upwards into the mountains. After this trail I can say I have passed the arctic circle driving a four dog sled team! That first mountain trail went so amazingly smoothly right up until the very end. My team followed the team a little too closely, they seriously love a fast pace I had to keep braking so they weren’t running him up the bum! Or trying to overtake! That first trail was probably the best one for me not messing it up! I was able to take in such breathtaking scenery, I was constantly on the hunt for wildlife, but apart from the road crossing reindeer on my way to and from the airport, I didn’t see anything else. Its not really surprising of course, any wildlife would certainly see us coming! So my huskies went so fast, I was still able to take in the breathtaking scenery and feel like I was in a Christmas card, and think how therapeutic this amazing experience this is, this beats sitting on a beach any day! And then my host turned round to me and said “all down hill from now on!” And the speed kind of took over! Man, those huskies went fast! It was all going so well. Maybe it was that we were so nearly home and then kennels were so nearly in sight. You could definitely hear the huskies back home so we were very close. But it was probably just that we turned round a bend in the woods too fast. We certainly did go around a tight corner very fast, well the huskies did, I completely cannoned off the sled, and rolled down the small hill and as they said rather than being battered and bruised I just went plop in the snow, I ended up on my back legs and arms all stretched out. I felt bad, they said if you slip, try and keep hold of your sled so that huskies and sled don’t disappear off into the wilderness! But its OK, they have been doing this for so long he was able to stop his team quickly and catch mine, and ask if I was OK! And I was gibbering apologies, which he shrugged off, it seems what I did was pretty normal, which was good to know, I think everyone falls off at some point!

Day two of dog sledding was much harder.  I had to pack an overnight bag, we were to harness up our team, and layer up- it was very cold, and we were to stay overnight in one of their cabins they owned, very small, have a camp fire dinner and then sled back the next day. They already changed the plan once because he was worried about a road crossing on the first plan. Well this plan we had didn’t go to plan.  I was beginning to find harnessing the dogs up to the sled such hard work. If I were to come again would this get easier? Four very excitable dogs, not to mention, the other ones that were trying to run out the pen too when you only wanted one out of that particular pen. The noise was ear deafening and as a dog groomer I am used to a lot of noise, in fact I am used to screaming huskies sounding like they are getting tortured when actually they are just getting showered. I am used to dogs pulling on the lead, but I found it hard to control these huskies who didn’t do lead walking and when you had to lead them to the sled they were just interested in running, I was just interested in not falling over! So we headed up the mountains.

I crashed into a tree. My anchor got stuck in the tree and we were stuck while I had to think quickly to free myself. All this time, thinking poor guy, he doesn’t need my stupid ness breaking the sled and probably annoying the poor huskies who were doing such a good job. I fell again, tried to hang on for ages and get up, but it was no good, my legs were just sliding, my hands were holding on, but my feet couldn’t get back on the sled. It’s a bit like that scene in Bridesmaids when Annie drives the car to get her police officer’s attention and bends down so you can just see her hands, and she shouts “hey, who’s driving that car?” Frank afterwards was laughing when he said he could just see my hands, no body, even though in the end I had to let go, and yet again, he had to stop his team and catch mine!

So we on we went up the mountains, it was a long trail! I kept making the mistake of not putting my extra layers on when we set off because it wasn’t so cold, but just like that clicks fingers the temperature drops and my poor ungloved hands were blue and freezing, even my feet in boots and thick socks were little blocks of ice. I was freezing cold and craving a hot cup of coffee. The trail was so beautiful and the huskies even more beautiful and I am so in awe of their hard work and love for running. These dogs have a lot, lot, lot of stamina, they are amazing! I could praise them all day! Even though I just moaned about their noise and their pulling when I am trying to lead them and harness them to sled. Sorry team! Forget all of that, you are an AMAZING team, and I am so in awe of you.

So eventually we had gone uphill so very far, it was so cold, and my host announced we had arrived. There it was, the very tiny cabin. He had warned me it was a bit grotty, and extremely basic. Well. He didn’t realise that was a very mild, generous way of putting it. We tied up the dogs safely, praised them lots, and on entering the cabin found that the roof had caved in. I mean, we opened the door and the roof was there in our faces. All we could hear was creak, creak, creak of the poor roof. It was too much snow on the roof. It didn’t take us long to decide that it wasn’t safe to stay there! I was getting used to the fact that after all that, we know had to trail home and I had to try again not to mess it up. Our hot cups of coffee and camp fire food we had first helped us both! Despite a previous lady on their exhibition complaining about the food, I thought it was delicious. Maybe that was because it was so welcome! And so began again the madness of harnessing and untying the dogs and getting them attached to the sled, and I was all fingers and thumbs and the dogs were bouncing off the walls, which was not a good combination!

We also got stuck in the thick, thick snow. One minute there was a trail all set out for us like the yellow brick road, the next we had to rely on the Jee command to get them to turn the right way. At one point, he had to actually leave his sled and lead the lead dogs in the right direction. He shouted to me to ‘stay on his tail!’ As in don’t lose us!

Why am I not a normal person, who likes the beach and chooses to holiday in glamorous hotels or whatever the average tourist stays in. Sat here writing this now, I am thinking Nah! Still give me dog sledding and volunteering with pandas any day. I hate the beach. And I hate hot weather. But I have to admit that night, probably due to my host’s stress and my pity at his horrible day and worry about stressing him further more than anything else, those cushy, fancy hotels with buffet breakfasts and 24 7 bars, they were just a little bit tempting. But I can’t say that. What would my amazing team of huskies think, they work so hard and they love getting their praise at the end!

His wife was a little surprised to see us back! We all agreed it was a shame about the cabin, that would have been nice to have that experience. We had to laugh though, after the last time all those years ago in England when we tried to camp, and we ended up in A&E because of the allergic reaction! I said to them what on earth is going to happen the next time we try to camp out or stay over in a cabin! Bit of a curse going on!

So that was another day over, huskies praised and seen to and put to bed, it was time for us to have some hot drinks and chocolate and chill for a bit before our bedtime. And as I had my overnight bag, I stayed in the spare room where the handler if they had one would stay rather than one of them drive me back to the tourist’s cabin.

On my last day they took me out to a lovely tea room all decorated and set out like the 30s nice and old fashioned and vintage. I highly recommend Sweden as a holiday destination. I just loved being driven around or driving my dog sled team around and taking in the snowy surrounding and looking for wildlife. The only wildlife I saw was reindeer on the way to and from the airport but that was amazing to me! Pretty normal for anyone living there but a treat for me! On the way it looked like a family standing by the side of the road, on the way back it was a couple crossing in front of us, one of them had a magnificent pair of antlers!

The last dog sledding mountain trail was beautiful and extremely enjoyable like the first, it was a similar trail actually. I fell off at pretty much the same bit, downhill, turned around a corner too fast, I literally cannoned right off no chance of saving myself, hit the snow then bounced off again bump bump bump down the hill before coming to a stop, on my back, missing a glove and a boot! The boot was still on the sled it had never left! I found the glove in the snow! My host had again come to my rescue and stopped my team and his own, but we were so nearly back at the kennels, they would have just run home through the gates! He asked me if I was OK and shut down my gibbering apologies. No one was hurt the dogs were as happy and waggy tailed as always, so of course we could now officially laugh about it!

My mini schnauzer- Mr small and mighty!

I rushed out of my morning shift at part time job at the pet shop. My mum was picking me up from work and we were going straight from work. The crate, already brought in preparation was set up in the car. Lined with newspaper and already brought toys. Everything was great.

I was an eighteen year old, just finished my animal care college course, working part time at the pet shop and just about to start a course in dog grooming. But today was one of the best days of my life. After 18 years of trying…and failing, to persuade the day had finally come. We were on our way to pick up a puppy. My very own! At last.

As I was still young, I thought one of the best ways to prove that I really, really wanted this and to really really prove this was possible, I thought I would write a bit of a project. Writing after all my animal related things was something else I loved to do. We all worked different hours, Dad sometimes worked from home, and mum worked the shortest hours. At the moment most of my work was weekends and evenings when they were off and all the extra hours I could get. When I was to start my dog grooming course, that was only part time, I hoped I would find some work experience for the rest of the week to help me progress on the course. But doing that at a local groomers would mean I could go home and attend to the puppy and gradually that time span wouldn’t be so much once puppy was older and able to hold it in a bit more! Or of course we could go down the rescue dog route, the dog would be older and so our hours would fit in well. He or she wouldn’t be on their own all day yet wouldn’t need constant every hour or so being let out.

Then there were my other fur babies. Sparky the rabbit, Fozzie bear and Rowlf (as in the Muppet characters) the guinea pigs and Chip and Dale the gerbils. Well he wouldn’t be able to get to the gerbils, and again I had read dog and magazines books all my life, plus I knew lots of people with multi pet households. A puppy you can train to accept small pets, debatable dependent on breed, and some rescue dogs again will have been bought up with small animals.

My parents were interested! They like to take a long time to make a decision! But of course this is the right thing to do with any animal, let alone a dog. Another crucial reason we had never got a dog was because of what to do when we go on holiday. Well, once we were over 16, my brother and I just did our own thing, him with his friends, me on my different adventures, such as a weeks work experience at a husky sled dog kennels! And my parents went on holiday just the two of them. So that was that obstacle sorted, but it would mean my parents would have to love the choice of dog, as they’d be doing the looking after if ever I was away!

Decisions, decisions. Such a lot of choice, lots of pros and cons to each. I was glued to all my dog breed books. I re read them again and again. I’d read them all my life but each different book was so fascinating. But it wasn’t until my mum got home from work one day that the ball started rolling.

My mum used to work for an animal health company, doing her baking for the staff’s lunches. Any cake you need, see my mum! Her cakes taste the best and ruin any other cake for you, the taste is that good. And she can ice designs! You should see the different animal cakes and Beatles album cover cakes she’s done for me over the years! Anyway, a very animal friendly place she worked for, where the staff’s dogs were regularly welcome. And she came home from work one day, by this time she was nearly as excited as me about the dog, and started telling me about this lovely dog one of the ladies at work had. She was obviously very attracted to this lady’s dog. What breed? It was a schnauzer.

I was on the kennel club website, the schnauzer club website, and pet plan website. I needed a list of breeders, and these were the sites where the breeders would be accredited. NOT puppy farms. Its sickening to think of those puppy farms, where people breed one bitch too many times, and don’t give a stuff about the dogs or the homes the puppies go too. Throwing some more knowledge out there, research your breeder very carefully! And make sure you see the puppies mum, see where their kept, and if the breeder questions you like your on a job interview that’s a good sign! It means they are knowledgeable and love their dogs and care about the home their puppies are going too.

Also, if they’re a really topper most of the uttermost then they won’t need to advertise as I found out. First miniature schnauzer breeder was very local, however all puppies were reserved. Same with breeder number two on the list, however, she gave me a number of someone who was expecting a litter.

This lady lived only about forty minutes away, and I had a good chat with her on the phone. She was indeed very knowledgeable telling me about how mini schnauzers like to bark at things! Of course they don’t shed, so another good point, but need regular grooming. I told her I was hoping to be a dog groomer, she was thrilled and said she was one! Well, not so much any more, but she highly recommended it as a career.

We arranged to meet her and have a bit more of a chat, and of course meet her miniature schnauzers!

They were a lovely couple. They had a nice house, and as we rang the doorbell I’m sure any fellow mini schnauzer readers will be familiar with the ‘schnauzer bark.’ Well imagine lots of that, and that was the answer we got! We all took a seat in their lounge, with lots of lovely dog books and a few dog beds and toys. They asked us why miniature schnauzers? So me and my mum were able to gabble about how we loved the look of them, and we liked the sound of their characters and we thought one would suit us. But Dad wasn’t very familiar with them, so it would be good to talk to the two of them and meet their fur babies.

“Let Jeffrey in.” But Jeffrey and his eight other family members joined us! Jeffrey, a very handsome miniature schnauzer dog trotted in doing the excited schnauzer run (again, you’ll be familiar if you own a mini) made a beeline for Dad and jumped on his lap. The other eight, seven of them minis the other a wire haired dachshund, all went to grab toys, or jump about and then settle themselves in various other different places. I got to say hello to lots of cute mini schnauzers! It was love at first sight. Well I’m in love with all dogs, I’m a crazy animal lady, specialising in dogs and horses. But my parents knew then we’d found our ideal dog. They liked the lady and they liked miniature schnauzers. Theses were their pets, they also took us to see their current litter, already reserved and going to homes. All good signs. The living area was very clean, the mother of the litter looked healthy and so did the puppies. Oh the puppies! I wonder if I’d ever seen anything so cute as this litter. Mini schnauzers have to be one of the cutest puppies, not being bias, the tiny bit of rounded fluff around their muzzles where their beard will be, little tuft eyebrows, little floppy ears. We all couldn’t control the awes.

So we had to let them know whether we wanted to reserve one of the puppies in the next litter. We had to be quick! Otherwise they would get snapped up soon.

It was weeks on from the first time we met  and we were on our way back for a second time. This time to reserve a puppy! It was a much smaller litter this time, only two puppies. Still as cute though. They would leave and go to their new homes at eight weeks, at the time we visited they were about five weeks. They were upstairs, Joan told us to be very quiet, and to speak softly. Basically don’t scare them! This we did, and we had a tough decision to make. At least we knew the one we didn’t choose was guaranteed a good home, she was such a good breeder.

Before we had gone to choose, one evening that week we had gotten together over pen and paper to decide on puppy’s name. I liked Monty, Mum liked Rex and Dad liked Jack. I managed to narrow it down to Rex and Jack. Within reason, I didn’t really mind, I just wanted my puppy! So the verdict was down to my brother and we had to phone him. To this day, Mum still thinks Dad sneakily told him to side with him and say Jack. Because he chose Jack. But she didn’t really mind, we all liked the name. And now that he’s part of the family we couldn’t imagine him being called anything else.

Anyway, back to choosing which was to be Jack. Well the breeder said she thought the puppy on the left would be more like his mum, the puppy on the right more like his Dad. So puppy on the left would maybe be easier and less noisy. But what made us make our decision was when puppy on the left put up his head and looked at us. Puppy on the right started sleeping. That ones looking at us so cutely. It had to be that one.

Well, if that one was meant to be the less noisy one, we always think we’d love to meet the other one! Because Jack is not quiet! Anyway, I’m going to far.

So Jack was reserved. Now we had to leave him in his breeder’s brilliant care, until he was eight weeks, and then I got to take him home.

Back to that afternoon. I’d finished work, I was racing out the doors and was very, very excited. Quite possibly the happiest day of my life picking up my best friend. I know you will think I’m just bias but Jack was just the cutest puppy. When I first bought him round to one of my friend’s houses, someone not a particular dog lover, she said to me “I didn’t expect him to be that cute!” And that’s the impression Jack has had on everyone since, dog person or not. Of course that’s if his noise hasn’t put them off first.

I had worked with dogs on my college course, spent work experience in dog related places, but as a first time puppy parent I did just about everything wrong. Any possible rules in place about going on furniture, going upstairs…well I forget if there was any or if such rules were ever laid down because anything like that went out the window. Jack didn’t take long to get the opinion that he was head of the household and the house revolved around him. Jack goes on all the furniture, all the beds but a favourite place of his is on his granddad’s (my dad’s) lap. We wondered from the start whether the breeder’s husband was a massive soft touch with the dogs, because Jack absolutely adored Dad as soon as he came to live with us. But then Dad is a soft touch too!

I know you will just think I am bias but Jack was by far the cutest dog in his puppy classes. And also the noisiest. And the naughtiest. When we got Jack it was November and being England the weather was increasingly shitty, regularly shitty, and mostly shitty. Miniature schnauzers as a rule are generally good dogs for the house-proud. Jack has never liked the rain and to this day will put the brakes on, have to be dragged out and then walk around the puddles. As a puppy, I can still remember going in and out and in and out with Jack but the little mister would not do his business. And all we got from our training classes was “If he messes in the house, its your fault!” This is completely right…but it was still hard work. Next time I vote we get a summer puppy!

In our one to one training session that came with the puppy classes package I continued to be told how I was doing everything wrong. And alas, she was right. I read the books I did my research, I was still rubbish. Jack is a great dog for someone with a mummy like me. He had a pretty good recall (before he hit eleven months) and she bought out one of her dogs and luckily for me behaved himself. We knew we had to up his house training though, when he did number one and two in the same week of puppy class. That beat all of the rest of the puppies. Its a good thing Jack was the best looking!

He soon became famous for as I like to call it disturbing the peace of the park. At first as we worked out the different cliche groups of dog walkers in the park, managed to work our way in with a lovely group of local people and their dogs, Jack was not the noisiest to my amazement. I think that title went to black Cocker spaniel Rosie, but that was just because she wanted to play. Jack soon discovered his voice, and I had to be careful who I let him off around as other small dogs and especially puppies became targets for this small and mighty little dog! I can remember little Jack trying it on once with Buster, a Doberman rottener mix. Face to face Jack did his silly little bark, Buster took one look at him then did the most cutest sweetest but very full on play bow and play dance! The little mini schnauzers tail went down, the ears went down and Jack came running back to my side.

Jack also showed his cheeky side once. One of the other groups of that graced the park every day where of the older generation. There was the lady my group nicknamed ‘the dog expert.’ Basically she said she knew everything about dogs but I heard some pretty bad tales of how she treated her dogs or other peoples dogs she looked after! And in the park her dogs had no freedom. Sometimes my Mum would come to the park with me and Jack and she said in hushed tones “What is the point of the people in that group in the park, they haven’t moved!” Anyway, on one occasion a beautiful, very elderly golden retriever was lying down on the grass, back to us. I still can’t believe Jack did this, he crept up, pad pad, pad, slowly, slowly, then he was right up behind the Goldie. BARK BARK BARK! The poor dog jumped up and moved away. I was an embarrassed mummy I can say! Luckily everyone thought it was funny. Sometimes they are just like people and in Jack’s case like a naughty child or a grumpy old man!

We have taken a dip in most mummy dog activities. A great form of exercise as well as our lovely walks, better than bloody aerobics or whatever the latest faddy exercise class is. We weren’t to be put off by Jack’s noisy behaviour in puppy classes. And he was very good at agility! It was a shame I didn’t keep up with classes, we never got good enough to attend a group class, maybe then we wouldn’t be quite so good! But its another good party trick, I ended up buying weave poles, a tunnel and some jumps for the garden for Jack’s birthday, so we could practise at home. And if ever there is a dog show and there is many near us for charity, there is normally a have a go at agility course and we always have a go! And Jack is normally very good! Except the time when he didn’t understand what to do on one section and decided to have a sniff…and then a wee! Instead! Its on camera, complete with vibration while this was happening as my mum who was filming was laughing so much! And except the time when he also got distracted and had a good bark at something that was much more interesting. And except the time when he must have got bored or thought my mum and dad had treats as he stopped listening and went running off towards them! Again on film. Apart from all those times he’s normally very good, he runs through the tunnel and looks very cute going over the jumps. He very much expects treats for every bit of talent he performs. I don’t think we’re ready for the crufts arena just yet! He would have something to say if I went too far without rewarding him.

When Jack was seven, I decided to use my birthday money towards some activity class for us. I wanted to spend some quality time with him doing something fun and a bit different. After an internet search I found a trainer and noted heel work to music classes. That was just what I was looking for, no I didn’t want to go on Britain s got talent, I just wanted to have some fun. We ended up enrolling in a kind of combination class as heel work to music didn’t have enough demand at that point. Which was OK. The downside was it was a class full of one of Jack’s least favourite playmates-puppies! It was much the same as puppy classes in that to stop Jack making noise he was fed and fed and fed! And then he would look at me and make a grumbling noise and tap me sit and tap me and grumble and grumble. And the man standing next to me with his border collie thought it was hilarious. “That sounds like a stomach rumbling!”

I was a very proud mummy when Jack won one round of doggy musical bumps. He was the fastest ‘down’ when the music stopped!

The lady that ran the classes held a great Christmas party for all the dogs. She cheekily put the funniest, naughtiest and craziest dogs on one team. Which was mine and Jack’s team. And we lost abysmally but definitely had the most fun. The other members of my team, golden retriever Bella and Labrador Ben had us all in stitches. Especially the temptation alley game where toys, treats, sausages, you name it are all placed out and your dog is supposed to come to you when called resisting all temptation. Jack took me extremely by surprise I very much didn’t think he was going to resist those sausages, I was amazed when he came straight to my recall! To be honest he lost out a bit as it meant he didn’t get any sausages! Unlike all the other dogs, who apart from one, a border collie (of course) ate up all the treats and didn’t manage to resist the temptations. Bella and Ben pretty much made the room like a bomb had hit it and thought the idea of the game was to accept every passing canape on their way back to their mums! All that was needed was some comedy Benny hill music.

“So did you guys go to classes,” said one of the ‘helpers’ who was helping set up all the different games to our team. Hilarious but a bit unfair as Jack and Max the collie had done it right!

“I think our teams definitely gonna win this one,” I said before the temptation began! I just like to be funny and most of the time it doesn’t work but that got some laughs. We lost so diabolically but our team had the most fun!

So to sum up what can I say about owning a miniature schnauzer? Not bias at all, they are the best! Yes OK, they make a lot of noise, oh man, does Jack like the sound of his own voice. But seriously I can’t think of any more downsides. One thing is they are so good for the house-proud! Which I don’t care about but my parents sure do! Not only does Jack not shed or drool, he hates the rain, he hates water, he is generally a pretty clean dog, its like he is human! I think when one of the many spaniels we meet makes a beeline for any form of water, stream, puddle whatever he looks at them as if to say what on earth are you doing?

This mini schnauzer also doesn’t retrieve. He very much looks at you as if to say you threw it, you go and get it! He loves his toy, in fact unlike most dogs his toys last very long, you know a toy is complete rubbish if Jack destroys it straight away! He likes to play tug and he likes toys being thrown he will run and catch them and shake them and sometimes roll on the floor with them making growling noises which is very funny! He will have a good session shaking or whatever with his toy and then as quickly as it started he will suddenly stop, drop toy and look at you as if to say ‘NEXT!’ He likes to stand right in the middle of the room of an evening while we are all sat on sofas or the armchair, and he will just look at you and whine. So you have to get up to throw a toy then get up to get it when he is bored of that one, and so it goes on. Of course, if you are feeling lazy after a hard day, you can just put the toy box down next to you and just throw and throw until the toy box is empty. Yes there are A LOT of toys in that box and yes sometimes that does happen. To be fair though, he does tire earlier than a lot of dogs. Some breeds are endless bundles of energy and bounce off the walls constantly. Little Jack does nap a lot! My ex commented on how well he slept at night, considering he napped so much during the day. Of course we always make sure to give him lots of exercise.

Mini schnauzers are very adaptable. Jack gets three walks a day except in summer when it is too hot to take him out, and then I get up extra early to give him his run before the heat begins and he goes out again in the evening. I very much enjoy meeting up with friends at a dog friendly pub for a walk and a drink. So we try and make sure he gets lots of exercise and stimulation, but if he has less than his three walks for whatever reason, he is very adaptable. It doesn’t matter that he is not a retriever!

Oh man, do mini schnauzers have character. So many different facial expressions, but he often has an “I am not amused” expression. His little tail is always up, except when he’s very tired or when he’s being groomed. (sorry Jack!) I never thought my parents would accept a dog on their furniture, but that all changed, um.. let’s face it not long after I first carried Jack through our front door! You can’t not laugh when every evening at some point someone’s seat will get stolen! Mostly my Dads. He does love his Granddad’s chair. Our motto every evening is, you get on your feet, you lose your seat!

I’m sure many puppy parents can relate to when Jack first mastered the stairs. He started suddenly running up those stairs and feeling so pleased with himself. Getting down was harder! I could mean, when he pulled his look where I am face at the top of the stairs, if I wanted to going downstairs and watch that expression turn to mummy help I can’t get down! Aw my poor baby. Of course that innocence disappeared when he learnt to climb down! It was so cute, he used to go down really slowly, two paws at a time. Now of course, as soon as he hears any form of activity in the kitchen from upstairs on my bed and he races down, you can hear the thump, thump, thump as he then jet propels to your side, and fully expects you to share whatever it is you are preparing in the exciting food room! My mum thinks he is a mind reader because he seems to only appear when she is cooking dinner that involves cheese or meat for her and Dad.

Oh, just get a mini schnauzer they are the best! Yes they think the house revolves around them and they rule the roost (and they are right), yes they are not retrievers, and they are smart to the point that they learn they can be stubborn, yes they think they are actually rottweilers with beards and that they have to protect you and the house from anyone that dares come near, be they annoying sales people or the neighbours. But you will smile and laugh every day, there is so much character and expression in that little face with his little brows and big beard! They are up for anything unless its raining, they really are a big dog in a small package. They will do anything for food. And they are the best cure when you are upset, I am surprised Jack hasn’t shrunk the amount of times he has been there for me, my shoulder to cry on. At one certain difficult time, he was up on my lap for snuggles at every opportunity. He took to the heel work to music and agility so well, he is just great fun, very funny and my world. So that’s how many job roles for one little dog? Guard dog, dustbin or bottomless pit, best friend, seat stealer, lap warmer, snuggle buddy, thunder buddy, model (yes, he has his own Instagram!), son, grandson, nephew, mummy’s baby, OK we’re getting silly now, but oh I could ramble forever about how much I love him!

Animal trip tips

Every day, through the news, through social media, through my smarter more learned friends that do have much more knowledge and better outlooks on situations, I learn new things about animals, conservation what’s going on that needs to stop, what is or isn’t helping and why. I try to keep on top of news when it concerns animals. When it comes to social media that can be a double edged sword as its not all true and sometimes just opinion, not always the right one.

What I’m getting at is its very important to me that everything I do, all the placements, they are at the right place with animal welfare the top priority. For example there are lots of ‘tiger temples’ that are just tourist attractions and the tigers are made to pose for photos and they are obviously stressed. If there’s one thing they teach you at animal college, it is the five freedoms, what every animal must have freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, freedom from stress, and free to express normal behaviour. I’ve seen articles about these tiger places with pictures and its clear that the animals are not showing natural behaviour they are stressed and traumatised and miserable. It terrifies me that I could book a placement only to find a disgusting tourist trap where the animals are not cared for and their welfare is not important to the workers.

Overall, the panda volunteering was by far my favourite. For the whole experience. The panda sanctuary is brilliant, the keepers are very caring towards their pandas and their pandas do bond with them after a time. They bond a little with the volunteers if they are there long enough which sadly I wasn’t. The enclosures were good, lots of places where they can hide, lots of trees, where they can stay all day if they want! Lots of signs around the place about treating animals kindly. Outside of the volunteering we had lots of fun evenings at the panda bar or having language lessons they kept us busy doing great stuff, they didn’t just leave us to it. I couldn’t have asked for better company everyone was so nice and interesting.

The volunteer work was good we got to clean out enclosures and feed the pandas and feel like we were helping.

The bear sanctuary comes second. They took brilliant care of the bears and made every effort to make their environment as much like the wild as possible. The poor bears had been denied that from the horrible people who had taken them and put them in circuses or outside a shop as an attraction or sold as a pet so many heartbreaking stories. Now that that has been banned they get to live out their years in this sanctuary where they never have to perform for food or their next meal. Again, great enclosures huge, lots of places to hide, everything that a brown bear needs. I felt very proud to be volunteering for such a great place that was so good to its animals. No constant tourists either just scheduled tours throughout the day so the public are all kept an eye on too! The only reason I rate the panda sanctuary number one was the volunteer work with the brown bears was a bit less meaningful. A lot of gardening, raking leaves and not really feeling like you are helping! I can’t complain too much though because I was so happy to be a part of such a great place, and meet all the other rescue animals too all the dogs, and the wolves and the donkeys not just bears. But mostly bears of course!

I recently watched a programme about zoos and whether they were really helping the conservation of animals or whether they should shut down. I thought it was a good programme actually. I think the overall conclusion is that lots of animals can thrive in captivity with the right care and the five freedoms, but some species just should NOT be. Whales are a big example of this. Me and one of my friends have what we call ‘sea world shame.’ As in, we both went when we were kids in Florida. Of course we didn’t know then what we know now. I’m grateful for the black fish documentary even though it is heart breaking but it has taught me so much. And its made a big difference as well as sea world no longer breeds them or puts on their killer whale shows. They seem to be changing their image, trying to use the word conservation a bit more!

So to sum up, if you are looking into doing an animal trip, first thing to look into is the welfare of the animals at your chosen place. World animal protection have a brilliant website with tips on what to look out for, what is wrong and they also have a list of respected places. The animals must have the five freedoms. Obviously if you aren’t personally going to see the place until you are there, look at tourist reviews. Contact world animal protection for advice. Speak to the travel company about the care of the animals.

So that’s the most important point. I have always chosen packages for my trips, some include everything, some include everything except insurance, flights and visa, some don’t include food. I like to ensure I book one that includes taking to and from the airport as it saves so much trouble! That, and I’m a wuss who doesn’t want to drive abroad!

Panda volunteering in China

Yes, this was as amazing as it sounds! This time I was not a lone traveller I had roped in very good friend from school who had also gone on to do the animal care course I had done at college. She wasn’t at the time working with animals but she had been to Africa for a year working on an elephant research project. (Also as amazing as it sounds!)

Both being a bit crazy we decided a week was best again due to both our work commitments, basically my constant fear that all my customers were going to leave me and go somewhere else if I took any time off. We got sent some flights to either accept or decline I immediately accepted as I wanted my visa accepted and my passport back! It was my friend who spotted the nine hours we had to wait in Bangkok airport on the way back in between flying back to London. Oh dear. I was glad I had some company!

Before all of this we got sent a health questionnaire to be filled in and signed by our doctor. Simple enough I thought and when I phoned the doctors they said to drop it round and leave it with them there would be a small charge. What then followed was a sort of constant frantic too ing and fro ing by me to and from my doctors surgery back home to phone the travel company because they didn’t understand and they didn’t do any x-ray stuff and I would have to go to a different hospital and it would be a three figure sum to pay and it would also be a three figure sum to book in to have a doctor examine you. And the travel company seemed to be leading me more astray telling me the wrong thing and then telling me to put normal in all of the boxes which of course the doctors refused to sign without seeing me! I was just about weeping as a huge queue was gathering behind me, as all doctors surgeries do, I knew they would all begin to hate the sight of me, yes I was very nearly crying! I’m used to people thinking I’m mad in fact most people I meet I manage to accidentally give the impression I am mad, and here we go again, I can see everyone in that doctor’s surgery giving little smirks.

My friend of course got it done without any such embarrassment, it did take a very long time for her doctors to do it, but there was no getting stressed out causing a world record long queue in the doctor’s reception have the whole village think your crazy (let’s face it, they already know me as the crazy dog groomer!) and no practically crying down the phone at the travel company, absolutely no stressful, endless too ing and fro ing, she had a drama free experience!

Our China trip finally rolled around, it seemed so long away then all of a sudden, it crept up before we were ready for it! We both couldn’t believe we were off to China, all of a sudden! I did my last dog groom, and then another (it was an emergency involving a matted dog and finally I had broken up from work and it was time to get excited!

We pretty much sailed through our trip going to China. We had the excitement of what lay in store, well come on, Pandas!, all the movies (the new jungle book which we had both wanted to see!) and we had the good fortune of sitting next to a really nice guy who had been before. Like one of my customers he warned us about how they like taking photos of western ers! And if your taxi needs petrol they make you get out! They’re not abandoning you they’re just not allowed to have you in there while you fill up!

We changed at Bangkok, we finally arrived in Chengdu with zero sleep so it was lucky there was no recurrence of the Sri Lanka disaster where I was left stranded- in fact we were met straight away by the lady who was looking after us volunteers. She also had to meet another volunteer. And so we had the pleasure of meeting the lady who looked after us all week (very well too!) and fellow volunteer who came from Switzerland but who had been travelling around China herself for a month already! She was younger than me and she had also been travelling South America for seven months! I was impressed, not just at her bravery of travelling by herself all that time!

It wasn’t long before we discovered the glorious squat toilets in fact it was straight away at the airport! Luckily my cubicle had toilet paper though although I had some in my bag just in case! “That was interesting,” was my friend’s first words!

We were shown lots of panda photos to show us on the way to our hostel making us very excited.

I was very happy to see our hostel was also home to a pretty cat and lots of pretty kittens and dogs! I was worried as I had heard that people weren’t kind to animals in China, luckily all I witnessed while in China was good things, the cats climbing up trees at our breakfast table for one thing and helping themselves to our scrambled eggs!

As you can imagine we had a very early night due to no sleep, so the poor other two volunteers sharing our room had a bit of a shock coming back after being out to two sleeping strangers. The next day when we met a retired school teacher and a girl who was from China but lived in America we heard how they had just gone straight to their beds not getting changed or anything because they were too scared to wake us! Bless them! They were lovely people!

The first day began with all of us volunteers bundling into a collection of taxis and visiting the panda breeding centre. My time in Sri Lanka came right back to me, the driving was just as bad or possibly worse! Yet people never seem to hit each other despite no rules of the road and everyone just overtaking and getting into whichever lane they fancy without the use of indicators or any form of checking said lanes!

While this eventful drive was taking place the volunteers got more acquainted. “Oh,  your mum’s hair must be white!” exclaimed one volunteer as she heard about another’s travel adventures!

So anyway, what an amazing place the panda breeding centre was! We didn’t realise this was different to the place we were volunteering that was the conservation and research centre for the giant panda. Our first glimpse of pandas in their lovely huge enclosure was breath taking. I had never seen a panda in real life before. It was also very funny. They were very playful and one in particular was having great fun annoying his companion who did not want to play and wanted to lie down! And one was getting in the way of his friend trying to climb! We could all have watched them forever. And everyone obviously agreed as we lost some of the volunteers! They came back to us safely luckily! We went to an indoor enclosure where we were under strict instructions not to use flash photography. Inside were the cutest cutest babies, pandas only a few months old! I’ve said it before I saw them in real life baby pandas really are top of the list of cutest baby animals. I felt like Agnes in despicable me “So fluffy and cute I’m gonna die!” yes they were that cute!

The panda breeding centre was also home to red pandas. Their enclosure was a walk through type enclosure, and it wasn’t easy to spot them. There were lots of notices about not chasing them or annoying them because they will attack you. Good, I thought, its about time there was an animal that could teach stupid people a lesson if they annoy them! We caught a very short, fleeting glimpse of a red panda, but that was OK, it was great he had such a lovely enclosure with lots of places to hide.

To sum up pandas in three words, stunning, funny and (sorry) lazy. But every kind of beautiful. Even though they spend most of their time sleeping and eating we could have watched so many of them forever. Especially the young ones, in both panda places there is a panda kindergarten enclosure, with lots of toys, I especially remember a children’s outdoor slide and little rocking horse! I wasn’t lucky enough to see a panda play with either! I was lucky enough to see a kindergarten panda sit in his tree for a long while and he had one back leg dangling down and it was so simple but so cute and he decided to go to the bathroom without the need to leave his comfy spot. “Aw, he’s pooing,” we all cooed as the stuff hit the floor and the little panda just stayed put living the good life. So I was lucky in lots of ways that so made up for him not going down his little kiddies slide!

We finished up at the panda breeding centre, the rest of the first day in China was sightseeing in Chengdu mostly some interesting shops down a couple of alleys, the peoples park and the tea house!

The lady was lovely, fantastic guide and great at looking after all of us I can’t sing her praises enough, but she wasn’t the best at waiting. Some of the volunteers managed to get lost and left behind! With EVERYONE with us, we went onto the sightseeing!

When I read the hostel leaflet that gave a bit of information about the peoples park and the tea house I thought I was hallucinating. But one volunteer had already played tourist and been there and confirmed that yes while you are at the tea house sitting drinking your tea, these men come round with bells they ring offering this special ear cleaning service! They put threads in your ears and pull them out with the wax! Well I suffer with my ears and have to regularly book in with the nurse to have them syringed so I thought blimey that will clear the tea house if I have a go! No one will want to drink or eat and see that! I seriously thought I was seeing things when I read sit in the tea house and have your ears cleaned!

My friend was just saying to me when we were out how she noticed that there were a lot of police about but it was a good thing! Well one of the volunteers probably didn’t agree as they pulled him over while we were walking along and demanded a passport check! He must have looked shifty! Our poor guide had to rush over, trying to help.

I knew it wouldn’t be too long before I embarrassed myself. It was that hot pot they had planned for us in the evening! It was basically like a huge hot bowl of tomato soup in the middle of the table and you put vegetables or tofu or for the meat eaters meat in then when they are ready you take out and eat. There was a table for spicy, a table for non spicy. Well my friend went brave and went spicy, I was not and went non spicy. Apparently it was just level one spice but they said it was like a volcano! Or a vindaloo. Whereas I was having troubles of my own this was something I couldn’t gracefully eat if I wasn’t dropping the veg on the table with my chopsticks I was spilling the sauce over myself! 25 going on 5 I think sums up me during the hot pot! And there I was trying to make friends with all the other volunteers!

We had a very early start the following day to catch the couches that were taking us to panda base! It was goodbye to the first hostel and time to get more excited! It was three hours to get there but finally we arrived to be told to leave our suitcases and to go this way for breakfast. We were taken in this building upstairs where a delicious but random buffet was laid out. I ate a lot of random but yummy non breakfast food and one of the brave spicy goers was eating some tasteless porridge (I know it was tasteless because I tried some later on in the week) and saying it was soothing after the volcano! He turned to one of the girls who worked alongside our guide helping the volunteers and blurted out “where are we?” we all burst out laughing. We then had to lug our huge suitcases onto a much smaller and very crowded bus that took us to our accommodation by panda base! That was not a pleasant journey! But who cares, pandas!

Anyway this was our induction day. We got our room at the accommodation, complete with squat toilet and see through bathroom doors so if we really wanted to we could wave at each other while each of us has a shower!

So we all met back in the activity room where the induction began. Our guides were talking us through our next few days as panda volunteers!

“Your keeper might not smile. Some of them don’t smile. Don’t worry its not you, that’s just how some of them are. And they can’t speak English.”

“Ask your keeper or whoever else is working with you if you want to take photos while your feeding the pandas. Don’t try to take a selfie. That’s not a good idea while your holding the food and the panda is trying to take it!”

Just some of the instructions given that I had to remember! Plus the fact that we had to make sure we asked what time to be back each day to feed the pandas. Pandas had their routine and if you are not there they will just feed the pandas without you they will not wait for you. I seriously hoped I’d be working with one of the volunteers who could speak the language!

We got issued a form to sign with the terms and conditions on, and also our uniform overalls and panda volunteer cards that hung around our necks. My overalls came above my heels and I wailed that I didn’t think I was that tall. The other girl said so that everyone can hear “Do you want a bigger size!” and I nearly cried. Luckily everyone agreed that the bigger size swamped me and you could have fitted two of me into one so small overalls that made me look overgrown it was to be. In amongst all of this everyone had managed to fold their overalls back and move on…leaving me and my friend who had politely waited for me behind and two other Chinese volunteers behind! What then followed was our own self explanatory tour of the panda sanctuary as we tried to find everyone and wondered how they had managed to get so far away from us! We ended up going back to the hostel for lunch!

And the other volunteers said to us “Where did you go?” I practically screamed what you left us!

My friend and I had been debating whether to go on the hike or not. We weren’t the fittest of girls and were both a bit worried about being left panting at the back. Or getting left behind again! In the end though we were told it wasn’t too much uphill and I thought I would regret it if I didn’t go. It was absolutely beautiful. The views and all the waterfalls had breathtaking beauty. It was a lot of step climbing. What wasn’t beautiful was when I put my hand out to hold the banisters to find it was crawling with caterpillars! Some huge and fat, some the super long hairy kind! All looking a bit on the capable of causing irritation side. Well I wont use the banisters then, I thought.

At least I felt good at the end. Like my leg muscles had really been worked, it was a very long hike and it was to carry on that way all week as getting to and from and around the panda sanctuary was a lot of walking. I was so tired and I was indeed unfit girl at the back panting, but it felt good! I try my best to work out for a short while every day but I’m sure any personal trainer would scoff at my pathetic attempts! But this, I really felt like I had had a long work out and I missed it when I got home, despite all the panting and trying to keep up!

Another great thing about this particular volunteer project was that they kept us all amused. It wasn’t just your done for the day, that’s it, on this particular evening they had organised volunteer games for us. It was very typical team work games to get us to work together in our teams and help each other. Charades. Always funny. 007 which had lots of us confused at first. “I’ve got to say Oh?” asked one volunteer, in a very confused tone!

What possibly wasn’t so great for so many people (feel free to contradict me here) was Uno. I had never played before and ended up second to last and it seemed to go on forever! Our started off teaming up with one girl to help her as she had never played before then ended up helping me. Despite losing to so many people our team had the most points and we all got a great souvenir sports bag which said China on it!

Finally, time to volunteer and have a day in the life as a panda keeper. I was in luck, first of all they separated who was only doing a week. That was me, my friend and the other Chinese volunteers. Basically no one else was silly enough to go such a long way for a week. They put us into twos with putting both me and my friend with someone who could speak Chinese!

Then it was time to meet our keeper. Our keeper was a hugely pleasant surprise- on the contrary to what we were told he had a lovely constant smile and chatted nineteen to the dozen-to of course the girl I was working with as he couldn’t speak English.

“We have a mum and baby panda!” said my fellow volunteer, excitedly to me. It was now time to meet our pandas that we were to be looking after for the week. We had a ten year old male, and a mum and baby panda. The baby was just under a year. We had to clean out their enclosures, getting rid of all the faeces and old food mopping down and making room for a lot of bamboo. The smiley keeper kept up a constant chat, none of which meant anything to me and I could join in with, until my fellow volunteer said to me “he wants to know why Britain left the EU” That was pretty funny. I had to say I had no idea. The next question was how many immigrants are in England. I’m sorry I couldn’t help with that either. Our keeper did find my job funny though, so I showed him a collage I had on my phone of a mixture of some of my doggie customers. I think it was a point of interest for most people but in China and Sri Lanka I think a few people found it a rare thing.

In between the morning routine of cleaning and in between all the feeds, we could explore the panda sanctuary as we pleased. We could visit the panda kindergarten! Where some very tiny pandas, that looked like puppies were cuddled up in bed.

On the contrary of what some people say about China not treating their animals well and making me a bit nervous about going there, there were quotes all around the panda sanctuary saying things like “Be kind to animals and treat them like our friends.” Oh, I love the panda sanctuary.

And we could have watched those young pandas forever despite pandas not being very on the go, everything they do is so cute!

I think the highlight of the week would probably have to be feeding the pandas, I don’t have to explain why, it was an amazing experience! Apart from all the bamboo, we fed them apples, carrots and “panda bread” or “panda cake” made of certain grains (we all tried the tiniest bit, it just tasted very bready!) Our pandas make cute eating sounds too! Our male panda loved everything however the mum panda didn’t like fruit or veg! Baby panda spent most of her time up in the trees. When we clean the outdoor enclosures we shut down the barrier leading from inside to out so the pandas are inside while we were out and vice versa. Its hard to imagine one of the pandas attacking us, we all know they seem so relaxed and content but they aren’t domesticated pets of course! On our last day of volunteering I said to Zoe “I don’t remember seeing the baby come inside with mum.” We were cleaning the outside enclosure while the baby was sat in the tree watching us! Actually I don’t think she was watching us, she was really high up and I don’t think she could care less but it made us ecstatic!

And on the second day our male panda wouldn’t come in he was hiding out in the bushes (it was good the pandas have so many places they can hide out and get away from the public if they want to), anyway we couldn’t persuade him in , but as soon as we put the barrier down and started cleaning inside first instead of out, his gorgeous panda face appeared in the window where the barrier was, and stayed there for the whole duration of the cleaning. He wanted his breakfast! Our male panda loved his food , reminding me of my gorgeous mini schnauzer back home!

One volunteer’s assigned panda was a real diva, turning away the panda bread! She was working alongside a volunteer, from Sweden who had already been there a month. She was finishing at the same time as us and was in love with their male panda, it was clear to see why. On her second to last day, she was unlucky enough to fall over. It was a slip and she sprained her ankle. So she was crying, being a bit hysterical and her panda was just there right up against the bars of his enclosure like a dog, seeing if she was OK, and despite not being there and not seeing it, it sounded so sweet. It was lucky our guide was there to accompany her to the hospital where they confirmed she had sprained her ankle. Well better at the finish than the start, how unlucky would that have been.

In the other evenings, we were treated to Chinese language lessons, dumpling making, calligraphy and a trip to the supermarket in the nearest town (for me to stock up on coffee and for the others to stock up on snacks!) and a trip to the Panda bar, aka Tom’s bar which was just up the hill from our hostel. Tom is awesome! He spends his days at the panda sanctuary working and he gives all the volunteers his panda bar cards, says he looking forward to meeting all of us and gives out free shots in exchange for a drawing of a panda! (he gives us free shots anyway!) I love Tom’s bar there are panda pictures everywhere, and there are lots of cute dogs in his bar! Its small but its awesome we had two great evenings there, one of which was our last night, a great way to finish the week with the pandas.

The funniest part of the week however was when we taxi ed to the nearest town for the supermarket. They said one taxi would seat eight of us that were going, when it showed up it was three seats across the back then in the middle two seats and two tiny tiny stools, the sort you imagine a milk maid milking a cow on! So two of the smallest of our group had to take those seats! And on the way back, the taxi driver stopped the car to speak to a man. We wondered what was going on. He went to the back of the car and opened up the boot. Was something of his in there? Nope, he climbed in and spread himself across the boot and the driver drove on. He was getting a lift and lack of room wasn’t going to stop him! I was silently laughing all the way back to the hostel at this guy behind us, just riding in the boot! Its like days I’ve been really busy and I’ve really crammed dog appointments into the day and said “I can’t turn down the business.” This taxi driver was taking i can’t turn down the business to a whole new level!

I normally find with any long journey, be it a flight or a train journey, one runs very smoothly and the other is horrible. Its always much preferable if the journey there is the horrible one as at least the chances are wherever your going its for somewhere nice for a good reason, a holiday, a weekend away. When its the way back and its all over and you just want to get home, (or do the holiday/weekend away all over again!) its then a nightmare and the absolute pits to have a rubbish journey home. Our journey to China had run so smoothly with even being lucky enough to sit next to a friendly man who had been there before, it was too much to hope for that the way back could have been as good. We had shop assistants tailing us making us feel uncomfortable, a man who wouldn’t leave us alone until we both put our headphones in our ears! The menu in the restaurant had us giggling with one page saying ‘rotten meat’ and one page saying ‘baby food!’ We’ll pass on those! Both flights were delayed and they kept getting my ice cream order wrong when we were in between flights! But we were able to laugh about it and play lots of rounds of twenty questions! I was so glad I asked my friend to come with me, we both had such an amazing week!

The journey back may have been a nightmare but the week was one of the best ever (sorry I said it again!) .