In bed with Susan De Muth: Nights on the wild side: Jill Cowell

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Jill Cowell and her husband, Simon, live in and run a rescue and rehabilitation centre for injured and orphaned wild animals, which they founded in 1983. Simon is also a commodities broker in the City. They have two daughters, aged 13 and 16.

The 24-hour helpline phone is on Simon's side of the bed. It can ring at any time of the night as people come across snared badgers, trapped foxes and, most frequently, deer that have been hit by cars. One of us, usually Simon, will go out and bring the patient back for treatment.

The doorbell is also a sound we've come to dread at night. People don't realise that we have to get dressed before we go down to them. They sometimes ring the bell several times, waking the whole household.

One night someone was sounding their car horn repeatedly outside our window. It was infuriating, until we saw that a doe was going wild with panic in this poor chap's car, sitting on the horn as she flailed about. The driver had scraped her off the road unconscious but she'd come to on the way to us.

It's the people as well as the animals that need us. They get so upset when they find a wounded creature and don't know how to help it. One night a great burly lorry driver appeared at our door in tears. Inside his coat he had a little injured tawny owl that had flown into his windscreen.

It is difficult to sleep, knowing you may be disturbed at any moment. I've come to survive on remarkably little. I get even less in the spring and early summer because I have to feed the orphans at two-hourly intervals throughout the night.

The babies - mostly fox cubs, hedgehogs, badgers and fledglings - used to be kept by our bed on hot-water bottles but we get too many for that now. They live in the hospital we built next to our house three years ago and I stumble across in my dressing-gown, bleary-eyed with sleep. I use a syringe with a teat on the end to feed the really tiny ones, then they graduate to a bottle.

There's a low, red light in the hospital and it's very warm. I feel really peaceful as these tiny, furry, dependent things suck away. It's very tempting to talk to them and handle them more than necessary - they all need the comfort of a mother figure - but you have to put the shutters up or they won't adjust to the wild when they're released. They'd also grow up thinking all humans are friendly - which they're not.

I do get incredibly tired. It's usually 11 or 12 before we get to bed, then I'm up at 5.30am to prepare breakfast all round - for animals and humans. I send the dogs to wake Simon at 7.30 - no human dare do the deed, especially if he's been up on a call in the night.

We have a lot of dedicated volunteer helpers who come in during the day, so I could catch up on sleep then, but I find it too hard to switch off. I become emotional and involved when fatigue sets in. Although we have a 60 to 70 per cent success rate, sometimes it's hard to get over the ones we lose.

I dream about the animals a lot. I dream that I can hear their thoughts, what they're saying to each other and to us. In spring, I have a recurring dream of impatient little hedgehogs circling in their cages, waiting to be released. I dream that the old blind owl we've kept in captivity is reassuring the young, frightened newcomers that they're in safe hands and I dream of the ones we've lost but still miss - such as Mortimer, a quiet and gentle crow who always kept his head down because he was so sad.

We have seen rare instances of deliberate cruelty, and those do haunt me at night. Someone once brought us a hedgehog that had been impaled on a fence - it had three nails through it. We discovered, as it lay dying on the operating table, that it was carrying three babies.

I suppose that Wildlife Aid has completely taken over our lives. We get little time together as a family and when we do we usually talk about the animals. I sometimes wake up in the morning and wonder why on earth I do it - but if I didn't, who would look after all these animals? It's as much of a responsibility as a baby. A commitment for life.

Wildlife Aid, a registered charity that welcomes members and donations, can be contacted at Randalls Farm House, Randalls Road, Leatherhead, Surrey KT22 OAL, tel: 0372 377332.

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