The animal liberationist with attitude

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MARY FRETWELL seems a very nice woman. At first. She is 58 and has been a career wife and mother for most of her life. She is well-connected. Her husband was Our Man in Paris for some time. She even owns a basset hound named Claude.

But first impressions can be misleading. This is the woman who has changed the Government's mind about rabies and quarantine. This is the woman who, four years ago, started Passports for Pets, which now boasts 10,000 members.

It does not take long to decide that Lady Fretwell may indeed be nice and even rather fun, but most of all she is formidable. She suggests alternative descriptions for her fight to change the quarantine laws. Determined? Persistent? Her secretary mentions indefatigable. "Legitimacy is important," says Lady Fretwell. "I don't want to be thought of as a dear old biddy, a sort of do-gooder on animal rights." The chances of this are zero. Soon I find myself agreeing with her. It seems impossible not to.

She also seems to have this effect on the Ministry for Agriculture. Last autumn, a minister told the House he had been advised that any change in the system could not take place until, perhaps, 2002. "Three years!" said Lady Fretwell. "It could be done in three months!" And now, the word is that a pilot vaccination scheme could be in place by the end of this year. In political terms this is faster than the speed of light.

"They know that it is not going to go away. I mean it is just not! We started off like a little midge, being annoying. Now we are thousands of little midges, annoying everybody all over the place."

Lady Fretwell laughs, as she does all of the time. She is wearing a smart blue suit with a green Passports badge. She is limping because she broke her knee riding. "The Army lends me a horse," she says, as if this is the most natural thing in the world.

She says one secret of success is never have a committee, and, if you must have one, make sure it does not meet. Passport's office is in the basement of her Wandsworth home, which is a rather grand affair. I press a bell originally marked "servants" to get in. This puts the basset into a frenzy. "He's loud. He's a rescue. Ignore him," says Lady Fretwell.

Her enemies are not gracious. "Everyone thinks the sun shines out of her backside. All this praising, praising!" says Guy Tamplin of the Quarantine Kennels Owners' Association. "But what is success? She's made herself a massive publicity icon. But she hasn't dealt in the truth."

This would make Lady Fretwell snort. She says that Passports for Pets has to be meticulously accurate in everything it does. At one point she notes how careful she is when people telephone about smuggling pets. "I'm interested in changing the law, not breaking it. We always say that. I'm worried about the kennels calling up and recording."

But she is also realistic about her opponents' clout. One of the first things she did was hire a political lobbyist. She has used democracy for all that it is worth. No MP has escaped letters on this subject. Passports for Pets members are relentless constituents. If they do not like the MP's response, they go to his or her surgery.

Lady Fretwell has the obsessiveness of a campaigner who believes her cause is right, both morally and scientifically. She says originally she had seen quarantine as just another fact of diplomatic life. Then, in 1987, she returned with her husband from Paris and put their basset, Bertie, into a kennel. "They told me not to visit. They do this. They are sneaky buggers! So I didn't. After two months I had a dream. And I never dream. Something said, get up and go. Thank God I did. That dog had given up. Its paws were bleeding and its bark gone. I would go as often as I could and crawl into its cage, sit with it and give it a bone."

The dog survived but she did not forget the experience. In 1994 she heard that a select committee had come out in support of changing the quarantine system. She phoned her friends and told them to write to their MPs. A few said they should meet. They enlisted "a lord, a vet and a bit of money" for the cause. They printed notepaper. They were off.

She thought it would take eight months but the Tory cabinet then quashed the reform. "We had started, so we continued," Lady Fretwell said. She sees this as a battle and says you always have to watch left, right and centre to see what the opposition is doing. She got the vets to form a group - Vets for a Change - and does their paperwork. The RSPCA used to be against changing the system. So when people called Passports for Pets in tears - as many do when faced with the prospect of quarantine - she passed them on to the RSPCA. In the end, the RSPCA had another look at the issue. Now they campaign together.

Politically, Passports seems rather savvy. Last year, for instance, Labour announced it had appointed a committee to look at the quarantine issue. The names were announced at 10pm. Lady Fretwell said there were no experts and, worse, one man on the committee wasagainst change. By 9am a dossier of this man's public pronouncements was in front of the Minister for Agriculture. "I really do think he was very, very grateful," she says. "Otherwise he would have had egg on his face." The committee was expanded to include two experts.

Then the committee recommended change but said it would require primary legislation - which meant a three-year delay. Passports swung into action. More letters to MPs. A firm of parliamentary solicitors was commissioned to write a report. Passports asked a sympathetic MP to set up a meeting on this with the Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown. That took place, with the RSPCA, last month, with Mr Brown saying he had never said three years. Lady Fretwell approves of this - and of him. "He's tough."

She doesn't allow herself to be bullied. "They have tried," she said. One vet at the ministry once took her aside and told her to stop all this nonsense. She told him not to get so excited. Nor does she forgive and forget. She crows over the election defeat of one pro-quarantine MP. She remembers with real anger how one vet at a conference dismissed a question she had asked about guide dogs. "I thought, that's it, mate! I'll get you! To do that to the blind! It's disgraceful. Just to protect the quarantine kennels."

Her husband, Sir John, comes into the room. He is retired now and really this is the first time Mary has worked. She takes no pay but certainly puts in the hours. I say that, in some ways, they have changed roles.

Mary: "At my age it is sort of bizarre, isn't it?"

John: "I must say that this wouldn't have happened without her."

Mary: "For 30 years I went around as `spouse of'. Which I enjoyed. I had a very, very, very enjoyable life. Then coming back here, I got more and more involved in this. In a sense, you are supporting me now."

John: "I introduce myself as `spouse of' now."

Mary: "It is extraordinary how one can swap without any difficulty. But it has evolved, hasn't it? John is even getting better at putting things in the dishwasher."

John: "I've even done a Sainsbury's shop."

See what I mean? Nice. But formidable.