ALEXIS Fleming is just starting to get to know the “new guy” who arrived at her hospice yesterday. This “old man”, as she calls him, was dumped last week in Grimsby, has anal cancer and is “covered in lumps”. “He could die next week," she says. "I don’t know how long I’ve got with him. I could have seven days or I could have a day to make that old man feel he’s dying with a friend with him. I’ve never met him before. I don’t know what he likes. I’ve got a very short space of time to get to know him.”

The old man she is talking about is a dog – and what she wants is to give him is the best possible life for whatever days he has left, as well as a decent death. She wants his time at The Maggie Fleming Animal Hospice for terminally ill animals, the first of its kind in the world, to be one in which he experiences love and some security.

“Most folk,” she explains, “are just arriving confused, a bit traumatised, maybe they’ve had a lack of security for a long time, maybe that someone is in pain. But there’s always going to be confusion.”

Such has been the case for the old man. His journey from the pound from which he was picked up, was, probably, she describes, a bit like being kidnapped. “He was in the pound, he was in one place, someone put him in a car, took him somewhere and left him somewhere else. You’ve got to appreciate that there’s a feeling of lack of security. You’re basically trying to make folk feel safe and it’s not a verbal thing. You can make people feel safe with the tone. It can come from a comforting squeeze.”

At the time of our interview, the Maggie Fleming Animal hospice and Karass Animal Sanctuary, which she runs in a smallholding near Kirkcudbright, is host to 154 animals, a host of chickens, dogs, pigs, sheep, cats, a turkey. The way she talks about them, you would be forgiven for thinking that she was talking about the human inhabitants of a hospice. Almost every animal is a “someone”, an “old man”, a “friend” or a “pal”. Rarely does she even use the word animal. It’s so absent from her conversation that I almost feel awkward when I use it myself, or even the word ‘pet’.

Of course, many of us are familiar with dogs or cats being talked about in these terms, but what’s more notable is the way she speaks of the farm animals she takes into her care – chickens, for instance, or sheep. Fleming describes hens that have had a lifetime in factory farms. “They are traumatised. You can tell the ones who have been the bullies because they still have all their feathers. You can also tell the lass that’s been hiding in the corner just wanting to die for a year. I’ve got a lass like that and she’s really suffering because she’s just so traumatised, so every night at bedtime I just let her coorie in, feel her safety and security. You can see that worry or anxiety in the eyes. It’s really just aiming for that to ebb away and just ease into an experience of security and that really only comes with time – it takes a a good few weeks.”

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She has even begun to notice patterns in the way these “hen lasses” die. “The more you see it, the more you get to know. If I’d only held two chickens as they died, I would think it was coincidence that they always open their eye and look right into your eye before they die. But when I’ve held hundreds and they all do it – I know that there’s something happening. That just comes from experience. You just get to know it better.”

For most of her days at the hospice, it’s just her and the animals – no other human helpers. “That’s the way I love it. Which is not to say I don’t love my friends and my family but I don’t really see a lot of my old friends now – because this is life now. It’s all day, every day.” Strikingly, a point of disagreement between her and the partner she recently split up with was the way she viewed the animals she looked after. “My ex told me that they are not my family. So that sums up my relationship. If there were anybody in my life now the hospice would have to be as much part of their life – and I don’t think there’s anyone stupid enough.”

She stresses, however, that she does spend at least some time with humans. “I get help and I have human friends. I’m not the hermit just surrounded by animals. I can hold a conversation with people as well.” And that’s clear. Fleming does like, as she says, a bit of a “blether” with a fellow human. The 40 year old is funny and chatty and that bletheriness and humour comes across in No Life Too Small, the book she has written about the hospice, a dramatic tearjerker of a tale, involving not only the deaths of multiple animals, but also her own struggle with illness.

Life at the Maggie Fleming Animal hospice seems to involve continuous hard graft. The house, she says, is a “building site”. She has not had a bathroom for six weeks, and therefore not been able to take a shower. “I’m doing the rounds and taking maggots off sheep and not able to come in and have a shower so I’m crabbit and filthy.”

The period in which she was writing No Life Too Small was, it turns out, quite an emotional rollercoaster. She was going through a break-up with a partner and lived for six months in a caravan. “There was," she recalls, "the bird flu outbreak, Gimli [a much loved sheep] was dying, my health was really bad at the time. And the only time I had to write the book was the middle of the night. So I only had two hours sleep in the middle of the night. I’d set my alarm and sleep from 2am to 4am, and then get up again, so I was just really sleep deprived and grouchy and stressed.”

The Herald: Feature on the The Maggie Fleming Animal Hospice and The Karass Sanctuary for Farmed Animals near Kirkcudbright, Dumfries & Galloway. The hospice and sanctuary is run by Alexis Fleming who is pictured with  sanctuary residents, a cockerel (called

What’s all the more remarkable is that she has done, and continues to do, all this whilst suffering from Crohn’s disease – a chronic auto-immune disorder which causes inflammation of the digestive tract, that has in the past brought her close to death. That brush came six years ago, when she was in renal and liver failure, her body so damaged and her gut so full of holes that a doctor gave her around six weeks to live.

“It felt like I was decaying. It felt like everything inside me was rotting – and that was because it was rotting. That has a massive affect on your mind as well, because of that connection – so I was in a really bad way. And I remember my mum sitting next to me and the doctor said to me, ‘Whatever you’re going to do, whether you’re going to do the pharmaceuticals you’re going to do the cannabis oil, do it quickly because you’ve only got about six weeks.’ I was thinking, you mean I’ve got another six weeks of this? Another six weeks? I had just got to the stage where just existing was pain.”

At that time she was living with her dog, Maggie, at Ballindalloch in Speyside. Rather than take the drugs on offer, she chose to try CBD oil and it, she says, saved her life. A chief reason for rejecting the immunosuppressant medication was that it would prevent her from spending time with animals. “If I’d taken them it would have basically destroyed my immune system to the point where I wasn’t allowed to be around animals because of the infection risk. That was just not even an option

But the oil worked. Four months later, she went back to her doctor, and he said, “Can I feel your gut?”

“I was like, go for it! I was full of myself. I knew it was working.”

One of the things that helped her get through that bout of illness was the company her dog, Maggie, a bullmastiff she had bought, years previously from a breeder in York, who had put her up for sale with an advert that said, “Bought this bitch for breeding. Had twelve puppies but ten died so it’s no use to me. At my girlfriend’s house but she doesn’t want it and she’s beating it up. 10 months old. £100.”

But, sadly, and one of the reasons she set up the hospice, four months after she began her recovery, Maggie died on a vet’s operating table at the end of surgery for lung cancer. “The thing that really traumatised me with Maggie was that I wasn’t there with her… But what I’ve learnt since it that if you feel loved that doesn’t stop when that person leaves the room. So even if I’m not with them when they die, they still feel loved.”

Fleming set up the hospice to prevent other animals dying alone.

Her own experience of coming close to death has also meant that when it comes to the hospice care, she “doesn’t want anyone to go through that”. “If I can take any of that pain away and the mental and physical suffering, I want to.”

The Herald: Feature on the The Maggie Fleming Animal Hospice and The Karass Sanctuary for Farmed Animals near Kirkcudbright, Dumfries & Galloway. The hospice and sanctuary is run by Alexis Fleming who is pictured with dog Digger, a current resident at the

It’s important to her that those in her care get to leave peacefully – and “with a lot of love and feeling secure”. “Security is an important feeling,” she says. “It’s more healing than anything else if you can make someone feel safe. That’s the essence of the love.”

Not all deaths deliver the same blow – but all of them are hard for her in some way. “Sometimes you have a deeper relationship. But even when you don’t, it still knocks you when someone is not there anymore. You’re still facing death and even if it’s finding someone you’re not that close to lying dead in the morning, it is still hard.” All of them, whatever time of day they happen, are marked with a post-death gin. “I never drink in the morning except if someone dies in the morning. Then I have a gin and just raise a glass to them.”

Sometimes, she says, it’s about grieving what has never been, or sometimes it’s about the loss of an intense relationship. “If you’ve had 3.5 years together then that’s a different type of sorrow. But sometimes it’s a relief because it’s been a beautiful death and nothing can change that. If you can give an old man dog a beautiful death that can never be undone. It’s like I’ve done what I said I would do, good life, good death, and a good farewell, a goodbye.”

No Life Too Small is a tribute to the connection she feels with the animals that have been part of her life. “Whatever is in me that makes me do all this, is in them. I can see it.”

As a child she would pick worms out of puddles. She was an only child and her dog was her “best pal”. Once, she recalls, she told her mum “By the way, God made grass because then the birds won’t hurt their feet when they land.” Though her parents weren’t themselves farmers – her mum is a teacher, her dad a metallurgist - her grandparents’ generation were. “They were all farmers, sheep farmers and dairy farmers. So I was rooted in that world. The ones that were sheep farmers used to have a wee greet when the truck went away. Whereas the other family, the dairy farmers, would be more like oh there’s a kitten, better fit in kitten-drowning today.”

One of the things she gets from spending so much time with animals, is to see things that many humans don’t. “Most people the closest they get to a sheep is seeing that there are loads of them standing in a sheep and that they eat grass. But when I spend all day every day with them, you see that there’s so much there. Every animal is different – a dog isnae a sheep isnae a chicken - but there’s a commonality that runs through them all.”

She believes most people would feel a similar connection if they spent the time. “It’s just that they haven’t had the chance. There’s this big chasm between us. That was really one of the reasons why I wanted to do this – to show that there is so much more there.”

This doesn’t mean she likes all her residents. “I’ve got a turkey and a cockerel that I call Ballistic Bob and Charles the dickhead. They’re horrible. I really don’t like them. Just because they live here doesn’t mean I like them. I’m sure there are people who work in human nursing homes who feel like this. But it’s just like well you’re here, I’m going to look after you, I’ll do everything – but I don’t have to like you.”

Right now, she says, she is in good health, despite working about 20 hours-a-day, living on oatcakes, trek bars, fruit and whatever she can grab in a moment. “I’m kind of abusing my body, I’m not getting a lot of sleep, I’m out in the hot weather, and that’s my choice and I love it, but I’m holding up.”

The Herald: Feature on the The Maggie Fleming Animal Hospice and The Karass Sanctuary for Farmed Animals near Kirkcudbright, Dumfries & Galloway. The hospice and sanctuary is run by Alexis Fleming who is pictured with  sanctuary residents- cockerels and lambs

But there have been times when she has been swamped by brain fog and exhausted – when she has felt as if she were trying to move through tar. Even in recent years she has still had days when she has walked around the field vomiting and felt as if everything hurt. Those days, she says, are few and far between now, and her suffering is nothing like it once was. “I should be doing a lot more to look after myself. I’ve got like a cupboard full of herbal tea that is supposed to help with inflammation. It’s sitting in a carrier bag.” Meanwhile, she notes, the dogs get 15 supplements a day.

Fleming is a vegan and has not eaten animal products for the past 17 years – though she does occasionally use a bit of honey with the animals because of its “remarkable healing powers.” “I’m not thou shalt not, because you’ve got to balance everything. My principle is just do no harm.”

What’s remarkable is that while she is acutely aware of the poor conditions many animals live in and of how badly some people treat them, she doesn’t get weighed down by it. “I know that I’ve got absolutely no control over what happens out there. It’s not up to me. If I try to control that I’m going to have an absolutely miserable life and fail dramatically. I used to spend my days crying and thinking about how awful the world was, hating people and how could you and I don’t really know what changed, but I realised how futile it was and how everyone is a mix of everything. Everybody is kind in some ways and if people were more true to their own kindness there would be a lot more contentment in the world.”

Rather than fight the rest of the world, she’s just making her own haven and trying to show, through it, that there are other ways of living and doing things. “I can change what is in this tiny bit of the world, and then it’s for people to decide. So long as they know there’s another way then at least it’s there for anybody who wants to see that it’s possible. We’re not all going to agree on everything. I don’t expect the world to bend to my will. I don’t think if I was master of the universe I would create a perfect universe. People’s choices are up to them – all I can do is add another option to the table.”

No Life To Small is published by Quercus, £16.99