Before Paul O’Grady agreed to present For the Love of Dogs, a series looking at the work of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home in south London, he insisted a clause be inserted in his contract. Under no circumstances was he to be allowed to take home a dog. He had three rescue dogs on his Kent farm already, not to mention 18 sheep, 12 pigs, two goats, “a load of ducks”, several chickens and four barn owls.
He is, by his own admission, a lifelong animal nut: “I couldn’t imagine life without a dog.”
When his dog Buster (right) – a shih-tzu/bichon frise cross who used to sit on the desk of his teatime chat show – died in 2009 his anguish was so obvious he received letters of condolence from everyone from Roger Moore to Lauren Bacall. So though he had never been to Battersea before, he had an inkling of what might happen when you put a dog lover in with three floors of intensely loveable dogs.
“It went in my contract – under no circumstances was I allowed to go home with anything: two-legged, four-legged, three-legged, anything. I knew it would be fatal. It’d be like putting an ex-drug addict in a cocaine factory.”
The clause went in and O’Grady began filming. “I’m obsessed with the place now. But it’s a lovely obsession. I’ve always said, ‘Please can I do a show with animals?’ Because I like them, I get on well with them. I should have been a vet. I’m in the wrong job.”
The series follows individual dogs through what he calls their “Cinderella stories” – arriving downtrodden and sometimes abused; then through recovery and the search for a new owner to take them home. “I really cared. To a point where I’d go home and worry – ‘I’ve got to get a home for this dog.’ The aim of the game then for me became to re-home dogs. I was like a brothel madam trying to pimp out dogs to owners.”
Battersea has around 450 dogs and 150 cats in its care at any one time. Last year it took in 8,904 animals across three sites. O’Grady knows all the staff (“He’s brought a bit of laughter to this place,” says one), but most of all he loves the dogs. When RT visits him at the home, he keeps wandering off to talk to the various Bonzos and Nancys. It may be for our benefit, but much of it is not.
“Look at you, Halloumi! Come here, I’ll give you a tickle. If Annette Crosbie was here she’d go mad. She loves greyhounds. Look at you!”
The longer O’Grady’s been here the less he can understand how anyone would abandon a dog. “Some dogs,” he says, “are brought in because they don’t match the carpets.” Others are picked up only after their owners’ attempts to do away with them have failed.He tells the story of Sparkle (left) – another dog who, an assistant tells us, very nearly became Sparkle O’Grady.
The young Staffie was found in a south London park with a polythene bag over her head. “There was nothing of her when she came in, just a skeleton with a bit of skin. It will break your heart when you see it. What was so upsetting is that after all this abuse Sparkle was still trusting and loving. When I went in she was all over me. You’d think she’d be wary of the human race after all it had done to her, but no. Anyway, she’s fattened up now and gone off to a great home.”
A small dog pootles in and nuzzles his leg. It is Eddie – O’Grady’s new rescue dog. He broke his self-imposed contract and ended up with a chihuahua/Jack Russell cross he named after Edward G Robinson.
“We were filming these puppies. I’d been told they’d all been homed and then this little fellow came skipping out. He was the only one who didn’t have a home. I said, ‘I’ll have him.’ That was the very last day of filming. I’d held out until then. God help me if we get another series…”