‘The reception committee is ready,’ says volunteer Wietze Vellinga (67). He points to three cats twirling behind the fence. “Say hello, Keessie,” he says to a black-and-white copy. He slides the gate shut. “Walk along,” says Vellinga, especially to the cats.

    Behind the gate Animal House Foundation More than 180 cats live in Almere, which are allowed to roam freely. And eighty dogs, six horses and a pig, Beertje. They are animals “that no longer fit into society,” says owner Alice van Duijn. From dogs with behavioral problems due to fear or stress and cats with cat aids that are not allowed to go outside because of the risk of infection, to horses that actually had to be slaughtered for various reasons. These animals have few options, but can get a safe and warm place here.

    It all started quite innocently, says Van Duijn about her large-scale shelter. “In addition to working at our own textile company, I was also active on Sundays as a volunteer at the animal shelter in the area.” She saw how the nice, cute animals were quickly picked up, while the older, weaker and less social animals were placed further and further in the hallway. “And then one day I came in and they were gone. Then they had an injection. I found that so heartbreaking.”

    She decided to take the cats and dogs that were not adopted home herself. “It quickly became so many that my husband and I could no longer manage it ourselves, we had an outstanding bill of 2,000 guilders at the vet. We started the foundation in 2001.” It was just off the ground at the time Heart of the Netherlands stopped by for an item. Then the work exploded: “We did our business next to it for one more year, after that we started to focus entirely on the animals.”

    Cat paradise

    They have been in Almere for ten years now, in a wooded area without neighbors who can complain about barking and meowing – which used to cause a problem. Kater Keessie walks across the parking lot to the courtyard of the specially designed building. It’s a cat paradise. On the edge of the pond with a friendly splashing fountain is a red cat. He is blind – does he know what he is doing? “Oh yes, that is Pikachu, he will manage,” says volunteer Corrie Nieuwland (60). There are Buddha statues everywhere on the grounds, there are pillows everywhere. The cat rooms contain opium beds and large indoor plants, and replicas of Gauguin hang on the walls. What is also striking is what is not there: the smell that is often characteristic of places where many animals live. It smells fresh, everything is clean. “We work hard for that.”

    What is also striking is what is not there: the smell

    The cats lie comfortably next to each other. They come in all colors and sizes, and are not all ‘complete’. One is missing an eye, or two. The other an ear, or two. Some are missing a leg, or a tail, or both. But they all have “quality of life,” says Van Duijn.

    In recent years, shelter for shelter animals in the Netherlands has made way for, in particular, animals from abroad. Various foundations get dogs and cats from Romania, Spain and Greece, among others. They are street animals that are rescued, but they cannot always thrive in a domestic environment. Van Duijn: “We receive so many e-mails about animals that cannot find their way. Especially Romanian dogs have been street dogs for generations, and then they suddenly have to live in a house here. That cover is so big.”

    Dog breeding companies

    Claudia Vinke, behavioral biologist at Utrecht University and an animal behavior expert, says that two groups of dogs are brought from abroad, which regularly causes problems. “There are huge dog breeding companies abroad to meet the Dutch demand for puppies, with all its consequences. On the other hand, we have foreign stray dogs.” The puppies are poorly socialized, are taken away from their mother too quickly and put on transport, sometimes even while they have all kinds of diseases. “It is a rogue trade that we maintain ourselves.” Stray dogs are suddenly placed in “our terribly complex society” from their familiar surroundings on the street. “Where we also demand a lot from the dog. He should be able to be petted by anyone, be able to stay home alone, be able to walk on a leash, not hunt, not run away and not be territorial.” Of course, that often doesn’t work, she says.

    Due to anxiety and fear, these dogs often show problem behavior, says Van Duijn. “As a result, they are a danger to themselves and their environment.” The only condition for dogs to be allowed to live in her shelter is that they get along with others of the same kind. Here they live in a pack, in shared rooms with large beds, off-leash, with a garden they can always access and a 35,000 square meter yard where they can run, dig and swim.

    The last room in the corridor is reserved for special cases. There are dogs that have no behavioral problems, but physical defects. “That’s JD,” Van Duijn points out. “He was adopted by Johan Derksen, hence the name.” A small black and white dog with a corgi-like appearance, giant ears and a beaming smile looks up from the ground. He, like many of his roommates, is missing his hind legs. But he and the others are no less excited about it.

    It is an expensive business to keep all animals of Dierenthuis healthy and happy. “We do it completely without subsidy,” says Van Duijn during lunch in the human living room, where many cats also hang around. They depend on donations and adopters, says her husband Steven van Duijn. In addition to the volunteers, about 4,000 donors keep things running, but a crisis, such as the exploded energy costs now, means exciting times. “But we have already survived so many crises, this will also be fine.”

    After lunch it is time for the big walk, the disabled dogs are also prepared. The special overalls that some dogs wear – one can lift his or her back well, the other has difficulty with that – are taken off, they are put in their own wheelchair. The gates of all rooms are opened at the same time and the more than eighty dogs enter the field in one large herd. It is a sea of ​​wheels, legs, tails, long hair, dots, wet noses. There is one barker. “Do you have another opinion?”

    There are gigantic animals, such as Naz, an Anatolian shepherd from Turkey, who found an owner via Marktplaats, was then taken to a shelter and ended up here. But there are also very small ones, such as the Romanian Lewis, who happily rumbles across the field in his wheelchair. Volunteer Jolanda Farenhorst (65): “You would think that those little ones would be trampled underfoot, but the opposite is true. The four-legged dogs are in awe of those wheels.”

    Soul trade

    Alice van Duijn is visibly satisfied walking among her pack. The animals look to her for guidance, but she also looks to them. “I have learned so much from these animals, and still do.” She never has to look at the weather report again, the animals tell her what the weather will be like. “They taught me to feel and listen to my intuition.”

    She knows the stories of all the animals, who often experienced misery and pain. Animals that have ended up here through shelters and different owners, animals that have escaped from a war zone damaged, animals that have been traded, precisely because they are so pathetic.

    “There is a lot of talk about how much money is involved in the drug circuit. But what many people don’t know is that animal suffering is also heavily traded,” says Van Duijn. It is a phenomenon that is described by Claudia Vinke as the soul trade. “Morally and ethically totally reprehensible, of course.”

    The animals that end up in the Dierenthuis no longer have to worry. People can adopt an animal from a distance, the animals never leave here. Even after death they remain here, their ashes are scattered on a flower meadow. “They are home.”

    photos Simon Lenskens