We Brits are a nation of animal lovers.
According to statistics from Statista, 59% of British households have a pet – which works out to around 17 million pet-friendly households.
And while most people tend to have a couple, maybe a pair of dogs, or a few cats, one Suffolk woman has taken it to a new level – because Zoe Willingham is the proud owner of 85 pets. Yes, you read that right – 85 pets.
But how did the animal behaviourist end up with so many – and how does she look after them?
“I’ve always been an animal person. I had small furries when I was a child, and my grandparents had dogs,” she says.
As she got older, Zoe began working with animals – first as a vet nurse before making the move over to pet nutrition and later vet pharmaceuticals.
“I had a high-powered corporate role, and although I loved the work, I used my wages to rescue and rehabilitate animals, ranging from Guinea pigs, hamsters, and rabbits to cats. I mainly had cats until I could have my own dogs,” she says.
Eventually, Zoe managed to secure a more local job with less travel involved – meaning she could finally fulfill her dreams of dog ownership.
“I tried to find trainers in the area, but it was hard as so many were using punitive training methods, and that’s just not how I treat my animals. Eventually, I found one who convinced me that with my love for animals, I should become a trainer myself.”
Following years of studying, Zoe eventually qualified as an animal behaviourist and set up her very own business, Best Behavior Dog Training.
And as her business flourished over the years, Zoe accumulated more and more pets.
“At the moment, I have 85 pets. These range from cats, dogs, Guinea pigs and rabbits, to tortoises and parrots. Their ages range from 12 weeks old to 15 years, and they’re mostly rescues,” she says.
“The most I’ve had at one time was over 100 animals, when I had a lot more rabbits, but I mostly work with dogs and cats.”
Having saved so many pets over the years, with many of them coming from horrific backgrounds, it’s no surprise Zoe doesn’t want to let them go after she’s built up such a bond with them.
“One standout case is my German Shepherd, Shadow, who was abused as a younger dog. I took her on at two years old, and when I got her from her, she was matted, weighed 14kg, and not in a good condition. She was human reactive because humans had treated her badly, so she was my first big behavior dog,” Zoe explains.
“I took her on with a view to rehome her, but her behavioral journey was quite a long one, and I ended up getting so attached to her. We became the best of friends through all of the work we did, and she ended up staying with me. When you start working with them so closely, it’s hard to give them up after you’ve done so much with them. But Shadow lives a lovely life now – she’s nearly 11 years old and she’s had a nice turnaround.”
After rescuing and rehabilitating many pets over the years, you could say Zoe has found her purpose in life.
“It feels so good to do what I do – and I get as much from them as they do from me. It’s a two-way thing, and they’re everything to me.
“They’re part of my everyday life. If someone asks me to go anywhere, I need to check I’ve got cover for all of the animals – I can’t just do what most people do and up and leave. Everything needs to be quite well-planned – it’s like a military operation.”
Luckily, Zoe’s friends and families are understanding, and are used to giving her three months’ notice ahead of any social events.
“Nine times out of 10, my husband and I have to take it in turns doing stuff – it’s rare we get go out and do stuff together because when you’ve got this many animals, you can’t just leave them.”
Luckily for her neighbors though, they’ve got animal care right on their doorsteps. “They refer to us as a petting zoo, or ‘Zoe’s ark’. When they go away, we look after their animals, and some of my neighbors have come to my classes. And if they’ve got a pet problem, they’ll often ring me for help.”
So what is a day in the life like for a woman with nearly 100 pets?
“I don’t have an average day because I’m always super busy with work and animals. Any of them could need emergency vet care of specific care at any time, so I go with the flow. But I usually wake up very early to do the feeding and cleaning,” she says.
Then Zoe will train with her dogs, alongside running her business. Running a business from home allows her to always be close to her pets.
“Then I do a mid-day check, so I refill bowls, check that they’re okay, groom them and give them cuddles.”
Zoe says that while on her lunch break, she rarely stops to eat, as she would rather spend time with the animals.
“Then it’s back to work for me until the early evening, when I take the dogs on their walks. My husband comes home straight from work and helps me with cleaning and feeding. We’ll eat once everything is done, and we’ll deep clean the whole house from top to bottom once the animals are settled and sleeping. I often go to bed at 2am, but sometime we have really difficult days where the animals need vet treatment, so my husband and I will stay up all night giving them round the clock care.”
And when the weather has been as hot as it has as of late, Zoe has even more work to do to make sure all of her pets are safe and sound.
“I’ve been run off my feet checking them every hour, especially the animals that are outside. I’m always changing their water because their bottles have been heating up so much.”
To ensure all of her pets are as comfortable as possible, she has air conditioning for the dogs and fans for the cats. “I’ve also put paddling pools out for them, to keep them nice and cool,” she adds.
But with so many pets on the go, what happens when a new arrival turns up, and where do they all stay?
“We’re constantly doing work to the house to accommodate all of our animals, but the cats have all their beds upstairs and the dogs are downstairs. And we have an animal hospital, so if any of them are ill, there’s a safe space for them with a bed, and a heat lamp. New kittens and cats go in there to be isolated to make sure they’ve got no diseases before they can join the others. But the other cats get to see them through the door and sniff them, so we do a gradual integration.”
Dogs, who are prone to be more social, have no issue joining the Willingham household as Zoe explains. “All the dogs are quite used to being around other dogs, so they love when a new one arrives. The key thing is to make sure we give them introductions in a safe environment where there’s lots of space for them, so they’re not overwhelmed. Once they’ve done their introductions, I make sure any dogs coming into our home will be okay with our dogs already here.
“We tend to find that anytime a new one comes in, one of the other dogs takes them under their wing and within about 24 hours, there’s a bond that’s developed and they’re best of friends and will follow their lead.”
With so many pets under one roof, living in harmony, does Zoe plan on stopping anytime soon?
“I never plan any of them – so never say never! If an animal needs help and I can help them I will, even if it means I can’t eat for a week because we’re paying vet bills. I’m sickened by the crisis affecting animals right now, and I’m tireless in my passion to keep doing this. I can’t see that ever stopping.”
To find out more about Zoe and the work she does, visit www.bestbehaviourdogtraining.co.uk