Written by Helen Crooks
Professional photography by Natural Reflections Photography
With the aim of not only taking in the usual waifs, strays and cruelty cases, but also to honour dogs which gave the majority of their lives to the service of mankind, an unusual rescue centre, Retreat 2 Eden, was founded six years ago on a sprawling 43ha farm in the Southwell area of Port Alfred.
The brainchild of Johann and Lynne Wilhelm, the resultant haven is brimming with dogs, chickens, sheep, horses, pigs, and even a goat, all of which are allowed pretty much free rein of the property.
Serving service dogs
Outlining the need for such a place, Johann explains: “Service dogs are life’s unsung heroes, but not at Retreat 2 Eden. These dogs are the very essence of our K9 Heroes Programme.
“Many of them battle to find homes. With very few exceptions, the handlers cannot take them on when the dogs have outlived their usefulness as a working dog.
“But for us, these dogs were heroes during their working lives, and we feel they deserve to be honoured for that when they retire. That is the very essence of Retreat 2 Eden.”
In the main, the “inmates” all get along, with the exception of the odd scrap – hardly surprising in view of the fact that around 80 animals live at the sanctuary at any given time.
And, yes, there are cages. But they’re always left open as a safe retreat for the dogs, most of which have never known any other kind of life.
Some, however, are too aggressive to be integrated immediately, and this is where community support comes in.
“With the aid of Rotary, The Lions, and Interact in Port Alfred, we were able to build three large enclosures set up for high-risk rescues. They are currently home to Ceazer and Phantom, two beautiful German Shepherds, who are slowly learning to lose their aggressive streaks – and learning to play like puppies again,” Johann says.
“But this particular case was not easy – and I bear the scars to prove it.
“Early into his stay, Ceazar wanted to go into the house, so I blocked him with my leg. He turned on me, biting my wrist down to the bone. There are other scars from where I had to protect myself from him going for the jugular. My hand was out of action for a month.”
Despite this, and where others might give up in the face of defeat, Johann stands firm.
“These dogs’ lives have been saved by community involvement. They are an integral part of life at Retreat 2 Eden. I will continue with their rehabilitation until they can be released to mingle with the other dogs.”
All creatures great and small
While the K9 Hero programme’s aim is to socialise dogs and then match them with potential fur parents, it’s not always possible, and some of the dogs will see out their days at the rescue centre.
“When dealing with ex-service dogs there are many aspects which have to be considered. They have lived in cages and know nothing other than the aggression that is often demanded of them. We accept that they needed to be aggressive to do their jobs and have to patiently re-train them,” Johann explains.
The love that Johann and Lynne have for animals both large and small stretches beyond dogs into abused and neglected horses, which, where possible, are healed physically, mentally and emotionally before being rehomed.
Keeping the doors open
Of course, running such a venture comes at huge expense to Johann and Lynne, who’ve sunk their life savings into the farm, which, until recently, was 100% funded by the selfless couple, who don’t even draw a salary.
At this stage, through community involvement, the centre is now only 87% funded by the couple, with donations from the Port Alfred community, including cricket balls for Ceazar and Phantom and offcuts of food from local restaurants for the animals, helping to ease the burden.
“A lot would not be possible without the help of the Port Alfred community. We also have a family of pigs, which had gone feral, who have almost too much food,” says Johann.
However, much more help is needed for the Wilhelms to achieve their overall ambitions for the farm, with plans that include:
- Building a basic medical centre with quarantine facilities
- Portioning of large sections of the farm with cabins so that adoptive parents can interact with their new fur kids before moving to their furever homes. Renting out the cabins would bring in much-needed income
- Building a volunteer centre
- Employing a Rescue Centre manager
“At this stage, one of us always has to be on the property, which means that Lynne and I have never been to the beach together. If we had a manager, that could change. Now that would be something really special,” Johann smiles.
Individuals, as well as organisations which make use of service dogs, are welcome to contact Retreat 2 Eden for assistance with working dogs when they’re no longer needed in the industry.
For more information, contact Lynne on 072 388 9054, Johann on 072 966 7692, or visit the Retreat 2 Eden page on Facebook.
Xiro: a Retreat 2 Eden Success Story
Professional photography by Guy Neveling Photography
After a lifetime dedicated to the protection of humans, at the age of 11 Xiro had reached the end of her career as a service dog and was ready for retirement. So what next?
Xiro’s tale begins
Sadly, the romantic notion that working dogs will be adopted by their handlers is far removed from reality. But, for Xiro, there was hope. On retirement, she was taken in by Retreat 2 Eden, where her future seemed certain: she’d live out her days with other former service dogs and a bevy of waifs and strays, including horses, pigs and chickens.
But then began a remarkable “Furry Tail” with a truly happily-ever-after ending. Xiro’s life was ultimately going to follow a completely different path in faraway Cape Town, where she’d been brought to the attention of animal lovers Richard and Fyrne Goviea.
Tugging at heartstrings
“Xiro’s whereabouts and history, and the possibility of adoption, were brought to my attention by the people I got our Belgian Shepherd, Nikao, from,” says Fyrne.
“At first, I refused point blank. I’d just lost the ex-service dog I adopted 10 years ago. It took me three months to get him to come inside the house, but gradually we built up an incredible bond. I was heartbroken by his death.”
But something kept tugging at Fyrne’s heartstrings, and after a long phone call to Retreat 2 Eden founder Johann Wilhelm, she was sold.
Cape to Southwell
Obstacles were thrown aside and the couple, Nikao in tow, set off on the long journey from Cape Town.
But this wasn’t just a journey which involved a lot of travelling; there was also the uncertainty that lay ahead. Would the two dogs get on, or would it be hate at first sight?
To find out, the trio stayed at The Mythical Aardvark, one of the few pet-friendly holiday homes in Port Alfred, for three nights. They spent the first few days at Retreat 2 Eden, introducing the two dogs and getting to know more about Xiro before she could finally join the family for the final night of the stay.
Fyrne recalls that it wasn’t easy: “Xiro had never been inside a house, so we spent quite some time with her in the garden before taking her to the beach; also another first for her.
“The beach walk was an uplifting outing for all of us. Xiro’s tail was up in the air and she was prancing like a queen.”
But then came the hard part: Fyrne explains: “Having never been into a house, and having stressed quite badly, Xiro finally curled up in a quiet corner. It was a huge day for her.”
Things are looking up
Fortunately, by that evening things were already beginning to look up.
“Xiro finally ate a little meat before going to bed in the downstairs room. Where, I might add, she promptly jumped on a low kiddies’ bed! The boy slept on the queen bed with us all night – something that has never happened before.
“By the middle of their first week back in Cape Town, Xiro had been to the vet and was doing remarkably well,” says Fyrne.
She’s developed quite a naughty streak, stealing food off plates and burying her toys, but the dogs are getting on well and the Goveia family is complete.
Fyrne says: “She has arthritis and is going blind, but we will deal with all of that as it comes. In the meantime, she is settling in well, and while I may have had reservations at first, they have completely disappeared.
“If such an opportunity arose again, I would do it in a flash!”