On Monday (February 23) Bexhill’s Barby Keel will celebrate her 80th birthday.
This fierce protector of animals and birds has become a local treasure with her feisty nature and single-minded dedication.
She has been running the sanctuary in Freezeland Lane since the early 1980’s having moved onto the site in 1970 in a caravan.
Decades later she is still taking phone calls at night from someone who needs to rehome a cat, giving battery chickens fresh air to breathe, organising her “motley crew” of volunteers, or putting together one of her major fundraiser open days.
She also has her popular charity shop in St Leonards Road where supporters of her work can donate clothing or items to sell on to fund the rescue centre.
Barby is well-known for her plain-speaking, down-to-earth personality, but perhaps it is that same grit and determination driving her on which also helped her battle cancer twice and recover from a heart attack.
The latter happened in June last year and Barby is pleased to be told recently that her regular visits to the consultant are now just every couple of months.
Barby said: “I think I am lucky. They call me a tough old bat. My mum was 82 when she died and my dad was 96, so touch wood, I take after him. I am still going to darts with my boys, once a week at Sidley Working Men’s Club, and I don’t feel like 80, I just feel like one of the lads.”
She added: “I think it is down to the way we were brought up in the war - we had to get on with it, and we roughed it. We were billeted to Gloucester then Hellingly, two or three of our houses were bombed, and we just had to keep moving on. My nickname was Grizzly Bear.
“It’s willpower, too - I just don’t give up. If you find you have a bad illness don’t give up. I remember being told I had cancer and I just couldn’t say anything, I just stood there, but when I got home I screamed. And then I just got on with it. But I could not have done that without my motley crew around me, especially Elaine Chennery and Christine Haker. They were always there for me.”
She grew up in Eastbourne but preferred the more relaxed atmosphere of Bexhill and bought the four acre plot on Freezeland Lane for £1,400, staying in that caravan for 20 years, “because I am nuts.”
She rescued cats and dogs and the sanctuary started from there - it is now providing for 600 creatures, with no fewer than 200 cats, and a massive range of four legs or two, from pot-bellied pigs and chinchillas to peacocks and seagulls.
Fundraising is an issue - it costs £430 a week just for the cats, and vets bills run into thousands every month. Barby is always looking for donations, legacies and sponsorship, and her big open day in summer is a major event for the year - anyone who can help her in any way can call on 01424 222032 or 219593.
Trustee Michael Lamb said of her: “Barby is there for everybody that needs her. The dedication to all the animals here is unprecendented. I have never met somebody who is so dedicated to animals. But if anyone of the staff here is in some sort of difficulty they can go to her and she is like a caring mother to everybody - to be there for them, and to help. She is a shoulder to cry on. But at the same time...one of the volunteers said he didn’t mind tackling any of the big animals, but he would never want to tackle Barby.”