Unsung Heroes – Interview With Stuart Alberry

Hello Stuart, you head a team of volunteers at what is affectionately called the SARA shed, in Tahiche.  Since lockdown changed everyone’s lives, socially and economically it has become a little shining icon of its own in the Lanzarote calendar.  An icon full of purpose and care, most of our readers love their pets, so you will be grilled to give us lots of details. So where are you from originally, and how did you become interested in SARA & selling ladies clothes & shoes in the middle of a hot desert island, surrounded by abandoned pets?

Hello Diane. I was born in a small village in Hampshire. The short story of me is, after living in both Brighton and Bristol, I now live in a small village in Lanzarote. Part of what drew my partner & I to Lanzarote, was becoming aware of SARA’s presence through social media. We were searching for a new purpose as animal lovers and decided to become supporters of the SARA ethos, it suited our personal drive of caring for all animals. I started by walking the dogs and volunteering at the SARA fundraising markets. I loved it. My partner, Justin, is now the SARA photographer and film maker.

What did you do in Brighton and Bristol and how did that equip you for your current role?

I was a teacher for many years. My last post was as Deputy Head in the largest primary school in Bristol. An inner city, multicultural and challenging school, that I loved.

As a Deputy Head in a challenging school, you certainly have the credentials to organise and liaise with a team and make amazing things happen. Why did you choose Lanzarote?

I always dreamed of living somewhere peaceful, beautiful, relaxing and warm. After years of holidaying in different places – including each Canary Island, I fell in love with Lanzarote’s dramatic beauty and culture.

Do you own any pets of your own?

I’ve always looked after rescue cats. When I moved to Lanzarote, I dreamed of owning a couple of rescue dogs, known as podencos. However, unknown to us, we were quickly corralled and adopted by a colony of feral cats in our village. After getting them neutered, we socialised them and they now live in our home. We have lost a few to illness or road traffic, or else they just vanish to another dimension only known to cats. We currently have 7 house cats and 2-night visitors. They have daft names. Captain Peacock – because he has a Captain Peacock glare, Catherine of Aragon – our first Spanish Queen cat, Silver Lady- a silver tabby named after the David Soul song, Guapo-Baby was rescued from a bin as a kitten in Costa Teguise, then  Tabby-Fur she is  a tabby girl with a broken tail, then there is Bella Lugosi –  a gothic looking cat. Manxine – has no tail, Mary Tudor – a feisty little Queen and Tiger & Beaker (who might end up being called Bert & Ernie because of their brotherly love. I’m sure other people have lots of pets with quirky names.

Thanks for the giggles, I call one of my cats La Bamba because she is extremely athletic and can jump a 12-foot gate in one leap!  Now we have been properly introduced to your pets, can I ask if have you always been interested in the welfare of animals?

As a child I wanted to be a vet. I loved nature shows and I was a Young Naturalist. I decided to became a vegetarian at 18 and adapted to the vegan lifestyle in 2004. The scale of animal torture in the meat & dairy industries breaks my heart, and I personally consider it a shame on our species. In my opinion you cannot be an animal lover unless you are vegan.

That is a very laudable, it’s gratifying to know there are, as at 2021, 79 million vegans in the world and about 145 billion vegetarians.  Bryan Adams, a favourite musician, said succinctly. “I never put the whole thing of animal cruelty and that together as a youngster. But the moment I began to understand what was going on with the treatment of animals, it led me more and more in the way of the path I am on now, which is a complete vegan”.

I agree, if you love cats and dogs but eat meat, then you are a pet lover, not an animal lover. I’m an animal lover and do my best to respect other species.

What is your funniest/ scariest moment managing a team of volunteers at the SARA shed?

We have a good team who bring a range of ideas, skills and knowledge with them. The scariest time was during lockdown – when no one was allowed to leave their home. Myself, among a few volunteers, were able to walk the dogs, because we obtained a special permit. There were only 5 of us. We walked the dogs in the SARA shelter, back-to-back, for 4 hours each day, knowing funds were fading away and not knowing the outcome of a dangerous virus and the also who was to take care of the animals. On a lighter note, a bit later when we set up the SARA shed, there are the fun times, having a joke and a laugh with like-minded people. Other funny moments are when we get strange donations. We recently had a framed print of a sketch of Bill Clinton, he was lying nude on a rug. Who would want that?!

Lol, who would sketch it? I have been at the SARA shed when some of the volunteers were trying to work out what a particular odd-shaped bendy, green item could possibly be. It turned out it was a drawing tool and it was snapped up by someone for a euro, who knew its real value. It is undoubtedly hard work, but what is your favourite part of setting up a charity sale?

Getting really nice donations. So many of our supporters are generous. It’s great when we are able to sell-on lovely quality items at a good price to help the dogs & cats. I also love the recycling and reusing aspect of it. It’s great to be part of that kind of global initiative, to repurpose items and not send them to landfill.  Many of our regular supporters come to us for environmental reasons too.

Are you working on any plans at the moment for another SARA event?

We have found holding events in the resorts is really good for raising funds and promoting the SARA animal charity. These events are also great at reaching out to tourists and those without transport. We have started collaborating with the Highlander Too, a bar and restaurant in Puerto Del Carmen and also Brendon’s Pool and Snack Bar in Costa Teguise. We are secretly planning a posh frock event at a hotel as well as a fashion showcase. Shh, keep that to yourself.  

My lips are sealed, kinda! What days / hours do you open the SARA shed?

We open 4 days a week for sales to the public. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday, from 10:00 – 12:00. The second Saturday, every month, is our flea market, at the SARA building. The Shed is to the side, where the car park is located. It is for the real bargain hunters and our main supporters! We have all the safety procedures in place and everyone must still be masked and use hand sanitiser. We are mostly outside and limit numbers inside the shed at busy times.

I’ve seen the crowds, there is a real social buzz and a fair bit of haggling, despite the cheap prices. How can you manage to sell four items of clothing for a euro?

We have a system whereby the best clothing is put aside, to be taken to the events we have regularly. Clothing that hasn’t sold gets taken to the flea market, where we sell really cheap to people who love a bargain. If they don’t get sold from there, we send them on to another charity, very little gets thrown away.

Do you plan sales events with a team & a calendar, or randomly come up with ideas?

We discuss our plans as a team and set them up in the calendar. Each event has a coordinator to oversee it. For example, the Costa Teguise team, the Puerto del Carmen team and the ‘posh frocks’ team.

Which Lanzarote businesses are your main supporters?

The Highlander Too café and bar in Montana Tropical, Brendon’s Pool Bar, Costa Teguise and Colorworks, the printers in Tias. Many other Lanzarote businesses support SARA by having a green moneybox to collect donations. We do get donations from the Ayuntamiento occasionally. We sometimes put a call out to residents via social media with fantastic responses, like when the washer/drier broke recently and we needed a new one urgently.

What kind of items get a good return on sales?

Nice women’s clothes & accessories are our best sellers by far. Then bric-a-brac & kitchenware. Bedding, towels and curtains are always popular because they are so expensive to buy new.

What kind of items would you prefer not to have? 

We have been overwhelmed recently by books, DVDs and CDs.  Perhaps since the pandemic, because of changes in rental laws and people have left the island. They are very hard to sell, as most people stream films & music now and if books are out-of-date, few people want them. Nobody needs a hardback copy of Jeremy Clarkson’s autobiography.

Nobody except my husband. LOL. He loves nothing more than a big bag of reading materials. How would you describe a typical day at the SARA shed?

It’s very hands on. I usually arrive at 8:30. We have such a small space to work and sell, so we have to take all the dress rails outside. Then we tidy the shed itself and create a pleasant display. We are usually busy sorting donations before 10:00am, then we open to the public and sell items, accept new donations & organise what to put online. We then all have to be vigilant of picking up the dress rails that blow over in the inevitable wind of Lanzarote. At 12:00 we close to the public and put everything back inside the shed. In the afternoon I will put items online and update our El Almacen SARA Shed Facebook page.

I have spotted the interior of the shed and its lovely display, you must have a merchandiser amongst your volunteers? I have also spotted the green SARA collecting tins in many Spar supermarkets, do you have a specific volunteer who manages raising funds with collecting tins or is this managed by SARA

SARA manage the distribution of most of the money boxes, but a couple of our Shed team are responsible for a few too. They are a really important part of the funding stream – particularly those at the CACT locations – especially for tourists on the Cesar Manrique trail.

Does SARA receive any outside funding?

Some, but it’s not consistent. The Ayuntamiento are supposed to contribute, but at its best it only meets 20% of the running costs. We have links with Germany, Italy, UK & the Czech Republic who help adopt & rehome rescue animals. SARA, which is officially called Protectora de Animales, relies very heavily on individual donations & money raised from the SARA shed, our monthly markets and events. Money is always tight as they have many outgoings, but residents and visitors are kind and generous. SARA takes care of an average of 190 dogs and 180 cats and they are frequently overcrowded. All the animals rely on paid staff and volunteers to take care of their daily veterinary needs, feeding, cleaning and socialising and dog walking.  Every year, they manage to rehome approximately 800 animals (500 dogs and 300 cats) which are sterilized, vaccinated and identified with their corresponding microchip.

That is astonishing how the shelter manages to do so much given the pressures of balancing funds and taking care of hundreds of abandoned and ill-treated animals. How, or where else can we donate to SARA?

There are a few ways other than the collecting boxes and buying items at the SARA shed. Click on the links below.

  1. Donations can be made online via the official SARA website (PayPal and bank payments);
  2. Becoming a member;  
  3. Sponsoring an animal so that it can live in a dignified manner at the shelter. 10€ a month can sponsor an animal and you will receive a photo and information about it every year.
  4. Call in person at the front office in Tahiche and make a donation directly to SARA.
  5. Or make a donation via the volunteers in the SARA shed.

I love the idea of sponsorship. My grandchildren have become aware of animal shelters because I buy them a sponsorship at Christmas. In your opinion what one thing could the general population do to improve animal welfare?

In my humble opinion, eat vegan! Simply for the sake of animal suffering. That would also help the planet and could improve the health and wellbeing of everyone.  For cats & dogs I would say … number one neuter them.  Two, don’t shop at a puppy kennel, but adopt from a shelter. Three, if you make a commitment to home an animal, then don’t abandon them. Four, ban hunting.

Finally, what’s your favourite thing about Lanzarote in connection with animals?

I was looking at some photos of Cesar Manrique with his dogs, which he clearly loved. There are so many caring people who are generous and concerned about animals both in Lanzarote and people who don’t live on the island. There are also a lot more unsung heroes on the island, who do things on their own; for example, some trap cats, have them neutered and release them back to where they came from or in a safe place. Some, like the lady in Soo, feed colonies of cats; and some manage cat feeding stations. I am very privileged to live in such a beautiful place and I feel very lucky to be a humble volunteer in a place that fights and struggles to improve the lives of beings who depend on us and have no voice. To me the SARA organisation, its animals and its dedicated team is the geographical and living heart to Lanzarote.

Photos by Justin Kershaw.