MOST people have a washing machine in their utility room, but Vikki Goodings has a tiny zoo in hers.
Her collection of beloved pets, including Mr Darcy the spiny mouse, Billy the bearded dragon and Tequila the tarantula, are her friends and her business.
Approaching her 40th birthday Vikki decided to use her Dr Doolittle nature to launch Scales ‘n’ Tails, an interactive animal encounters business.
A year later and her diary is packed with school visits, parties, charity events and perhaps, most importantly of all, pet therapy sessions at care homes.
Vikki said: “I love using the animals to help people. The carers can’t believe the difference in the residents. You might not get anything from them until the animals come out and they’ll completely change. I met one man who wouldn’t speak but when he could stroke the animals he would.
“Another lady has really shaky hands but when she strokes the animals they don’t shake, they go still.”
Vikki’s own grandma, Dorothy, was diagnosed with dementia five and a half years ago, and is a resident at Church View Care Home in Murton, where Vikki often visits with Pandora the rabbit and Herman the tortoise.
She said: “Dementia is a horrible illness. Some days grandma will remember Holly, my daughter, and other days she can’t. The other day it even took her a while to remember me.
“Her memory has gradually got worse and worse. My grandad had the first TV shop in Seaham and my grandma was once a well-dressed business woman.
“Now she forgets she’s had the animal on her lap and been stroking it a second before.
“She can’t remember here and now but she remembers back in Canada when she lived on a farm.”
Vikki says the animals often trigger past memories of pets for her clients. Watching her take Lilly, the chinchilla, around a group of 13 Church View residents, it is easy to see what she means.
The quiet room is transformed by chatting and smiles as the residents reminisce about the past and stroke patient Lilly.
Vikki, a former St Anthony’s pupil, says it can be heartbreaking at times.
She said: “I do sometimes get upset. There are resident’s who’ll have me in tears. Some have sad stories but they’re happy when the animals are there and it gets to you.
“Some are just sitting there, numb, and then they get active for that hour and then they’re numb again.
“Everyone needs that mental stimulation. It would be good if you could have animals in care homes but it’s all down to man hours and funding.”
Her interest in animals began at an early age. By age 13 she was volunteering after school at her local vets.
Vikki said: “I can always remember having rabbits and dogs from being little. Then when I was eight we’d go up and look after my uncle’s livestock farm when he was away.
“I think all children relate to their animals, they talk to them, cry to them when there’s a problem. Children will talk to pets when they won’t talk to people and I think it’s important for every child to experience having a pet as long as they can look after it properly.”
Before going it alone Vikki worked at Down At the Farm, Stoneygate, and managed Adventure Valley, in Brasside.
To start her own business, she enrolled at Houghall College in Durham to study animal management, including animal health, biology, genetics, exotic animal management and wildlife rehabilitation. Then she stayed on to lecture in exotics and animal care.
Many of her cohort of scaly and fluffy assistants are rescued animals. Vikki said: “If I’ve got room I’ll take them. Anyone can buy a snake or a lizard now but they need a lot of care and often people don’t know how to look after them properly.”
Part of her aim in working with children is to educate them about animals in a fun way.
“It’s great to take a tarantula into school and some kids haven’t even seen a guinea pig, never mind handled one, so it’s good fun for them.
“When they see their friends joining in they will join in too.
“It’s great to teach them a bit about them. It’s important too, because they want their own animals and you have a chance to explain what equipment they’ll need and how to care for them.”
An important part of the job is making sure the animals are well suited to lots of attention.
Vikki said: “Pandora, our rabbit, is ideal for pet therapy. They need a nice quiet nature.
“I work with them myself first. I won’t take them out until they’re right. I just spend a lot of time with them.”
And when they’re off duty it’s a life of riley for Vikki’s pets.
She said: “Lilly the chinchilla will come and watch TV with us and I let the different animals play in the garden so they’re not in their cages all the time.
“The hedgehog and the tortoise really get on together for some reason. They’re all special. They do a great service so I want to give them the best life possible.”
Vikki’s daughter, 14-year-old Holly, is also an animal lover, and helps out with children’s parties and weekend events.
Husband Dale, is also a fan.
She said: “He thinks I’m crackers but he loves the animals. I walk into the utility room and shout ‘Hi Honey! Hi Mr D! (the spiny mouse) and he’s laughing at me. It’s a bit of a madhouse at times!
“Part of the reason I wanted to do this was so I could work around Holly being at school and spend more time with her so it’s worked out really well.”
Having survived her first year in business, Vikki is now looking to the future.
She said: “I would like to work more with people who have autism, again because they get so much out of it.
“I’d also like to use the business to work with young offenders.
“Last year was crisis year. I wondered if it was the right time to start the business, to leave a good post and jump straight in.
“There was no funding and it was a tough year with all the outgoings and it had its ups and downs but now I’ve got bookings for Halloween and the summer and it’s looking good.
“I would love a bigger house and more animals. If I could choose I’d have a barn owl, because we all love Harry Potter in our house ... and a skunk.” For more information, visit www.scalesntails animalencounters.co.uk