End of an era for Antrim Road vet
Mother and daughter call it a day after 50 years of looking after pets

A mother and daughter team that have looked after the health of pets in Belfast for over 50 years from their surgery on the Antrim Road have finally called it a day.
It’s the end of an era for Muriel McClay (88) who started up the practice in 1953 and her daughter Gillian Alcroft after she decided to spend more time with her family.
Gillian, a mother-of-two also provides respite care for the families of special needs children as well as looking after the family’s tiny herd of Chihuahuas.
From their house across the Antrim Road famous for its palm tree, the two women recall their time in North Belfast and a lifetime healing pet mammals, rodents, reptiles, exotic birds and even lion cubs.
“We’ve always been known as the corner house with the palm tree,” said Gillian Alcroft who took over her mother’s reins at the surgery when she retired in 1981.
“My mother was born in Birkenhead in England but she was brought up in Bangor after her parents returned to Ireland,” she recalled.
“She got interested in being a vet because she loved horses and cats.
“She qualified in Dublin at a time when becoming a vet wasn’t considered a woman’s job, but she never saw it as a man’s job and neither did her parents.
“However, her headmistress in school did. Even when I went to veterinary school there were nine out of 50 that were women and that was considered a huge number in 1973. When my mother went that figure was three out of 60.”
One of the family’s favourite pets was a lioness’s cub that they reared after its mother in Bellevue Zoo rejected it. But the home of the two vets has seen its fair share of other well-loved pets.
“From my mother being a vet we would have had a lot of animals dumped at the clinic and it’s our responsibility to try and rehouse them.
“I remember a wee dog being dumped the day before Christmas Eve and my mum calling the USPCA to come and get the dog.
“The following day was Christmas Eve and my mother went to get the dog out because she couldn’t bear that she had given away a dog at Christmas. Her name was Hanna, she was a mongrel and we had her for 14 years.”
But it was the family’s adoption of a lion that got people talking and saw local journalists flocking to the McClay’s door way back in 1966.
“Yes my mother’s lion cub was delivered by caesarean in the zoo.
“The city vet at the time didn’t have a lot of surgical experience so he asked my mother to carry out the procedure and we looked after one of the three cubs.
“We had Lisa for seven months before she went back to the zoo.
“The other two cubs that were left in the zoo sadly died, but Lisa did very well. She had a great sense of humour and when a group of journalists came to the house she growled at them and played to the gallery, but she was harmless.
“We’ve had loads of wildlife to look after such as hedgehogs, foxes and badgers, but when I came to the surgery in the 1980s we started to see more exotic animals such as lizards and snakes and I went to get training for that.”
But being a vet has its serious side and it’s a profession where cruelty can reveal a lot about the possible abuse and trauma of children, says Gillian.
“You see more cruelty to animals through ignorance rather than active cruelty. But if you see cruelty it shows what’s happening in people’s lives.
“I remember seeing a cat that was very badly injured and I was concerned. I contacted the NSPCC because if animals are being treated cruelly that can be part of a bigger picture of cruelty where children are involved.
“The NSPCC phoned back and told me that house was already under observation. There is certainly a responsibility on vets to look out for cruelty, certainly to animals, but that can be linked to children being injured or mistreated.
“But most of the time with bad conditions of animals it’s people not asking the right questions at the right time.”
Now that McClays is shutting up, the vet is keen to stress that she will still be working part time out of the surgery on the Ormeau Road, and it’s expected that an animal charity will be taking over the Antrim Road building later this year.
“It’s a very good charity and I’m very flattered with the responses of the people I have told.
“Letters will be going out to all the people on our database, which is about 13,000, to tell them the new arrangements.
“I still get stories of me in the pram outside the clinic and we have a lot of adults who say they first came to the clinic as children with their pets.
“I have two children who are now in secondary school and I think they need me more and I can’t give them the time I think they need.
“I didn’t have them not to look after them so I’m looking forward to spending more time with the family and of course the children I give respite care to.
“It’ll be an emotional farewell, but I’ll have more free time and after working all these years, finally, a life.”


Journalist:: Andrea McKernon

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