“I love waking up first thing in the morning with eight eyes staring at me.”
Words by Kate Spicer
Dudley first met Nikki Tibbles when she was straight off a plane from Puerto Rico. It was a lunch for ladies with dogs on the roof of Casa Cruz in Notting Hill. So far, so shallow. Tibbles was fun and friendly, she bonded with every dog there but admitted that she was slightly shell shocked after spaying or neutering 3500 strays as part of her Wild at Heart Foundation’s sterilisation clinic for the country’s vast number of abandoned and abused stray dogs.
Tibbles, for all her grace and charm, had a slightly glazed, far away look in her eye that day. After lunch she insists we all take tequila shots. Fun was had – Dudley’s hangover was bad – but Tibbles later admits to how heartbreaking she finds these trips overseas to try and ease the suffering of some of the world’s 600 million stray dogs.
Nikki Tibbles was, and still is, one of the most well-known florists in Britain. Her floristry and lifestyle brand, Wild at Heart, has several stores in London. She has been one of the go-to florists for the fashion A-list since the earliest days of her brand. “When I set up Wild at Heart I employed one trained florist but mostly it was me.”
It might seem odd to apply the word punk to floristry, but she embodied the ethos. “Untrained, I’d only been working with flowers for six months when took over the space known as the Notting Hill Turquoise Island in 1994 [now a great favourite with Instagram influencers]. I liked fact I could do what I wanted because there were so many rules in floristry back then and I didn’t know them. Like, I love lilacs, lemons and apricots together, which is a terrible no no. I was totally untrained. I wasn’t doing it to be well-known, that whole famous florist thing is daft. I just loved what I did with flowers and worked 20 hours a day. It was all passion.”
Tibbles had always loved dogs. “From a young age my parents would be me down in my own bed and then in the morning find me downstairs happily tucked in with the dogs.”
I always loved being around animals, I love being with my dogs [she currently has four after losing two earlier this year], the digestive biscuit smell between their toes, the softness, the sounds and schnuffles and deep snores, it makes me happy, I love feeling their presence.”
Twenty years ago Nikki Tibbles brought two dogs home from a holiday to Puerto Rico. “I was meant to be on holiday but I spent the entire two weeks rescuing dogs. I took two stray puppies we found on the side of the road back to my hotel. Six months later, when they had had their vaccines and been quarantined I flew them to San Juan to LA to Paris and then I smuggled them in to the UK. I had lunch in Paris and then I drove back through the Channel Tunnel with one under a blanket on my lap and the other one under my knees.”
Who hasn’t been on holiday and fallen in love with a stray dog or cat. Long after the human holiday romance habit is laid to rest, Dudley’s heart continues to be broken by the beach stray in Goa, the cautious mangey girl in a Peruvian village or the puppies born under a bin by a Greek Taverna.
Wild at Heart continued its steady organic growth. “No social media, no facebook, no Internet…it was just word of mouth.” It went something like this, the fashion designer Rifat Ozbek sent flowers to Bernadette Rendell, head of PR for Chanel who ordered flowers to go to Alexandra Shulman, then editor of British Vogue who in turn sent flowers to Anna Wintour, who in turn insisted Tibbles do the flowers for an event… From punk beginnings she became the go-to florist. Her personal highlight was, “Taking a brief from Philippe Stark [one of the most prolific and influential designers of our times]. That was a moment.”
Her love of dogs turned into a vocation when she launched the Wild at Heart Foundation (WAHF) in 2015. “After Rose one of the two puppies I rescued from Puerto Rico died I promised her I would help another dog from abroad. It’s like pushing open the gates of hell when you witness the global issue of dogs abroad. My business was doing well and it was time to start giving back. It’s all very well rehoming dogs, but that’s just the fluffy icing on cake. Our core work is mass sterilisation of street dogs and the education of local people about sterilisation and animal welfare. Meaningful change has to come from within.”
For the last two two years the shoe designer Manolo Blahnik has sponsored the WAHF education programme, “We started in London and will roll it out on the ground in all the countries we work in where we also fund huge sterilisation programmes.”
Since she founded the Wild at Heart Foundation Tibbles fame has risen for the tireless work she does with the world’s stray dogs. “When I go to meet new clients they say, ‘Oh my, you’re the dog lady’. People like the fact that we give back. People come to us for flowers but then end up becoming a Wild at Heart Foundation dog owner.”
She’s done the flowers for oodles of famous weddings. She mentions “lovely” Guy Ritchie’s second wedding, to Jacqui Ainsley, for which they specially grew every flower in the garden of his Wiltshire manor house. When Nicky [Paris’ sister] Hilton and James Rothschild came in to discuss the floral arrangements for their nuptials at Kensington Palace, the groom made the connection between her professional life and her passion for rescuing dogs and, she says, ‘He told me there and then, “Anyone that rescues dogs is doing my wedding flowers.”’
Five years on, Tibbles’ zeal only grows but it comes at a great personal cost. Dudley mentions the sadness behind the laughter that lunch when they first met. “It’s true. My heart feels a lot heavier, I’ve lost a lot of my joy for life. I can never do enough. Humans will never have enough kindness and compassion to compensate for the cruelty done to dogs and indeed all animals. I’ve seen the horrific pounds where dogs are gassed in masses, I’ve seen the dogs killed with broken glass in their food, or lingering deaths from poisoning. The things I’ve seen I can’t unsee, I know every second an animal is suffering. But I am glad I am a witness to it.”
The Foundation carefully partners with good local shelters on the ground. The countries they work with now include South Africa, Spain, Romania, Greece, Puerto Rico, Bahrain, Borneo, Thailand, South Korea, and more, it’s a long list for a small foundation. The Remarkable Rescue Fund brings “incredible dogs with severe and shocking disabilities” to the UK, and for those adopters they offer lifelong financial support for the dog’s care.
While some dogs receive 200 enquiries, these more complex dogs can take a while to find the right adoptive homes. Recently, working with The People for Animals Trust in Faridabad, in the north of India, the foundation took on Rocky, a street girl that had lost half her front legs on a railway track (see pictures). Currently being fitted with prosthetic limbs, Rocky can live a full and happy life in that astonishing way amputee dogs will. “It will take time for the right person to come forward for Rocky. Some people will be scared of managing a dog with two half legs.”
She expresses polite disdain for the adopters who recently, “Gave a healthy, well-adjusted dog back, because it was ‘too heavy’.” For the most part though, “We have a high success rate, it takes a bit longer but we really work to rehome the right dog for the right home. I went to meet a truck from Bulgaria the other day. I love to see these extraordinary reactions of utter joy these dogs just off a truck, driving for three days, and within 20 minutes of meeting their new owners tails are wagging and their whole body language changes.”
“It is so rewarding rescuing a dog and saving a life.” She cites the example of the well-known fashion stylist, Bay Garnett, who adopted a WAHF dog, Paddy, from Romania and after a six month struggle settling him in, “She’s now utterly in love. These dogs don’t always immediately slip happily into our lives, you stick with it. I could never give up on a dog because where else can you find the unconditional love, gratitude and hope?”
For more information about Rocky go to https://wildatheartfoundation.org/rockys-rescue-appeal/
What is your idea of perfect dog-related happiness?
There are so many kinds of dog related happiness. I love waking up first thing in the morning with eight eyes staring at me having slept in the most awkward positions because I don’t want to the dogs in the complicated jigsaw that is sharing a bed with large animals. I love to see them run and run and run and run knowing that they’ve all come from such horrific beginnings. And at the end of the day nothing makes me happier than all my dogs laying in front of a roaring fire having had the most delicious of dinners. We then go upstairs to bed and I watch four beautiful bottoms wiggle and wag their way to my bedroom!
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself that you don’t mind in your dog?
Putting on weight, for one! I wish I wasn’t so very quick to judge people, whereas the same quality in my dogs is admirable because they are far more intuitive than I am.
What is your greatest dog-related extravagance?
Probably flying them in to the UK so they can come home to live with me. I’m not really into designer dog accessories, fancy beds or toys. But I will do anything to give them a better life and if that means flying them from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Bahrain, or Lebanon then I will move heaven and earth to do so. The dogs eat far better than I do; they have acupuncture every week, and cannabis oil and turmeric every day. I have none of the above.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue in mankind?
No virtue could be overrated, except perhaps chastity
What do you consider the most overrated virtue in dogs?
Could a dog have an overrated virtue; surely virtues are all adding to the positive, kind and compassionate in our world?
What do you dislike most about your appearance?
Today? Everything. This year has been tough and the first place I take things out on myself is in the mirror. Definitely not a virtue.
What do you most love about your dogs’ appearance?
I love everything about the way my dogs look no matter how ugly others may think they are, especially my Rita who has a face only a mother could love and looks like she’s been stung by 1000 bees.
Which phrases do you most overuse when talking to your dog?
“Oh I love you so so so so much. Could I love anything any more than I love you?”
If your dog could talk, what would he/she sound like?
Well it depends on which dog were talking about. Rita, who is a bit of a thug, would probably sound like Ray Winston. Lenny, an old-fashioned actor like John Gilbert. Ronnie is a Romanian gangster. Ruby would be so gentle and terribly proper and maybe a little bit like Mary Poppins.
What does your special talking to the dog voice sound like?
I don’t think I have a special talking to the dog voice although I’m sure most of my friends would disagree
What super power would you like to have?
Could I be a scientist that comes up with a vaccine to sterilise the 600 million stray dogs in the world. Or I’d like to be superwoman flying around the world saving dogs from the unmatched cruelty of mankind
What is your current state of mind?
Concerned, anxious, worried and when I am with the dogs, content
What is your dog currently doing?
All of my dogs are lying on my bed with me whilst I answer your questions
If you could change one thing about your dog, what would it be?
I would never change a single thing about any of my dogs except that they could all live longer. People on the other hand…I could write a list that would go on for days.
Who is your greatest hero?
Probably my father who sadly passed away a long time ago who taught me my love and deep respect of animals and to treat people how you always want to be treated
What is it that you most dislike?
Vanity and entitlement. Meanness and a lack of generosity of spirit. Cruelty and people who are not kind, thoughtful or compassionate. Humans aren’t kind. We are meant to be the highest beings on the planet, we have conscious thought, we have choice, yet we are the cruelest animals of all. Animals have no voice.
What is it that your dog most dislikes?