'The sofas look better with dogs on them': A holiday in Puerto Rico inspired celebrity florist NIKKI TIBBLES to launch a global dog rescue charity. And, she tells Liz Jones, she can’t help bringing her work home with her…
I’ve never been so jealous. Not just that Nikki Tibbles, florist to the stars, is gamine and beautiful in a seemingly effortless, fine-boned, Mia-Farrowish way. Or has a huge house in Notting Hill. Or the fact that said house is stuffed with gorgeous sofas, paintings on every inch of wall, and coffee-table books. Or that the basement kitchen island is as big and bright as a polar icecap. She has a banker boyfriend, too, which I don’t particularly hanker after, but which must help. She even has a wordless housekeeper, Alcina, who has been with her for 15 years, and keeps bearing vegan snacks.
I want her life, but what really makes me green as ivy is that I’m greeted by no fewer than six wet pointy noses belonging to her rescued dogs Tia, Lenny, Rita, Ruby, Smith and Ronnie, a mass of ginger and grey fur and practically no barking at all (does she drug them? ‘They’re fed homemade vegetarian dishes’). They shine with health, trust and love, which is incredible, given the state they were in when she found them. Take the biggest, Lenny, who was thrown down a well in Spain. And my favourite, a grey-muzzled black lab. ‘That’s Tia. Her tail was caught in a hunter’s trap and she gnawed herself free. I got her because she had been in a tiny kennel for four years. She kept trying to chew her stump, so she had to wear a protective collar for ages.’
What happens when Nikki takes them for a walk? ‘If I have two or three it’s easy, but not all six together as they become a proper pack. It can be difficult in Hyde Park. It’s easier when we take some to my house in West Sussex; they rotate.’ But they have no problem fitting on her bed. We troop up three flights of stairs, past paintings of – you guessed it – dogs and roses, to her gorgeous master bedroom. The dogs pile on, like a hirsute, mainly ginger jigsaw.
But nothing else seems to fit. Nikki, who won’t reveal her age, shows off earlobes studded with jewels and a sweater with a dog embroidered on it. How does she marry her love of beautiful things with, let’s be honest, a motley crew of Muttleys? ‘My dogs are my home. I’m not precious. The sofas look better with dogs on them than they do without.’ (For the record, the house smells of Diptyque’s Baies and Wild at Heart’s Lait de Figue.)
It’s clear that this dynamic, well-connected owner of fashionable florist Wild at Heart, who did the flowers for the weddings of Poppy Delevingne, Guy Ritchie (‘we grew all the flowers in his garden for that’), Nicky Hilton and James Rothschild – in fact, anyone posh you care to throw a tulip at – is an animal nut. Nikki may give the impression of floating through a charmed life – the silk pyjamas, the flower portraits (she supports two wonderful organisations: Intoart and KCAT in Kilkenny, Ireland; both work with people with learning disabilities) – but like her bouquets, there are woody stems beneath the surface. She grew up in Bristol. Her father was a carpenter who had been a prisoner of war in the Second World War, her mother a hairdresser. They both ‘worked hard to put me through a convent school until I was 18.
‘So it was just me, really. And a houseful of animals. We had a boxer dog who had been given to my dad, which is why I love houndy types. At one point, we had five dogs at home. My parents would wake up to find me downstairs, sleeping in the dog beds. My dad was amazing: he would bring home a bird with a broken wing, rabbits, cats…’
Nikki was ‘completely’ dyslexic. ‘Growing up, I wanted to be a vet. Then I wanted to do something creative. But I can’t paint or draw, compose or sing.’ She started work in an advertising agency, but hated it. ‘I always loved colour and beautiful things around me. Then some friends asked me to help with the flowers for their wedding.’
HOW TO MAKE A DOG FEEL AT HOME
Wild at Heart Foundation’s resident behaviourist David Drew shares his tips for helping a new pet settle in…
Dogs can arrive stressed and need a few quiet days to adjust. Allow them to get used to their new family and avoid overwhelming them at first with meeting strangers or even going for walks, especially around traffic.
Consider house rules and boundaries, where the dog is to sleep, its feeding and toilet routines. If you are unaware of the existing diet, provide cooked chicken and rice initially to avoid upsetting its digestive system.
Give your dog a place to go where it feels safe, allowing it the option to use its flight response to avoid difficult situations. A crate with a bed inside is a good idea.
Teach your dog to be alone for short periods. Separation anxiety can arise quickly, as new owners return to their normal routine. Gradually build up time spent apart, teaching the dog to be independent.
Sometimes food or resource guarding can occur, especially in dogs that have been deprived. Give the dog space to eat in peace and a bed of its own to sleep in.
Watch out for signs of stress and warning signals, such as lip licking and pacing, to keep your dog under its stress threshold.
If you have problems, the quicker they are addressed, the better the chances are of eradicating them. Contact the rescue organisation, a qualified behaviourist or experienced trainer.
Nikki loved it and landed a job in a high-street Interflora shop. ‘I was living round the corner from here and the tenancy of Turquoise Island [a listed building that’s now part shop, part public loo] on Westbourne Grove came up. I applied and I got it.’ She now has branches in Pimlico and inside Liberty, but that first year in 1993/4 was all graft. ‘I used to get up at 4am every day. I hadn’t been trained, so I didn’t have any rules. I just did what I liked. I think the most attractive trait in anyone is generosity, so if we can convey that through the flowers that’s a nice thing. I like abundance.’
Then, 15 years ago, Nikki went on a life-changing holiday to Puerto Rico. She met Neva Kaya, the founder of the charity Puerto Rico Dog Fund, and, proving she is nothing if not intrepid, she ‘spent the entire two weeks rescuing dogs’. She recalls: ‘I came across two stray puppies on the side of the road and took them back to my hotel. No one wanted them so, six months later, when they had had their vaccines, I flew them to LA, then from LA to Paris, and finally brought them home.’
Nikki’s Puerto Rican puppies Rose and Lily joined her adored Battersea Dogs Home rescues, Reuben and Maizie. When Maizie died eight years ago, Nikki was heartbroken. ‘I was more upset about Maizie than my mum because I knew my mum was with my dad. When my mum died about 12 years ago, she said, “I’m going to see your father tonight.” She’d been ill a long time. My father died of cancer and they had been together since they were 16. She was so happy and she died that night. I hadn’t spent much time with my parents, just once a month after I left home aged 17. But with a dog, that relationship is 24/7. They’re the most consistent thing in your life.’
When Rose died a year later, Nikki promised she would get another dog from abroad. In 2014, hearing about the problem of strays in Romania, she found herself trying to secure homes for a litter of puppies, one of whom was her beloved dog Ronnie. Then Nadine Kayser, the global head of communications for management consultancy Steer Davies Gleave, got in touch about adopting one. Nikki recalls: ‘We met and I told her I wanted to set up a charity. So that’s how we started.’
Determined to stem the rising population of 600 million street dogs worldwide, the pair launched the Wild at Heart Foundation (WAHF) in 2015. Funded by profits from Nikki’s flower business as well as fundraising, it supports tiny charities in South Africa, Spain, Romania, Greece, Puerto Rico and the UK. Dogs needing homes are placed on the WAHF website and Nikki’s staff do the vetting and home checks. It has become the go-to site for celebrities looking for pets: Noel Gallagher, Sophie Dahl and Louise Redknapp have all fallen for abandoned or unwanted dogs.
In January 2017, Nikki returned to Puerto Rico to help set up a sanctuary. ‘Neva handed me Rita [so grey and wiry, you want to scrub pans with her], who could just fit in my hands. She had been dumped on the highway. I had to have her. I got Ruby at the same time. So I had Rita and Ruby and 30 pit bulls in my hotel room.’ Did anyone object? ‘They didn’t know!’ And the pit bulls? ‘They’re extraordinary. So loyal and stoic. Not once did I feel scared.’
So when news broke of Hurricane Maria ravaging the island last September, Nikki didn’t hesitate to go out and help in whatever way she could. ‘When we landed, it was chaos. There was no phone signal, no electricity, no running water. The dog shelters had been flattened and flooded; dogs had to be placed in crates and moved to higher ground.’ The island already had a stray dog population of half a million; many are used for fighting or are tethered on someone’s property. ‘There were these extraordinary dogs roaming the streets or lying lifeless in the road.’ Nikki stayed for ten days. With no water, food or fuel readily available, one of the charity volunteers would spend up to six hours queuing to buy food for the dogs.
Helping animals is a vocation for Nikki. ‘My friends think I’m crazy. When I went to Puerto Rico last time, they said, “Do not come back with any more dogs!” I resisted. It was heartbreaking. I’d have 50 if I could.’ What does her boyfriend, Will Thompson, think? (He has children, while Nikki is child free.) ‘Will loves them and the two new little ones. I woke up last week and Ruby had got under the duvet. She had her head on the pillow and her paw around him.’
People often view rescue dogs with suspicion. ‘Smith, from Spain, is the most troubled, having been abused, but he is fine with people. Like all of us, we function well when we feel loved and safe and have routine. You don’t really know what you are getting with a pedigree dog, especially now when so many are inbred. I’ve never had a bad experience with a rescue dog. I encourage people with children to adopt dogs; it’s so beneficial. It teaches kids how to take care of and love a creature. I have a friend who adopted two poodle crosses from Cyprus, and her kids read to them at night; they have come on in leaps and bounds. If I could get compassion on the national curriculum, I’d die happy.’
So is she a soft or stern mummy with her pack? ‘I’m very soft. I really need Lenny and Ronnie to do what they’re told because they’re big. But at home, if they don’t sit the first time, I tell them, “Well, whatever.”’
MEET THE PACK
1. Smith is orange, so is very glad Ed Sheeran has found fame. He is about eight or nine. He had been tortured in Spain: he had a broken jaw, shattered eardrum and broken ribs. He had been locked in a cage for three years.
2. Ronnie is four and has no tail, but this doesn’t stop him wagging. His mother had been shot, then decapitated and he had been left for dead with her in a Romanian forest. He is partially deaf, so responds to touch.
3. Ruby is thought to be a boxer/ridgeback, and was rescued in January 2017, at the same time as Rita, from Puerto Rico when she was around three months old. ‘Ruby was in a crate so small she could barely stand. She had been found abandoned and was considered unmanageable. Now she is up for everything and just wants to play.’
4. Lenny is a Spanish mastiff cross, and a bear of a dog. ‘He was discovered 20ft down a well in the middle of nowhere in southern Spain, along with a rottweiler. He still doesn’t like small spaces.’
5. Rita is grey with wiry fur. ‘She is the happiest dog. She was rescued when I met her as a puppy in Puerto Rico and arrived in April last year.’
6. Tia, who is aged 11 to 13, is Nikki’s first dog from Spain. ‘I got her in 2010. She had been caught by her tail in a hunter’s snare and had chewed it off to escape. When she was found, her stump was infected and so painful she couldn’t sit down. She loves affection, but keeps herself to herself.’
Written by Liz Jones in You Magazine Sunday 28th January 2018
Photos by Michael Clements