Thirty years of sound pet advice

 Peter and Erny during  recent visit to the SUR  offices to celebrate 30  years of the column.
Peter and Erny during recent visit to the SUR offices to celebrate 30 years of the column. / SALVADOR SALAS
  • Peter and Erny Harrison are well known to readers as the authors of the Pet Care column they started in 1989. Now in their eighties, they talk to SUR about their past, present and future

It was the summer of 1989 that Peter Harrison wrote his first Pet Care column in SUR in English. Back then he and his wife Erny were running their kennels of the same name and were becoming increasingly aware of the need for information among owners about looking after their pets in southern Spain.

Both Peter and Erny, who later began penning her own columns on her speciality - cats, stress they are not vets and therefore cannot offer veterinary advice, but over the years their column in this newspaper has given pet owners information, based on their own knowledge, experience and common sense.

"The Pet Care column is about care, not cure," says Peter, 86, who was born in Devon, England.

The British-Dutch couple moved to Spain in 1988 to their fourth-floor apartment they had previously used for holidays in Marbella. "It was all right for holidays but not to live," says Erny. "We brought our dog with us; he was used to Dartmoor where he had his own hill."

Their move to find more space, therefore, was inevitable and they settled for a property in Alhaurín el Grande where they opened the Petcare kennels.

The couple recall how it was SUR in English's then advertising manager, Eve Browne, who gave them the idea of writing a column. After a professional career almost entirely in television and publishing, Peter jumped at the chance. That way he and Erny could inform more owners about dangers such as Leishmaniasis and processionary caterpillars as well as offering general advice about caring for animals in warmer climes.

"We came to the conclusion that there was a lot of neglect in Spain, due to a lack of knowledge," he says.

The Pet Care column was later complemented with a section focusing on the wildlife of Andalucía.

Peter and Erny are well-known among the international community on the Costa del Sol and inland, and not just for their column and their love of animals. Both have been staunch supporters of hospice charity Cudeca, and Erny was involved in opening the shops in Coín and Álora, where she was manager until 2010. In 2016 Erny received special recognition for her service to the charity.

The couple's love of animals goes back as long as they can remember. "We always had dogs at home," says Erny, who was born in Maastricht, the Netherlands, 81 years ago.

Before moving to Spain they had spent four years running their ten-room hotel after converting a derelict Georgian mansion on Dartmoor.

Seeing the world

They had previously been based in the UK but also travelled the world, thanks to Peter's job as international sales director for New York-based publishing firm McGraw-Hill. He went on to accept a lucrative six-month contract as a consultant to media mogul Robert Maxwell, which helped fund the Dartmoor hotel project.

"Compared with a lot of people, we've seen a lot of the world," says Erny. In fact both Peter and Erny had enjoyed successful professional careers and travelled widely before they met in 1974.

Peter, who is also a qualified riding instructor, was born in Devon and went to school and university in Exeter. He served as an army officer during the Suez campaign in Egypt, where his respect for animals was heightened after his guard dog sensed a dangerous situation.

In 1957, Peter started working in commercial television, then still in its early days. He began by selling advertising and by the time he was 32 he was made Deputy Midlands Controller for Associated Television, based in Birmingham. There, he was responsible for many programmes, among them the soap opera Crossroads.

A series of events and chance meetings led Peter, who has a son, Neil (now 59), from Birmingham to London and from television to publishing. His job at McGraw-Hill took him around the world.

It was a business trip to the Netherlands in 1974, however, that was to change his life. "If you want to meet someone, oversleep first," laughs Erny as she recalls the couple's failed first appointment when she was marketing director for a Dutch publishing company. The honest excuse passed on by her secretary - that she hadn't got up in time - intrigued Peter, who made sure to arrange a new meeting.

Erny's career prior to their meeting had seen her working around Europe. She had been an au pair in Paris when she was 18, and later worked in international schools in France, Germany and Belgium.

She was also a travel writer in Switzerland, Spain and Morocco and an account executive with a Dutch publisher and worked for Lancôme as a film editor.

"I was very lucky because Holland is very independent about women, and so I could get the jobs that women in those days probably in England couldn't get because of the gender difference," says Erny.

Peter and Erny saw each other whenever he was in Holland, visiting her in hospital for three months after she fractured her skull (ironically falling over her cats on the stairs). "And then he proposed marriage."

As Peter and Erny look back over their lives for this interview, their stories are all but dull.

Back in his television days, for business reasons Peter came up with the plan to film Crossroads for a period in Tunisia. The stories he found there inspired him to start writing a novel. A meeting with the daughter of a top Nazi in Spain gave him the information he needed to complete Legacy of Evil that was published in 1997.

Both Peter and Erny admit they have been very lucky in the way that opportunities have arisen for them in their lives, but perhaps it's a case of them both being able to make the most of what life has to offer.

Now they take life more easily, living with their cat and dog in the house, 30 minutes from Álora, they moved to when they sold their kennels 18 years ago. The couple's love of cruising is among the few things that drag them away from their home, where after 30 years they still write their Pet Care columns.

"People are looking after their animals so much better now than they were 30 years ago," says Peter, who hopes that their information has contributed to this progress.