AN animal charity which has saved the lives of countless creatures, could be forced to close after 30 years.

The Rescuers Wildlife Sanctuary in Benfleet has been told to stop taking in poorly animals, pending the outcome of an investigation by the RSPCA.

It is bringing 17 charges of cruelty against the founders of the charity Veronica Mepham and her husband Rye.

The sanctuary is home to about 40 owls and parrots, formerly kept as pets, as well as foxes and rabbits not able to survive in the wild because of injuries.

Veronica, 70, who lives at the centre in Watlington Road, strongly denied the charges.

She said “We have put 30 years of blood, sweat and tears into the sanctuary.

“We are devastated by this. Looking after animals has been our lives. It’s our passion.

“I would never have harmed an animal.”

Despite suffering three strokes in recent years, Veronica has still maintained her work at the charity.

She does all the fundraising to pay for the care of the animals.

The couple and helpers nurse back to health abandoned baby foxes, hedgehogs, squirrels and other wildlife and always avoid putting an animal down unless absolutely necessary.

Veronica added: “I dread to think what will happen if they close us down.

“There is nowhere else for animals to go in this area.”

The charity is well known in the community and Veronica regularly goes to schools for free with her animals to educate youngsters.

Squirrels from the sanctuary even became movie stars when they starred alongside Johnny Depp in the remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The creatures were handpicked to be in the 2005 Tim Burton movie for the famous nut room scene.

Yesterday she was due to visit Funhouse Pre School in Laindon, to show the pupils some hedgehogs. Veronica has now had to rehome all her hedgehogs, so could not make the appointment.

The RSPCA court hearing is due to take place in November. A spokesman for the RSPCA would not confirm details of the charges at the time of going to press.