Take a guided tour with Mel James and meet a hand-reared seagull who refuses to fly away. Say hello to a sheep called Dave. "I fell for Dave when I first saw him," says Mel. "Everybody loves him. He relishes attention."

A pig called Clara was brought here by a woman who learned that its owner no longer wanted it and was going to slit its throat.

Clara lived in Mel's house for a couple of weeks, "until she decided to eat my dog's bed! She goes out for walks on a dog lead."

Most of the animals here come with a story like Clara's: deadly serious mixed with a lighter side. The worst and the best of human nature. People who treat animals with casual or considered cruelty. And people who rescue them and bring them to Mel.

Ani-Mel Haven is the animal sanctuary she runs with help from six volunteers at Beckfoot, between Silloth and Allonby. It is a place for animals to live out their days in much happier environments than their previous ones, while learning to trust people again.

The sanctuary forms part of Bank Mill Visitor Centre. Built up by Mel's dad Bill James over several decades, Bank Mill includes a garden centre, nature reserve and coffee shop.

Ani-Mel Haven became a registered charity three years ago. Mel has been looking after animals for much longer than that: most of her 42 years.

She grew up here and says: "As a kid, I brought back injured seagulls, things that had been hit on the road. Dad had a guillemot when he was a lad. He used to take it swimming on the beach! Maybe that's where I get it from."

Caring for animals has become an increasingly large part of Mel's life. They arrive after phone calls from across Cumbria and beyond. Some come unannounced with nothing but a knock on the door.

How many are here?

"I've lost count... well over 200. You never know what's going to come through the door."

The residents include Dartmoor ponies Hope and Destiny, who were destined for slaughter. Bonnie, the dressage pony, faced the same fate, having suffered abuse and neglect.

"Bonnie's the boss," smiles Mel. "She's little, but she's the boss."

Cats have suffered in numerous ways. Pebble was found on the beach, having been attacked by something. Dusty was thrown in a bin at four weeks old. Socks was hurled from a car while heavily pregnant.

"You get some horror stories. It's hard to understand what goes on. It scares the hell out of me, the amount of children that sees these things going on.

"I had a little lad that came in. He was only about five. I showed him the rabbits. He said he'd had a rabbit but he didn't want it anymore. So his brother had shot it. I thought 'You're only five years old. Things like that shouldn't be happening.'"

Mel has wondered where behaviour like this comes from, and sees a link between children and parents.

"We used to have chipmunks in a cage. Some kids used to poke them with sticks. We had fish in a pond. Kids dropped bricks on them. I told the kids, you can't treat living things like that. One of the parents said 'It's only a fish.' Only... sometimes you've just got to go away for five minutes, just to calm down."

Cruelty weighs heavy on Mel. There's a sense of despair when she tells this story. But then she is lifted by kindness.

"On the other side of things, there's a family at Silloth. They're all into conservation. They're bringing their kids up to do what they're doing. You've just got to keep that in your mind. For every cruelty there's all sorts of kindness that hopefully outdoes it.

"I try and promote what's right and wrong. Whenever schools come in we try to emphasise that animals need respect. They need us to care for them."

The benefits extend to those doing the caring as well as to the animals. Numerous studies have shown that animals promote calm. Mel lives this theory every day.

"Being around the animals is my therapy. It's my happy place. There's that much pleasure and stress relief and calmness that animals can bring people. You can't have a day working with animals when you're not laughing.

"I've suffered from depression myself. I became withdrawn. I didn't want to go out. If I didn't have my dog to bring me around... my dog needed me to take him out, to stroke him. It took my mind off what's going on.

"I'd rather be with the animals than anywhere else to be honest. I'm definitely an animal person rather than a people person. Although I love helping people as well."

Mel has a van and a plan: to take some of her animals to residential homes, hospitals, day centres and schools.

"I've taken hedgehogs into schools before. And two goats at Westnewton primary school. That was an experience, trying to get a goat to behave itself. All the kids loved it."

There is another plan: abused animals and abused children helping each other through animal-assisted therapy. Its advocates say that developing a bond with an animal can help develop self-worth and trust.

Other vulnerable people could also benefit. Mel has fond memories of the day an autistic boy who hadn't spoken for three years visited with his family.

"He just said 'Thank you for a lovely day.' His mum was in tears. His gran was in tears. I was in tears. That was partly what gave me the therapy idea. Just through stroking a horse, something so simple."

All these plans rely on funding. Money is needed to equip the van and to replace the storm-damaged plastic roofing over part of the rescue centre.

This means rabbits and other animals are living in smaller hutches nearby because their regular homes are now exposed to the elements.

A longer-term plan would see a £100,000 new-build, including the therapy centre. Everything is funded by donations and proceeds from the shop, which sells books and bric-a-brac.

Mel often puts in 12-hour days, and tries to have one day off a week.

"It's hard work sometimes," she says. But she will keep going. She has to, driven by the horror stories.

"Just look in an animal's eyes. That's what gets me. How can anybody hurt an animal when you just look in their eyes?"

Mel says she's generally fine now, "in a happy place. I'm lucky to have a supportive boyfriend. He's mad on animals. And he keeps me on the straight and narrow. If I want to rescue a giraffe he'll say 'You haven't the space for a giraffe.'"

This is a joke: Mel has no plans to rescue a giraffe. Although many who know her would not be entirely surprised if one turned up at Ani-Mel Haven. She would care for the animal. And the animal would return the favour.

"It builds your confidence, working with animals. The success stories. If you go through depression you feel worthless, useless, no point in being here basically.

"An animal that has been injured, nursing it back, it gives you such a boost. All those doubts in your mind, that you can't do it, that you're a failure, all that seems to go."