"That's enough, I think, now," Bob Kerridge's wife Michele insists as he cradles the disorientated SPCA mongrel refusing to obediently pose for their photo.

A glimmer of admiration on her face morphs into apprehension.

After talking extensively about his life's work for two hours, Kerridge is lost in the simplicity of the thing that has guided it — empathy for "animals as sentient beings", as he put it.

His joy with the puppy has stripped away a reality that nothing has yet managed to displace for Michele.

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The 80-year-old had suffered a stroke just a month earlier, spending four days in Hawke's Bay Hospital, the Herald on Sunday can reveal.

On October 9, as he stood to receive an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his 32 years' service as executive director of the Auckland SPCA — his second Queen's Birthday honour — the watching crowd were none the wiser about his health struggles.

Kerridge with Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy, becomes a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to animal welfare and governance. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Kerridge with Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy, becomes a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to animal welfare and governance. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"Strokes, they come in varying degrees, but when I had mine I forgot how to dress, I forgot how to use the computer, which was scary," Kerridge says.

"I sat at the screen and said 'What do I do now?' I forgot how to type, I forgot how to do my shoes up. You have this immediate loss of your senses.

"So you have to reteach yourself, and that's been the challenge, and that's what I've risen to because I have gone right back to basics, started to relearn and rethink and I hope I will get right back to normal."

The stroke and the medal ceremony were two utterly contrasting events if not for the fact they caused the renowned animal activist to reflect on his life.

Kerridge says it's easy to trace his love of animals back to a seminal experience that still informs his life — a dog named Rusty.

"I would have probably been 8 or 9 at the time, ill in bed with something, mumps or measles, and my mother decided to buy me a puppy.

Former SPCA boss Bob Kerridge revisits his former office in Auckland. Kerridge was made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) in the 2018 Queens Birthday Honours. Photo / Greg Bowker
Former SPCA boss Bob Kerridge revisits his former office in Auckland. Kerridge was made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) in the 2018 Queens Birthday Honours. Photo / Greg Bowker

"It was a golden cocker spaniel, and I just bonded. It was the first sort of intimate relationship that I'd had, because at that age I really hadn't viewed mothers and fathers in that way, they were there to annoy us.

"But this was the first feeling of sympathy I had to another being. That never left me, and the passion just grew and grew, because I saw cruelty to animals, and the more I saw of that the more enraged I became and the more determined I became to put a halt to it."

His success lobbying as the "public face of animal welfare" in Aotearoa did not simply come from a love of animals. A career of more than 20 years in marketing was just as integral.

Son of cinema magnate Sir Robert Kerridge — who once owned 133 theatres around New Zealand — Bob grew up across Auckland, in Glendowie, Remuera and Parnell, alongside his four siblings.

Bob Kerridge with his big sister Vanessa, off to pre-school - circa 1941.
Bob Kerridge with his big sister Vanessa, off to pre-school - circa 1941.

He attended Kings College before going on a "usual OE", aged 19, to London, spending his time in a job he found far too routine — insurance.

"I used to sit at a high desk with a quill and ink, transferring hull renewals from one book to the next. That went on for almost a year and it drove me bonkers."

Back in Auckland — with his first wife, Scottish woman Iris, in tow — Kerridge spent six years working for his father's business before starting his own company in 1966 — Kerridge Advertising.

It wasn't until the Kerridges moved to a two-acre rural property in Flat Bush in 1983 that their collection of animals reached its height. At one stage they had six sheep, six geese, a "noisy" donkey from Great Barrier Island, and a taking Corella parrot named Jasmine.

That's not to mention the litany of dogs and cats, which Iris bred.

"Most of them were SPCA animals, or the product of hardship cases that we came across. They needed some caring, you take them into your home and of course you don't part with them," Kerridge says.

Bob, aged 27, working on movie advertisement promoting 'The Savage Innocence' at father's firm, Kerridge Odeon, in Auckland, 1965.
Bob, aged 27, working on movie advertisement promoting 'The Savage Innocence' at father's firm, Kerridge Odeon, in Auckland, 1965.

Leaving the rat race to give back was always on his mind and an advertisement for the SPCA job in 1985 sparked his interest.

"Actually before I left school I said this: 'I want to devote the second part of my career to helping others'. That was a very clear direction I had set myself, it was preordained."

"[The advertisement] could have been anything, but the fact that it was the SPCA was just heaven sent, it was the perfect vocation because it was doing two things."

Kerridge says his marketing background helped him navigate the pitfalls of an organisation with no money and little public profile.

"At the start, we were broke basically, and nobody told me, they just said 'well things are a bit tight', he says.

"We had to pay cheques when we could afford to. They were all kept in a big box and we would rumble through to find what we could pay. That's an awful way to run an organisation. The first thing I was determined to do was to put it on a steady financial footing — establish a trust."

Kerridge says the means to generating this financial security was having a figurehead the public could identify with, hopefully thereby making them receptive to a then-unfamiliar message: animal welfare.

He says he was more than willing to prop himself up as this focal point for the sake of the cause, but it was not something he sought out of ego.

"People used to call me the public face of animal welfare and I used to be a bit taken aback. I never saw myself as that. All I did was talk for the animals."

"We had a radio programme for 12 years, a TV series, all these wonderful things. Because when I first joined the SPCA I realised people were not aware of animals' needs. That was the first task basically — making people conscious.

"So the public face thing, that was almost secondary, I was doing my job. If there was something to be said I didn't hesitate to say it."

Being such a public face always comes with intense speculation. One comment led to accusations of racism.

In a January 2015 radio interview, Kerridge said: "It's a fair suggestion that ethnicity does have a bearing factor in terms of dog attacks, particularly borne of the fact in the various groups that we have — those of immigrant [groups] and Pacific Island people — that dog ownership is not natural to them."

He did not back down at the time amid criticism from Māngere MP S'ua William Sio and Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy the comments were "unhelpful" and "incredibly offensive".

Today, he reiterates he "absolutely" stands by that sentiment, but admits the accusations of racism hurt with a pointedness he had never experienced.

"It was a very sad day for me when that happened and it was a bit of a wakeup call because I had been so misinterpreted, more so than ever before.

"I actually questioned myself whether I still had the ability to speak for the animals without causing problems.

"The reality is, the origins of cruelty are usually based on ignorance and what I wanted to come out of that is these people need to be educated, because this cruelty happens to be in certain areas of Auckland, and that sort of brought the ethnicity out, but that was only one aspect."

Behind the scenes, Kerridge's managerial style was a similar blend of instinctive, laid-back enthusiasm, according to his former staff.

The levity at the SPCA in the 80s was certainly an atmosphere "which today in the HR world would have shocked everybody", Kerridge says.

"There were frivolities and I remember at one Christmas I had the fire hose out, hosing unsuspecting staff who happened to pass.

"I had the hose in the reception area where the computers were, and a lot of electronics, and I actually slipped over and injured myself as a result. Now, you'd never do that today, you'd be hung drawn and quartered."

Kym Carter worked under Kerridge in the early years at the SPCA headquarters in Māngere, South Auckland.

"We just sort of ran our areas, he trusted us. I've never had a boss like him," Carter says.

"Normally you feel so nervous going in to see your boss but he was such a lovely person. He wasn't like a boss at all. A funny guy who loves animals. He was easy. Door's always open."

Kerridge retired as executive director a year after the dog comment, moving with Michele to a property in Havelock North.

Michele Kerridge was a good friend of her husband's previous wife Iris, with who he'd had four children. The pair met during a cat breeding competition in 1973 and fast became "best friends".

Iris died of cancer in 1994 after 36 years of marriage to Kerridge.

Four years later he had a 60th birthday party and reunited with Michele. Six weeks after the event, he proposed and they were married that year.

"It was the perfect romance of two people who were great friends who fate threw together," Kerridge says.

Michele says her husband's Queen's Birthday Honour means a lot to her, having witnessed his sacrifices first-hand.

"I know the hours Bob has put in over the years to help people in distress. People might ring the home, elderly people particularly who are going into care and can't take their animal with them.

"One Christmas morning he got a call, somebody had set fire to a kitten and Bob was there to put them onto someone who could help, do something about it — absolute passion."

Nowadays they are surrounded by fewer animals — just one pet cat named Abigail — but Kerridge is still consumed by their cause.

He runs The Bob Kerridge Animal Welfare Fellowship which awards funding for a variety of animal causes and which this year was part of a group of activists, including the SPCA, opposing a proposal by the Auckland Council to euthanise stray cats rounded up without a microchip.

His stroke in August meant he had to take a step back.

"I was one of those typical humans who took on much more than I should have," he says.

"This was a little somebody saying 'hold it, just steady up a bit'. I'm 80 now so I probably should slow down a bit. That's what I've been told I must do, that's what I'm doing.

"But it won't stop me."

Thirty-year animal fight

Bob Kerridge's greatest hits:

• 1987: Led a campaign against importing pitbulls because they are bred to fight

• Started Auckland SPCA Trust, now worth $28 million.

• 1988: Calls for — and got — the resignation of Governor-General Sir Paul Reeves as patron of the SPCA after he was present at the ritual slaying of two pigs in Vanuatu.

• 1991: Introduced through SPCA Auckland the first animal microchips into New Zealand.

• 1997: Leads opposition of the Kaimanawa wild horse cull.

Clashes with politicians, environmentalists and farmers on "overhasty" decisions to declare some animals pests and eradicate them.

• 2004: SPCA television series Animal House begins on TV1.

• 2008: Establishes the SPCA Cat Coalition to support volunteer efforts to assist stray cats in Auckland - aiding 4000 cats annually

• 2009: Establishes the NZ Companion Animal Trust to provide grants for animal welfare.

• 2015: Kerridge slammed after suggesting the ethnicity of owners plays a part in dog attacks.

• 2016: Publishes comprehensive SPCA Animal Welfare Policies manual containing hundreds of policies.

• 2018: Starts the Bob Kerridge Animal Welfare Fellowship, which awards funding for a variety of animal causes.

• Aged 80, joins a group of activists opposing Auckland council's proposal to euthanise stray cats rounded up without a microchip. His stroke causes him to step back.