4PAWS, the shelter that happened to be.


Many first time visitors to 4PAWS are surprised. We are not your typical animal shelter. In fact, if you have stepped into our premises recently, take pride in the fact that you are one of very few people in the world who has ever been surrounded all at once by 400 plus freely roaming dogs.


When Barbara Janssen decided to retire to our beloved island of Penang back in 2006, she was no doubt looking forward to a comfortable tropical island life, where her Euro-denominated pension would serve her well. Today, she chooses to live in a shack in Teluk Bahang in the company of a few hundred dogs. Instead of restaurant dinners, activities with the International Women’s Association and holidays like most others on the MM2H program, her pension and savings are spent on kilos of raw chicken meat, dog kibble and vet bills. Little is left over for her and her workers, who live simply (and contentedly) on the barest of necessities.


What strikes visitors most about 4PAWS is that it is not managed like a facility: concrete floors and aluminium roofs housing individual kennels or cages, with a bored, frustrated, scared or gloomy dog in each. Rather, at 4PAWS, all the dogs are much like household pets. They get to beg at the dinner table, harass the mailman, steal food off the kitchen counter, chew up the sofa, watch tv and jump up onto the bed for a snuggle.


You see, what makes this shelter different is that it never started out as an animal rescue organization. It started with a pure soul who could not bear to turn away any suffering creature. There was no grand idea to one day create and build a dog shelter, no financial plan, no thought about fund raising, no thought about staff or administration, no care about earning an income, no thought about hiring a vet or getting proper equipment.


In fact, it was all incredibly simple. Whenever Barbara encountered abandoned or suffering dogs, she took them home, cared for them and loved them as her own. Needless to say, she has a no-kill, no cage policy. Today, it is still the same. She still doesn’t have a plan. She still doesn’t know if she will have enough money to cover all her expenses. She’ll still take in the worst cases and give them the medical treatment they need without worrying about whether or not she can afford it. She doesn’t have any trained workers or dog experts in her employ. She doesn’t have a proper kennel. She doesn’t have a proper vehicle to transport dogs. All she has are four workers to help with the chores. For the workers, it is a job. For Barbara, this is her life. There are no off days, no holidays, no performance bonuses.


Barbara’s capacity to love is boundless. Unfortunately, her work is constrained by the limitations of space and resources. Unless more dogs are adopted out, it is becoming increasingly unethical for us to continue accepting new dogs, or we risk turning our dog haven into an overcrowded slum. As numbers at the shelter increase, so does the risk of disease outbreaks. For Barbara, having to turn away a dog hurts her heart, but losing her dogs to illness breaks it.


Further, Barbara’s well being is also at stake. Caring for hundreds of dogs, many of them sick and injured, day in and day out takes its toll, what more for someone aged 70. Besides feeding, cleaning, bathing and administering medicine, there are also many trips to the vet. On top of that Barbara also has to deal with a barrage of phone enquiries daily. Too often she loses bills and receipts, misplaces vaccination cards and even forgets to eat due to the hundreds of chores daily in the shelter. 


Barbara and her dogs are what inspire a group of volunteers led by the current Vice President of 4PAWS, to commit their time, resources and expertise to fill in the gaps for her. We organize the volunteers, help with dogs’ care, vet trips and fostering, raise funds, connect with the public, run the Facebook page and handle the admin, merchandises and accounts. We are here to help her, be her rock and support network. In essence, we are her 4PAWS family. It is due to the effort of these volunteers who joined since April 2013 that many in Penang know of 4PAWS today, significantly helping Barbara with much needed fund raising. However the fame also comes with its own problems.


People assume that since our Facebook page is so active, we have a team of people dedicated to answering our phones, email and Facebook enquiries. Little does the public know that all the Facebook and email enquiries (hundreds a week) are handled by at most two people who struggle to find time after work and even during working hours to respond to the urgent ones. In fact, none of us in the 4PAWS committee and volunteer network are full time volunteers as we have our own jobs and families to care for ourselves. What little free time we have is usually (willingly) spent on more work for 4PAWS.


Now that we are well known we have become the first resort for irresponsible owners who believe that leaving their dog at a dog shelter is better than finding another home for their dog, who they do not want any more for whatever reason. Many of the dogs that come to us having previously stayed in a home never stop waiting for their owner to come back. It is heartbreaking to see them waiting at our gate. Sometimes they get excited, wagging their tails because someone who looks like their previous owner approaches. It is when they properly catch the scent of the person that they realize that it is not. Nevertheless, our dogs are always happy to meet everyone who comes to their home.


Because of our profile as an animal shelter, some mistakenly assume that we provide dog-catching services. They expect us to travel all over Penang and also as far as Ipoh to pick up stray and injured dogs when in fact we do not possess the manpower, trained personnel nor proper trapping and transporting facilities needed for this.


While we would like to become a well-funded organization with such resources, sadly we are still quite a long way away. 4PAWS’ proper working committee began only less than 18 months ago. At that time, we were barely known to the public and Barbara had hardly any volunteer help nor significant donations. The shelter was on the verge of closing down due to financial constraint.  While much progress has been made since, the road is still long and hard.


Among our many needs, the most pressing are reliable sources of monthly donations so that we can commit to hire a full time personal assistant and accounts clerk. We are still short of more committed volunteers and we are in dire need of proper quarantine facilities. We would also like to build a little area where Barbara and her workers can sleep at night without being sandwiched by dogs.


The best way forward is public awareness. It is about being responsible pet owners, being kind to animals and spaying and neutering your pets. The sad fact is that there is no amount of donations or work we can do to save all of Penang’s dogs unless we all come together as good citizens.


In the mean time, due to the constraints mentioned above, we have to prioritize our effort for the injured, diseased, and those who have no hope of being adopted. While it hurts Barbara to turn away any dog, we are forced to take in healthy strays and puppies only as a final, last resort. We would like to thank all the kind people of Penang for your help and support thus far and hope you will continue on this journey with us for a brighter future for our furry friends.


(Written on by 4PAWS’ Secretary)

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