Driving into Ampang Jaya, Selangor, is a relatively unremarkable experience with the usual snares of traffic and familiar rows of shophouses. However, to the beaten and downtrodden animals, this neighbourhood is anything but. For this is where they find shelter at SPCA Selangor and I’m not exaggerating when I say this place is a haven. “We built this centre to be exactly that – a haven for animals. A lot of work went into designing this physical space of SPCA to be a welcoming place for education, rehabilitation and adoption of animals,” explains Christine Chin, Chairman of SPCA Selangor. “We want people to come and learn about animal care and their plight, or even just to look at the animals and, you know, generally have a good time,” she says cheerfully.
At that, I notice a few people ambling into the building, eagerly petting the cats wandering about the shelter designed by the prolific architects of Hijjas Kasturi Associates Sdn. The journey to establishing this centre was not an easy one, though, with numerous financial and bureaucratic roadblocks. “We were on the verge of being evicted but, thankfully, the state government allocated the land to us in 2008. We still had to pay for the land but it was below market value,” recalls Chin. So, the non-profit quickly purchased the plot of land but construction of the facility required something that was constantly missing in its arsenal – money. Luckily, it had a powerful team on its side.
Enter Chan Mo Lin, the acclaimed lawyer at Nik Hussain & Partners and legal advisor to the organisation. Quick on her feet and remarkably persuasive, she spearheaded the efforts to raise almost MYR2 million to build the centre. When I expressed admiration for her remarkable feat, however, she simply brushed it aside: “I just asked them for some help to build the place. It’s the donors and the volunteers who deserve the praise.” Recalling the tales of her fundraising hunt, it’s clear that she seized every opportunity. At one dinner she found herself sitting across the table from Dato’ Simon Foong, Executive Director of The Body Shop Malaysia. Making a case for the beauty company’s dedication to cruelty-free products, she managed to procure a sizeable donation. Using her lethal combination of logic and persuasion, she built a strong case for the animal shelter and brought in significant contributions from the likes of Ong Ju Xing of OSK Holdings and Catherine Mah.
“My life has gone to the dogs!” she exclaims cheekily. With five dogs at home and over 30 years with SPCA Selangor, I couldn’t help but laugh in agreement. Nonetheless, I was impressed by her tenacity and dauntless efforts. Cocking her head, Chan adds: “When I approach people to donate to the animal charity, I don’t mind admitting that 90 per cent of the time people say; ‘Sorry Mo Lin, I only support human charities.’ Only one out of 10 will give some money.” With a slight shrug, she continues: “Because of that, I know that if I don’t push on and help the animals, they will never get the aid they need. I like being the person who puts in the effort to get money for the animals because they’re voiceless.”
While I ponder on her words, a wide smile breaks on her face as someone else walks into the centre. It’s Dato’ Yeap Yu Lin, a partner at Chan’s firm and another champion for the hapless animals. “She’s the one who takes all the small animals, the dogs that nobody wants,” Chan divulges. Dato’ Yeap bashfully waves away the praise. She does, however, profess to be a long-time animal lover, having many small animals as pets from childhood with nine dogs currently romping about in her home. “Most of my dogs are adult rescue animals. I know people are generally drawn to puppies when wanting to adopt but, when you give them a good home, they behave like puppies! There’s so much joy and love,” she gushes.
So how did this tender-hearted woman come to become a passionate fundraiser and legal advisor to SPCA Selangor? “I can’t really recall when exactly, but it was in the mid 70’s when I visited the old centre with Mo Lin. And Mrs Wheatley – who was then chairman of the organisation – plopped a dog into my arms and that was it!” laughs Dato’ Yeap. From then, she’s spent the last 40 years helping out with fundraising, legal advice and, as she puts it, “generally making my friends join the SPCA.” Letting out another small laugh, she continues: “I’ve spent so many years fundraising for SPCA Selangor that I think people actually dread seeing us!” But she continues to help the organisation sell its gear and products, which includes thematic cards and an upcoming coffee table book project that will feature studio shots of the pooches with their heartfelt stories. “We make people animal supporters,” she states simply. “Many people have seen my rescues and agree that they’re absolutely adorable. So, if you can’t home one, at least support financially because every little bit helps.”
With so many years of gambolling with SPCA Selangor, she does note that things at the organisation have changed quite a bit. “When SPCA first started, it was mostly run by housewives of expats but, over the years, I see more people from all walks of life coming in. I think it’s very professionally done now.” The professionalism she speaks of can be attributed to Chin and also Nancy Lee, the kennel manager of SPCA Selangor who whipped the place into shape. “Nancy’s the mama!” exclaim all the ladies in unison. “She’s also the transformer,” quips Chin, “because all the distressed animals that come in are transformed into beautiful creatures by her.” Lee laughs and plays along” “Yes, I’m the mama!” Jokes aside, I had no doubt that she’s the fierce maternal figure in the organisation.
Entering the premises of SPCA Selangor at 11am sharp, Lee runs a tight ship, making sure the shelter animals are properly cleaned, fed and cared for. Refusing to leave unless everything is in order, her days at the shelter stretch into the night and she often only goes home well past sundown. “If there’s a sick dog, I stay longer,” she tells me in earnest. Chan add: “If there’s a thunderstorm, she doesn’t go home. She stays here and waits until they’re all calm.” Lee stresses the importance of knowing the personality of each dog in the shelter. “When you re-home the dogs, you have to tell the new owners about the dog’s behaviours. Are they terrified of thunderstorms? How sociable are they with new dogs? What are their eating habits? And I need to know all this to make the best match possible between the dog and the owners.”
Before Lee can play matchmaker, however, she must first keep a careful eye on each pooch from the moment they set paw in the shelter. “Hygiene is my number one priority,” she asserts. “These are rescued animals and we have no knowledge of their background or medical history. Who knows if they’re carrying dangerous diseases?” And so, she implemented a management system that’s nothing short of brilliant.
When a rescued dog comes into the shelter, it is first placed into a quarantine room and observed for a day or two. Then, it undergoes medical checkups to determine its health and vaccinated. After that, it is further observed for temperament to eating habits. A second dose of vaccination comes after three weeks and it is quarantined for two more weeks before it is safe to join the other animals in the centre. The dogs are separated into three buildings according to age and paired carefully based on individual characters. “Some dogs come in aggressively and won’t share food because they’ve never been fed well. Every meal is a survival. So, we slowly rehabilitate them, feed them well and teach them that there’s nothing to fear here. Soon enough, they stop fighting for food and the aggression goes away. Then, you can see their true characters!”
Lee admits that it takes a fine balance of compassion and assertiveness to work with rescued animals and Chin agrees: “We are all honorary members here, passionate animal people who do this purely out of love. But, for me, it is important that SPCA Selangor does not just have reaction strategies like catch-neuter-release programmes, but also offer proactive strategies to effectively address the problem of abused and stray animals.” An accountant by profession, Chin brought her impeccable eye for detail and planning to the organisation when she joined in 1990. “Back then, every NGO was generally quite lax and stuck in a dreadful loop of lack of funds that leads to lack of manpower and vice versa.” Seeking to end this problem, Chin put structure into the organisation and made fundraising a priority with the existing committee members to allow it the financial ability to hire good people. Then, she took a step back to look at the bigger picture.
“When you work in animal welfare, obviously the primary mission is to rescue and re-home, but our resources are finite and there are only so many animals we can take in,” she says pragmatically. So, how do you get more people involved? Ever the careful planner, Chin outlined six pillars for the organisation to fulfil its mission to protect defenceless animals and alleviate their suffering. The pillars include government lobbying that led to the implementation of the Animal Welfare Act (Act 772) 2015 that finally saw the Malaysian legislature defining the rights of animals and the responsibilities of pet owners. Chin considers it a great coup and one of her proudest achievements: “Not only is the new law a deterrent with heavier fines, it is also remedial because it mandates the Animal Welfare Board to set up education.” The new law also offers more bite with an extensive list of acts acknowledged as animal cruelty, including abandonment. “I’ve spent almost half my life lobbying for this and it’s a great achievement for the welfare of animals. With this law in place, it encourages society to look at animals as beings with dignity. I truly believe that, through kindness and compassion towards all animals, you sow the seeds of kindness and compassion towards human beings,” says Chin, her voice full of emotion.
However, that is the long-term strategy, one that will take years to reduce acts of animal abuse. For the short term, SPCA Selangor is actively carrying out a spay and neuter campaign called Stray Free Selangor (SFS), co-chaired by Datin Dr Norely Abd Rahman. Holding a tiny kitten close to her chest, the graceful Datin Dr Norely radiates kindness and compassion, embodying the campaign’s identity as a humane and compassionate stray control programme. “SFS was really an idea that Christine and I have been talking about for a couple of years. Before that, I was doing rescuing work on my own for about eight years. I take in stray cats that I come across, neuter them at the vet and care for them until I can find someone to adopt them,” she reveals. Back then, she utilised neutering subsidy from AnimalCare by Dr Chan Kah Yein. Unfortunately, the subsidy was limited in its funding and a thought struck her: “Wouldn’t it be great if other people could have the subsidy too?” And so, she joined forces with SPCA Selangor to launch the campaign in March 2017.
This stray control programme is a stark difference from the ‘catch and kill’ methodology practiced by municipal councils across the country. Datin Dr Norely explains: “It is essentially a movement to spread the word on neutering and educating the community about responsible pet ownership.” Emphasising its importance to herself, she says: “My key goal is to educate the public on the importance of neutering.” And she does so through awareness talks at public events and also with students under her care at the International School of Kuala Lumpur, where she teaches.
Besides public education, Datin Dr Norely is also diligent in raising funds for the campaign. As of February 2018, SFS has successfully neutered about 1,200 animals with the initial start-up fund of MYR195,000. Any animal in the state of Selangor is eligible for the subsidy issued as a voucher to be used at panel clinics. “We subsidise 80 per cent of the cost, so people essentially pay MYR30 only!” she enthused. Alas, the money in the account is finite. But dedicated to keep the campaign going so long as it has the funds, Datin Dr Norely is earnestly organising a grand fundraising gala on 20 October. This includes the opportunity to dine at the same table with HRH Sharafuddin Idris Shah, Sultan of Selangor and HRH Tengku Permaisuri Norashikin of Selangor, who is also the royal patron of the SFS campaign.
It’s clear that this gang of five are truly remarkable individuals, brimming with drive and dedication for these animals. They seem to find no greater joy than seeing the animals they’ve helped live a life of love and happiness. Putting in the final piece of the puzzle, Chin articulates that compassion is not just a feeling: it is an action – just like love. She references a famous quote attributed to Buddha: “When you like a flower, you just pluck it. But when you love a flower, you water it daily.” She adds: “It is a long-term commitment and SPCA is beyond us. The organisation will last forever, but we’re only humans who will die one day. What’s important to us is to build this organisation to always advocate for the humane treatment of animals, and we do it with the same vision of love and kindness towards all animals.”
PHOTOGRAPHY ROBIN LIEW
ART DIRECTION PENNY CHEW