Trip review: independent vet student volunteering with SOS Kuching and the Sarawak SPCA in Malaysia

The Save Our Strays Kuching team securing a street dog as we request pickup service from a veterinary clinic.


Last summer, I visited Borneo, which had been high on my travel wish list. I couldn’t fly all that way without also seeing what sort of work was being done to help cats and dogs in the region. I spent two days each with two groups based out of Kuching: Save Our Strays (SOS) Kuching, a fairly new street dog focused trap/neuter/return program, and the Sarawak Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which operates an animal shelter and holds adoption events. Although the latter was originally founded by expats in the 1950s, both are currently almost entirely Malaysian-operated organizations.

Because these nonprofits are run by the community in which they operate, there’s long-term commitment to their goals and a deep understanding of how to best affect change for animals in the area. I really enjoyed meeting the people involved in these (sometimes overlapping) groups, and I am thankful for the kindness of the SOS team for showing me around Kuching in the evenings as well. SOS was the first veterinary aid group I’ve met where most of them were younger than me — mostly early and mid-20s — which is exciting to see. (Not that I don’t love all the projects run by women in their 40s to 60s, but it was cool to see such a youthful grassroots effort.)

A dog caught by SOS, waiting politely with a DIY muzzle tied in place to prevent bites.


Official pitches

“This is a non-profit all volunteer group, all of the rescue operation, trapping, neutering, feeding are initiated by its volunteers. Please do not praise. We wish to wake up humanity and restoring the basic rights of all life forms… We welcome all the questions, suggestions and posts regarding strays rescue, health problems, animals for adoption and anything related to the benefits of our homeless furry friends in this group.”

More: Save Our Strays Kuching’s regularly updated Facebook page

“We run joint neutering campaigns with the local councils in an effort to curb the expanding stray population; We walk hundreds of visitors through our Shelter to educate them about the need to be more responsible citizens and pet owners; We organize countless off-site adoption campaigns to increase the chances of our animals finding new homes; We act on reports about animal abuse cases; We manage an animal crematorium – the first in Malaysia – so that we can dispose of animal carcasses in a safe and hygienic manner; We climb up trees and down drains to rescue trapped animals in the dead of night; We brave the flood waters at midnight to take our shelter animals to safety; and We pen millions of words in an effort to raise awareness about Animal Welfare and to fight for Animal Rights. ”

More: Sarawak SPCA’S website and Facebook page

sspca-3The SSPCA shelter on the outskirts of Kuching.


Costs, housing, other volunteers and basic information

Since this was not a voluntourism program, there was no fee to participate, but I brought some donations off a list of things each group suggested as stuff they needed. This is always good etiquette to thank people for taking the time to explain their work to you and let you tag along. I stayed in a hostel in the tourist area of Kuching, and other volunteers were kind enough to pick me up every day. Kuching itself is accessible by flight from Singapore and Penang, and as an eco-tourist destination, it’s not difficult to get there and find affordable lodging and food. It’s your flight that will be the expensive part if you’re coming from North America. I was the only short-term outsider volunteer at the moment, which I prefer, because I feel like I can better melt into a group and learn from it.

sspca-4Dogs for adoption at the SSPCA shelter.


Cultural immersion factor

Excellent! Almost everyone in both groups was Malaysian. Thanks to the friendliness of the SOS team, I was taken to a number of great restaurants of all types, given suggestions for what to order, and visited a nighttime festival in a city park. In my travels, I rarely have local friends to give me this sort of tour, so it was a total treat for me.

The examination/operating room in the SSPCA shelter.


Vacation factor

It’s entirely up to you. Kuching has many fun things that are a day trip from the city, like national parks and wildlife centers, as well as a one-of-a-kind cat museum (!) in town. (“Kuching” means “cat” in Malay, and there are cat statues in public and cat themed souvenirs in stores.)

sspca-5Dog housing in the SSPCA shelter. I like that they had built levels to create vertical space for the dogs to make the limited space feel bigger. I see this regularly with shelter cat housing, but not with dogs for some reason.


Typical work day and types of animals

SOS operates all day on Saturdays and Sundays, plus other times as needed. They take reports of places where injured dogs have been seen by the public, and then go looking for those animals as soon as someone has the time. They are basically the unofficial animal control agency of Kuching, but are using their own vehicles and paying vet bills with donations. After looking for dogs on the priority list (injured animals, females in heat, TVT cases), SOS members drive around looking for dogs to catch and take to the vet for sterilization. They have one vet who they regularly work with, and he had a shaded outdoor area behind his clinic for animals getting surgery or recovering from illness.

Dogs caught by SOS waiting to be picked up by the veterinarian’s staff.


The SSPCA shelter was located away from the city center, providing housing and care to both dogs and cats. It operated in a partnership of sorts with the local town councils to accept strays. They had a clinic on site, but not a full-time veterinarian. (I didn’t have a chance to meet her, as when I was there, she was at the orangutan sanctuary where she also worked part time.) There were all the typical animal shelter chores of feeding and cleaning up after animals, but my task was cleaning and organizing the clinic. (Something I also did at Animals Fiji.)

I was impressed by the level of attention to cleanliness at the SSPCA shelter and their maintaining different areas quarantined from each other to lessen disease transmission. The culture of hand washing and using bleach step bins between areas was a stark contrast to the ESMA shelter in Cairo where no seemed to be aware of germs, and I was looked at like a weirdo when I requested soap so I could wash my hands that were visibly blackened with oil and dirt after playing with the shelter dogs. It’s hard to maintain perfect cleanliness on a small budget, but the SSPCA was doing the best job of it that I’ve seen in a shelter during my travels. Aside from welcoming the public to the shelter to find a new pet, the SSPCA also holds adoption events at shopping malls on weekends, which I really loved. Rather than just collecting animals, they were actively working to get them adopted by the public. (Some foster puppies from SOS members were also brought to the adoption event I attended.)

sspca-1Kitten adoptions and animal welfare information offered to the public by the SSPCA.
sspca-2SSPCA puppy adoptions at a shopping mall.


Most memorable case

As the SOS patrol was driving around to find dogs, we saw a group of animals napping and quickly got out of car and caught several of them. People came out of their shops to see what all the barking and fuss was about, and we were told that one of the dogs we caught was already spayed. However, that dog’s mother and her daughter were not sterilized, so we took them to the vet to complete the entire family of dogs that lived in front of some shops. I thought that was cute.

An SOS dog waiting at the vet’s office for her spay and any other necessary medical care.


What I’d do differently if I went again

I think everything went well, and I could have easily spent a more extended period of time with everyone.

Overall, these groups are a good fit for you if…

* You want to work with small locally-operated nonprofits, and in the case of SOS, awesome young people.
* You want to volunteer with Asian animal groups but only speak English. The SOS team were mostly fluent in English and some people spoke English at the SSPCA shelter.
* You want to learn how a trap/neuter/return program (focused on dogs) and an animal shelter (dogs and cats) can work in a different country.
* You would like to choose your own class of accommodation/food and go cheap or go fancy.
* You would like to volunteer somewhere that can serve as a good base for some tourist stuff as well.

And was not best fit if…

* You’re someone who is looking to volunteer strictly in developing, impoverished, or rural areas. Although parts of Malaysia are less developed, Kuching is a fairly modern city.
* You’re looking for cheap airfare from the US.
* You’re looking for a lot of interaction with a veterinarian. SOS has a commercial vet clinic they work with, and the SSPCA doesn’t have a vet every day of the week.
* You want to do purely TNR volunteering. SOS operates only on weekends since it’s a volunteer-run group whose members have jobs or university to attend, but you could definitely spend your weekdays at the SSPCA shelter and weekends catching dogs with SOS.

And finally, some sweet SSPCA shelter cats! (Not in the photo frame, but they did have food and water.)
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