DRIVEN: Julie Penlington, founder of 4 Paws Animal Rescue, says she can't imagine a time when she won't be fighting for an underdog.
DRIVEN: Julie Penlington, founder of 4 Paws Animal Rescue, says she can't imagine a time when she won't be fighting for an underdog. Warren Lynam

Julie's a champion of the underdogs ... and cats

"I USED to always be in trouble with the nuns for being outspoken - for sticking up for the underdogs," Julie Penlington says.

"If there was an underdog somewhere, I was going to be there."

While it's not hard to imagine the Founder of 4 Paws Animal Rescue being a champion for the downtrodden, it is hard to think of her as being anything other than the perfect teenager.

But the 2017 Sunshine Coast Australia Day Citizen of the Year was a child of the 1960s, when the entire world was being turned on its head by hippies, flower power and the Vietnam War.

"I had anything but a normal teenage life," Julie reveals.

"I was a young hippy and belonged to a group called the Socialist Youth Alliance.

"Everybody would go into the Third World Bookshop in Goulburn St - it was a fabulous place and there were all these great books and people treatising on everything."

The bookshop, owned by left-wing activist and anti-war campaigner Bob Gould, was a hotbed of socialist activity and regularly raided by the authorities.

It was hardly a place for a respectable Catholic schoolgirl to be hanging out.

"It was a very interesting time and place," Julie laughs.

"We would all go down to The Domain and listen to the speakers there.

"I had a good friend called Valerie Murphy - her bother is Chris Murphy the lawyer - and we would go into The Domain with all these other students, which was very much at odds with what Catholic schools stood for at that time."


4 Paws Animal Rescue founder Julie Penlington with Mindee and Charlie.
4 Paws Animal Rescue founder Julie Penlington with Mindee and Charlie. John McCutcheon

Born in the Sydney suburb of Lakemba, Julie was the eldest of four children and had what could be described as a middle class upbringing.

Her mother, Pat, was a stay-at-home mum and father, George, worked for Australia Post in its Sydney sorting centre.

He was a returned serviceman who served in New Guinea and then volunteered to go to Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped on the city.

Like many who went to the ruined city, he suffered mental and physical illnesses as a result.

Julie remembers he always worked two jobs so she and her siblings could go to private schools and have "fantastic" Christmases and birthdays.

"My fathers was ahead of his time - he was an environmentalist and used to subscribe to a magazine called Mother Earth News," she says.

"When I was eight he was getting magazines on the environment sent from America, on composting and recycling.

"Way back then we had certain bins for certain things and a special composting bin.

"When you consider how long ago that was, he was ahead of his time.

"When I was just 12, he gave me Darwin's Theory of Evolution and Shakespeare for a birthday present.

"He was very well read and could do mathematical equations in his head that were amazing.

"He was going to go to university but he went to war and served for a long time because he rejoined the occupation forces in Japan."

While Julie paints a picture of almost revolutionary teenage years, life in her very Catholic home was fairly mainstream.

"There was mass every Sunday and no meat on Friday," she recalls.

She was a member of the Children of Mary and the Catholic Youth Organisation groups and was also crowned NSW debating champion.

"Someone once said 'this girl could talk her way out of anything'," she laughs.

"Then I was a hippy. Not the flower power, marijuana smoking type but I loved the alternative, hippy lifestyle - the 'be good unto others' lifestyle.

"I had a lot of friends who went to university and they tended to be radical, alternate people. We all used to read a lot and have deep discussions.

"It was a different time back then. It was the late 1960s - that was THE time."

Julie had always wanted to be an archaeologist but took a gap year instead and never went back to study.

While she regrets that decision, it did lead to her getting a job in a Kings Cross pharmacy and working for its owner, Paul, who would later become her husband.

"Back in those days, the Cross was a different place. I suppose there was a lot of crime also but it was very bohemian," she says.

"I remember going in for the job interview and there was a woman standing outside and I said to Paul 'is that a prostitute out there?'.

"He was the driest man in the world and he called out to the woman outside 'hey Anne, are you a prostitute?'.

"I was so sure I was going to get killed on my way out.

"But in those days the working girls were different types of people to what they are today and Kings Cross was a different place.

"I remember Les Girls was just around the corner and all the girls used to come in to get their make-up.

"It was still seedy but not as bad as it is today."

Julie and Paul got married and ran the pharmacy for many years until 1980, when they sold it and set sail on a 60 foot steel ketch.


Julie on the boat during their 10-year sailing adventure.
Julie on the boat during their 10-year sailing adventure. Contributed

For 10 years they sailed around the South Pacific as well as visiting places such as America, Canada, Costa Rica and Mexico.

They made life-long friends and lived for periods of time in the United States - Berkley in California and on islands off Seattle and Hawaii.

Those breaks were welcomed by Julie, who admits she didn't share Paul's passion for sailing.

"I was a terrible sailor and suffered from terrible sea sickness," she laughs.

"I didn't like the sailing at all but I enjoyed getting to the places

"We went to places where no one had ever been before. In some, I was the first European woman they'd seen.

"I got very slim because I couldn't eat a thing while we were sailing.

"Sometimes we would be 20 days at sea and I would live on Bonox and this thing called cabin bread, like a rock-hard Sao.

"So I lived on Bonox and dry cabin bread and Minties to help the nausea."

Paul had been a talented runner who trained and competed with the likes of Herb Elliott and Betty Cuthbert.

His dream was to be a professional boat builder but his father - a brigadier general in the army - told him he had to get a career, so he studied pharmacy.

Ultimately, Julie says, he loved the profession.


Julie and her late husband Paul durinig their 10-year sailing adventure.
Julie and her late husband Paul durinig their 10-year sailing adventure. Contributed

But when they returned to Australia after 10 years at sea - choosing to live on the Sunshine Coast after visiting here during their travels - Paul chose to work as a handyman before an opportunity came up to work at the Woombye Pharmacy.

He had to get re-accredited to return to the profession - a move which ultimately saw him and Julie buy the business.

"We loved Woombye - it's the best place in the world," Julie says.

"Everyone knew everyone else. You never took a bad cheque.

"If it was a hard week and people were doing it tough, we'd let them pay things off and people always paid their debt.

"They were wonderful years."

It was while Julie was working in the pharmacy that she saw the need for an animal rescue group.

"I used to take things out to our elderly customers and there were a few I'd become fond of.

"There was one old man who was worried what would happen to his dogs if he died, so every night he would ring me at six o'clock to let me know everything was okay.

"A lot of them had no money so I would bring their animals to Nicklin Way Vet and I'd pay the bill ... that's how it started.

"Then a nurse at the vet told me she was saving animals from going to the pound and suggested we do something together

"So we began Angels Without Wings, which became 4 Paws.

"In the first years we had a barbecue every Saturday outside the Woombye IGA. I'd get the money from the sausage sizzle and take it to the vet and tell them to take it off the 4 Paws bill."

Today, 4 Paws is still very much funded by sausage sizzles as well as the occasional donation and bequest, and its annual vet and medical bills come to about $130,000.

It is run by a small committee and about 20 helpers who do jobs such as driving animals to the vet and running the sausage sizzles.

Julie has lost count of the number of animals the group has rescued but says it is "in the thousands".

"It gives me a sense of purpose to see a home found for an animal. I feel like I've done my job," she says.

"This is my job, to save these animals.

"I feel my life is not complete without doing it and I'll go to every end to do it.

"If I can't personally help, I will do everything I can to achieve a good outcome."


Julie with Tinkerbell and Bella.
Julie with Tinkerbell and Bella. John McCutcheon

She says she despairs at how animals have become caught up in society's "throw-away" mentality.

"It's getting worse.

"Fifteen years ago from our pound there was only mainly large breed dogs.

"Now people are putting in all sorts of dogs and cats - pedigree dogs and cats. It doesn't mean anything to them.

"We've had an Australian Grand Champion dog handed into us just because it has anxiety issues.

"People don't give a toss.

"They are happy to go out and spend $800 on an animal from a backyard breeder but because they've spent that money they don't want to vaccinate it, they don't want to de-sex it, they don't want to give it heartworm medicine, they don't want to groom it.

"They've bought it on a whim and as soon as it's a pain in the butt they get rid of it."

Sadly, she says a lot of animals are also coming from elderly people who going into nursing homes.

"With the number of people going into care, I would say 99% of families don't take their animals.

"It's getting worse because it seems it's become acceptable to say 'I've given it to a rescue service'. I'm not dumping it in the pound - I'm giving it to a rescue'.

"That's better than giving it away on Gumtree or something like that but it's sad - the poor little animals are just getting left."

She says she gets her love for animals from her father, who passed away about 10 years ago from a form of dementia.

"Dad was such an animal lover. He'd do anything for an animal and he was a very kind man.

"So I have loved animals since I was a toddler and always had pets as a child.

"I've always brought home pets - 'it followed me home from school' or in later year when I was driving home from the pharmacy at Woombye - 'I found it on the highway'.

"I'd say to Paul 'don't worry, it's not staying' but it usually would because they were old and didn't have much time left."


Julie and husband Paul.
Julie and husband Paul. Contributed

Sadly, after 36 years of marriage, Paul died from pulmonary fibrosis almost two years ago.

A keen golfer, he played at the Headlands throughout his illness, taking a portable oxygen unit with him on the course.

Typical of his attitude to life, when he first found out he was sick he put a cheque in the bar till at the golf club to pay for his wake.

Julie says he was her greatest support and would often answer the phone "Mrs Penlington's secretary".

"He was the most patient man in the world," she said after receiving her Citizen of the Year award in January.

"When I look back, I think not many men would have put up with calls at two o'clock in the morning from people saying 'I've got a lost dog'."

Julie still lives in the Mooloolaba home she and Paul shared and is now caring for her elderly mum.

She works part-time at a Mooloolaba pharmacy which, she says, provides a break from the "all consuming" work with 4 Paws.



Julie with her Sunshine Coast Australia Day 2017 Citizen of the Year award.
Julie with her Sunshine Coast Australia Day 2017 Citizen of the Year award. Warren Lynam

And, of course, she has pets - Charlie the chihuahua and Mindee the mini foxie - who are her constant companions.

She's also deeply involved in another battle - not for animals, this time, but for the elderly after discovering her mother and many elderly people who come into the pharmacy are waiting months to receive vital services under the Federal Government's new My Aged Care system.

"It's just not good enough - elderly people are very vulnerable," Julie says.

"Invariably, I am seeing people who are needing care and when I ring the provider, they say they have 'high care' people waiting four months but as far as the government is concerned, high care must mean eight, 12 or 14 weeks.

"A couple of elderly people he said to me 'they must want us to die first'.

"In my charity, I'm treating my animals better than we are treating our elderly."

She says she can't see a day when she won't be fighting for some worthy cause.

"I still am champion of the underdogs. I will still do anything I can to help someone.

"I guess I'll always be the crazy dog lady or cat lady.

"I can't imagine life without a cause ... without someone to help."

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