Janet Johnson dedicated her life to rescuing the dogs of Dahab. After she was found dead at her shelter in unclear circumstances, her friends picked up where she left off and are fighting to save the dogs, and honour her legacy.
This is her story as it was reported in Dogs Today‘s October 2020 issue.
When the body of British dog rescuer Janet Johnson was found in the shelter she ran in Dahab, in Sinai, Egypt, in late February 2020, authorities had little doubt that she had been attacked and killed by the very dogs she had been caring for. However, those who knew Janet entirely disagreed with the conclusion.
“We really don’t think it was the dogs to kill Janet,” Hayley Vinnicombe says. “She had looked after them for years, they loved her. It is hard to imagine they would turn on her like that. We think the authorities immediately blamed the dogs because they see them as pests, and many didn’t like her running a shelter there.”
Janet Johnson had first arrived in Egypt when working as a crew member on a boat, and worked as a teacher in Cairo for a time, before moving to Dahab to be a writer for a travel guide.
Hayley says, “Her first encounter with the ‘Dogs of Dahab’ started one day when a dog followed her home and into her garden and insisted on staying put!”
However, it was a tragedy that compelled Janet to remain in Egypt to care for the dogs of Dahab. In 2001, she was witness to a large poisoning campaign on the beach at Dahab.
“Just one dog amongst the scores of dogs on the beach that day survived, and Janet made the decision to take him home with her, and try to save as many dogs as she could from being poisoned,” Hayley says.
Government officials walked along the beach throwing poisoned food to the hungry dogs. They dropped like flies in front of the screaming tourists.
“During this period Dahab was very much a casual backpacker type of tourism place, but very soon a big tourism development plan was to be put into place by the Government. One of the first steps taken in this big tourism development plan was to rid Dahab of its dogs, and hundreds of dogs were poisoned yet again.
“Up to that point Janet was just an ordinary pet-loving woman traveling for adventure, but after witnessing the cruel and senseless killings she became a woman with a mission – a mission to try and save the dogs of Dahab. She pleaded with the local Government representatives to stop the poisonings, e-mailed international organisations to send teams of vets to do sterilisation programs to curb the overpopulation.”
Unfortunately, the organisations Janet contacted did not step in to help, and the poisoning campaigns continued while Janet fought to save as many dogs as possible. In 2002, Janet was exhausted and about to return to England when another mass poisoning occurred.
Janet by now was well known in Dahab as ‘the dogs’ saviour’ and people took injured, and sick dogs to her
Hayley says, “Government officials walked along the beach throwing poisoned food to the hungry dogs. They dropped like flies in front of the screaming tourists. Janet once again stepped in and saved the remaining dogs by transferring them to four ‘safe houses’. Once the numbers had crept up to about sixty, she had to move them again, this time to an undeveloped building out of town, to keep them out of danger.”
Now with her own shelter, Janet’s decision to remain in Egypt to rescue dogs was final.
“Janet by now was well known in Dahab as ‘the dogs’ saviour’ and people took injured, and sick dogs to her,” Hayley recalls. “Foreigners who had stayed in Dahab for some time, and made friends with dogs, also turned to Janet as a ‘drop off’ point when it was their turn to leave.”
Janet was able to rehome some to local families, and some more were adopted in the UK, but the process of international adoptions was long and often too expensive for her.
Hayley adds, “When the increasing numbers of dogs became too many for the undeveloped building site to accommodate, Janet decided the only thing relatively safe and big enough to accomodate the number of dogs was a remote ‘valley’ – hence this became known to the locals as Dog Valley.”
On a visit to the valley, Hayley was surprised by how peacefully the dogs lived. Although the valley was mostly an open area with just a few fences, the dogs lived in ‘family packs’ – whether related or not – and would usually respect each family’s territory. While they could leave the valley, that rarely happened – they instinctively knew they were safer there than anywhere else.
However life in the valley was not easy, with unbearably hot temperature in summer and freezing cold in winter, no electricity or water, and Janet often struggled to feed the dogs. But she kept helping any dog who came her way, until her untimely death in February.
We know that some were not happy to have her shelter there – the land was valuable for potential developments, and someone had been trying to scare her off it before
Hayley says, “The only other worker at the shelter was arrested after her body was found, but soon they released them without charge. Egyptian authorities immediately went to blame the dogs, because they are seen as pests – I believe it was an instant blame thing, to use against all other street dogs.
“We know that some were not happy to have her shelter there – the land was valuable for potential developments, and someone had been trying to scare her off it before. In the end, when Janet’s body was returned to the UK, the autopsy was ‘inconclusive’ over the cause of death.
“We don’t know for certain foul play was involved, but Janet did send a few odd messages to a colleague a few days before she died, about being forced to take in some dogs who were not strays but belonged to someone of high rank. We never got to get to the bottom of this.
“Authorities blamed some specific dogs, though I am not sure on what basis, and put to sleep three of them. The others were released back to us – it seems very odd to me.”
Janet’s supporters and friends eventually got back 200 animals, mainly dogs plus three horses, three donkeys. There were another 27 pets in the flats she rented – 20 cats, four pups and sick dogs, and three rabbits. Some dogs have been rehomed locally, mostly puppies, while others have gone to animal sanctuaries and yet more passed away from old age – but this still leaves about 140 dogs in dire need of help.
“We have some volunteers in Egypt right now, to look after the dogs, and of course we have to keep them fed. We have to try and secure new land to move the dogs as soon as possible, and bring some dogs over to the UK for rehoming. Some of them are old, they cannot be put back in the streets – they need the safety of the sanctuary.
“Poisoning still happens, but it’s not as bad as it used to be – Dahab is probably one of the best places for a dog to live in Egypt right now, and I think it is thanks to Janet and her work.”
She lived her life on the frontline, where there were no days off, and no order.
Hayley adds, “She saved so many, and would never turn away a dog in need. She lived for them, and now we have to do our best to keep them safe – it is the best way to honour her memory.
“Not only was Janet a shining light in the animal rescue world, she was a former slalom athlete and long-term British Canoeing member. Janet was a highly focused paddler and passionate for the sport. She was a regular on the scene for many years, always by her side was companion dog Meg, running up and down the course with her. For more than a decade she continued to compete at the highest level.
“She lived her life on the frontline, where there were no days off, and no order. Every day, every minute she was needed, and no matter how tired Janet got, she just dug that little bit deeper, and overcame so many obstacles, she remained true to herself and always made room to save another. Janet’s strength seemed to come from the animals she saved.
“Janet was an inspiration to us all and we admired her deeply.”
A fundraising page is up to help the dogs Janet left behind, and ensure they all are cared for – either by securing new land for a sanctuary, or getting them adopted by loving families. You can donate here.