UNE assists Tiwi Islands dog health program

Published 24 September 2012

Students from the University of New England have helped members of a remote Indigenous community in the Tiwi Islands to manage the health of their dogs.

Accompanied by their lecturer, Dr Wendy Brown, a team of four UNE students visited the Wurrumiyanga community on Bathurst Island for seven days last month and participated in a dog health program.

This followed two visits to the Tiwi Islands by Dr Brown earlier in the year – during the first of which she took part in an annual veterinary visit to the community. “The task was overwhelming,” she said. “We were to provide veterinary care for all the dogs on the island, with a focus on de-sexing and parasite control. The large population of free-roaming dogs created many health and environmental problems for the human and canine inhabitants, and all we could do in the two-day visit was really just a ‘band-aid’.”

As a result of this visit, and in collaboration with AMRRIC (Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities) and the Darwin-based veterinarian Stephen Cutter, she proposed a four-day dog health program at Wurrumiyanga, partly funded by UNE.  “We recognised that the dog population could be stabilised only if we could de-sex a greater number of dogs than can be done in just two days a year,” she said. “The Tiwi Islands Council responded with an acceptance of our proposal, and an invitation to run the dog health program on Bathurst Island immediately prior to the Tiwi Islands’ Milimika Festival so that we could join in the festival activities.

“From my perspective, the aim was both to assist with the island’s dog management problem and to provide an opportunity for UNE students to gain valuable work – and life – experience.”

In preparation, Dr Brown assisted with the training of Indigenous Animal Management Workers employed by Tiwi Islands Shire Council who would be assisting in the dog health program. Then, just under a month later, she was back on Bathurst Island with four UNE students – Chantal Petrosi, Jaya Matthews, Tabitha Francis and Jessica Sparkes – joining Stephen Cutter and two other veterinarians from AMRRIC to conduct the program.

“We were really well accepted by the community,” Dr Brown said, “and the key people were very supportive. They had already conducted a dog census – a good sign that they’re engaging. And the program worked so well that we’re planning more visits. I think it’s the beginning of a long-term relationship for UNE.”

“We all stayed on and enjoyed the three-day festival that followed,” she said. “The people are open and friendly, and their warm welcome made us feel very much part of the community. The festival was a showcase of art and culture – including performance art – and the contribution of our dog health team to the festival was to man a stall providing dog-washing, face-painting and colouring-in.”

Chantal Petrosi, one of the four UNE students (and pictured here with one of the dogs), is in the third year of her Bachelor of Zoology degree program. “We helped in collecting the dogs, giving them anti-parasite medicine, and preparing them for surgery,” she said. “I loved it; it was an amazing experience – culturally as well as vocationally. It was my first real encounter with an Indigenous community.”

Next month (on the 12th and 13th of October), AMRRIC will conduct a conference at UNE in partnership with UNE Animal Science. Titled “Outback dogs – challenges and solutions for Indigenous communities, animals and public health”, the conference will feature presentations by UNE staff members (including Dr Brown), UNE students, AMRRIC veterinarians, the RSPCA, and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.