The boy who loved the wild

Photography: Matthew Newtown

Rupert Woods is a reminder of what the veterinary profession is all about. Passionate about wildlife from a young age, Woods’ intense curiosity took him from a sub-Antarctic island to London Zoo before eventually landing him the job of CEO of Wildlife Health Australia. By Heather Vaile

Back in the early ’60s, a small Tasmanian boy was watching TV one evening with his parents, eagerly awaiting the next show coming up.

It was not Disneyland or Sesame Street, as you might expect to be on the must-see list of a five-year-old, but rather a David Attenborough documentary about a little island between Madagascar and Africa called Aldabra, where the Aldabran giant tortoises live.

As the program was about to begin, the young boy scrambled to grab one of those old tape recorders where you press two buttons to record (the height of technology at the time). After taking up prime position right in front of the TV, he hit play and record and spent the next two weeks transcribing the entire program for posterity.

While this exercise turned out to be a bit of a challenge for someone still learning to spell and write properly, it was an early sign of Rupert Woods’ capacity for hard work and perseverance. It was also the beginning of a lifelong love affair with animals and wildlife.

Fast forward 50 years, and today Dr Woods is now a successful vet in the prime of his life—but he still has a wonderful boyish charm about him.

“It’s a shocker first name, isn’t it?” he says when we introduce ourselves. “But my mum likes to joke that when I get knighted, Sir Rupert will sound a lot better than Sir Wayne or Sir Kevin.”

Actually, his mum might not be too far off the mark: in 2016, Dr Woods was recognised for his exceptional contribution to veterinary science by being made a Member of the Order of Australia.

When you talk to Dr Woods—who is CEO of Wildlife Health Australia—it quickly becomes clear that this gentle, intelligent man with an endearing capacity for self-deprecating humour is not your average CEO.

For one thing, there’s no pinstriped suit, silk hanky and attitude. On the contrary, he comes across as the sort of chillaxed, down-to-earth person you’d like to sit next to on a long plane trip.

Dr Woods graduated from Murdoch University in Western Australia in 1986 and began his veterinary career in mixed practice in the Perth suburb of Wattle Grove before taking up a job offer to work with seals on Macquarie Island in the sub-Antarctic region.

“I’d always been really interested in surgery, anaesthesia and for some reason, horses really seemed to like me,” he says.  “But I also really loved zoology and wildlife as well.

“Macquarie Island is one of the places that I’d always wanted to visit and I was given what seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) to develop safer methods for the chemical restraint of southern elephant seals.

“People are very interested in researching seals because they’re an indicator of the health of the Southern Ocean,” he says. “Southern elephant seals live all around Antarctica and their numbers had declined by about 50 per cent in 30 years.

“Researchers wanted to find out why. The theory was that we were taking too much krill from the Southern Ocean, and too much of their food.

“Life is all about people, their advocacy and the decisions they make. People need to take responsibility for the world we have and they need to speak out.”—Dr Rupert Woods

“In order to research that decline, you need to get near the animal, so you can take stomach samples to see what they’re eating or fit satellite transmitters to see where they go to forage. And you need anaesthesia to do that.

“Unfortunately, when you anaesthetise seals, they get sleepy and become unconscious. It becomes like they’re diving, so they often stop breathing. So, when vets first started anaesthetising them, many suffered complications and some died.

“My PhD was all about how we could anaesthetise the animals more safely. Basically, we tried a whole bunch of anaesthetics on different groups of seals and found the safest ones to use.”

Following his sub-Antarctic adventure, Dr Woods travelled to a summer school at Jersey Zoo in the Channel Islands, went on to lecture at London Zoo in the Masters of Zoo and Wild Animal Medicine program and then returned to Australia to undertake a residency at Taronga Zoo.

He later completed a Masters in Wildlife Medicine and Husbandry and worked as a veterinarian at Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo.

These days, however, Dr Woods is known for his tireless work with Wildlife Health Australia (WHA), the peak national body for protecting wildlife health in Australia.

The organisation is primarily concerned with protecting and enhancing Australia’s natural environment, through disease detection, surveillance, early intervention and prevention. It achieves this through researching, investigating and monitoring wildlife diseases in Australia, and by closely observes emerging diseases in other wildlife populations around the world.

The origins of WHA date back to the mid ’90s.

“There was a program the then Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry ran called ‘The Wildlife Exotic Diseases Preparedness Program’”, Dr Woods says.

“It was based in Canberra. And around the same time we saw the emergence of the Australian bat lyssavirus and the Hendra virus. But what really kicked it over the edge was the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the UK in 2001.

“Today, we have 36 member organisations and 600 members and most of them align pretty well. They’re all lovely people and it’s a great community. But working nationally and trying to make sustainable change, you are talking in decades.

“Rather than concentrate on any one disease, our focus is on getting the system right, because that means we can detect a lot of different diseases early.

“There are particular incidents that are occurring that are of concern, like Tasmanian Devil facial tumour disease, for example, but in the position that I’m in, it’s really about establishing and maintaining critical national infrastructure and ensuring that Australia can deal with anything in the future—that’s the real priority.”

When asked what he likes most about his job, Dr Woods replies with a warm smile: “It’s the people I work with—without question. Seeing them progress, grow and develop is just so rewarding because it really is a very complex space that we are all working in.

“Rather than concentrate on any one disease, our focus is on getting the system right, because that means we can detect a lot of different diseases early.”—Dr Rupert Woods

“Isn’t that odd? It’s not about the wildlife—it’s about seeing how good people can be in difficult times. And I saw something of that working with the Antarctic Division as well. You put people in difficult places under pressure and they step up and they perform.”

And what’s the hardest part?

“For me, personally, it’s not being in a hands-on role, because I love being a vet, I love fixing stuff, I’m a practical person. That’s what I’m good at,” he says.

“But what makes it easier for me is really, really believing that Australia needs this capability and being really committed to it. It’s a great driver and if you’re really committed, then you can pretty much get through anything.

“Professionally though, the toughest part is just the complexity of working in a federated system where even though arrangements are harmonised, they’re different. For example, every disease response is different and many state and territory jurisdictions operate differently. You need to respect everyone and you need to help everyone.

“We’ve been really lucky in that the people we employ in the organisation are highly technically competent but they are also totally committed to what they do and that helps us get through the hard times and the crushing workload.

“We also have to remember that we’re here to serve the national interest, so we have try to determine exactly what that is and then do that. It requires a lot of discipline because we’re interested
in everything!”

Dr Woods petting a tiger cub

In terms of how the future might look, Dr Woods explains that “while we aren’t seeing any particular increase in diseases here in Australia, other work around the world suggests that there is an increase in emerging diseases coming from wildlife. And the indications from the literature are that this will only increase with climate change, as population changes bring people into closer contact with animals, and as greater numbers of people travel internationally.

“However, we apply the precautionary principle in our organisation and one of the reasons we exist is that Australia is trying to get ahead of the game.

“The biggest challenge to protecting wildlife in Australia is public apathy.

“Because if people don’t get up and say, ‘This is important,’ then it will be forgotten. And apathy as a risk factor trumps climate change, it trumps deforestation, it trumps salinity and it trumps threatened species.

“Life is all about people, their advocacy and the decisions they make. People need to take responsibility for the world we have and they need to speak out.”

So how can vets who are interested in protecting our wildlife help or contribute to WHA?

“Log on to our website and download a membership form. Member fees are covered by the Australian Government. It supports and funds Wildlife Health Australia.

“As a member, you get access to a digest of wildlife health information every week, so you’ll know everything that’s happening in wildlife in Australia. The digest has all the jobs, all the education and training opportunities available, all the relevant peer-reviewed papers, all the disease events that are happening around the country and it tells you how you can get involved.”

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