Howard’s ark

Photography: Sean Davey

He’s known far and wide as the “man with the magic hands”. Meet the wildlife veterinary surgeon who is passionate about treating—and promoting the welfare of—Australia’s native animals. By Kathy Graham

It’s a hot day and the 20kg wombat, despite sedation, is struggling frantically to get away. His left nostril is being examined by a veterinary surgeon who is shining a light into its depths. The next thing the surgeon has inserted some alligator forceps to remove a grass seed that the wombat has inhaled causing him to breathe like Darth Vader. When the surgeon holds up the offending object, there are cheers all round. But this is no time to be resting on laurels. After taking a few minutes to bandage his finger—the wombat bit it mid-procedure—the veterinary surgeon is seeing another patient.

Welcome to a day in the life of Dr Howard Ralph. Ably assisted by his wife, Glenda, a veterinary nurse, the couple run Southern Cross Wildlife Care (SCWC), a charity dedicated to the lifesaving treatment and care of injured, sick and orphaned native animals. The Ralphs operate two clinics: one in Sydney, the other much larger one in a converted shearing shed on their rural property in the southern tablelands of NSW.  It’s where you’ll find the Ralphs every second weekend and some week days, working tirelessly—and for no fee—from dawn until well after midnight saving the broken and bloodied animals of Australia.

An imposing man at six foot six, who speaks in a quiet measured voice that belies his fierce commitment to the cause, Dr Ralph has achieved legendary status among the country’s large network of wildlife rescuers and carers for his devotion to treating any animal he’s called to help.

His patients, who number between 2,000 to 3,000 a year, are macropods (Eastern grey kangaroos, red-necked wallabies and swamp wallabies), wombats, birds (“a full range”), reptiles, particularly turtles and blue-tongued lizards and monitors, found “smashed on the road”; and some threatened fauna such as koalas, powerful owls, terns and quolls. Dr Ralph says, “we see everybody, and our charter is that we will treat anyone in distress”—that distress being the result of mostly human-caused injuries. “I would say the majority of animals, three quarters, come here because of some impact that humans have had on wildlife,” says Glenda. “Very little is from their own natural disease process.”

Barbed wire fences, bushfires and especially our roads all exact a heavy toll. On the day Vet Practice visits, many of the patients are orphaned joey kangaroos and wallabies (including two hairless newborn pinkies), whose mothers were hit by cars.

Motor vehicles kill millions of wild animals including macropods every year. In fact, spending time with the Ralphs is a sobering reminder to safely stop if you see a marsupial on the road, check for signs of life and—if she’s female—check her pouch for survivors. Yet a pouch can afford only so much protection from trauma, physical or otherwise, as the joeys Dr Ralph examines demonstrate. One has abrasions on both legs; one has a fractured foot with loose tendons, one, a three-day-old pinky, has suspected head injuries, and one has a rash that Dr Ralph suspects is stress-related after surviving a car collision.

Dr Ralph says they see their fair share of cruelty cases too. “We’ve got a cockatoo who’s been shot through the wing. We’ve had wombats with half their head shot away and an eye missing. Other animals have been hit with an axe or a pole, and some—eagles, reptiles—are hung from a fence.”

As the hours pass on a typical day at the Ralph’s Braidwood clinic, there’s no let-up to the stream of carers arriving, bearing sick and wounded wildlife. People often travel for many miles; some will happily come from interstate to enlist Dr Ralph’s special aid, undaunted by the time it takes or—the last leg of the journey is 30 minutes on a dirt road through rugged bushland—the remoteness of their destination.

“There’s a misconception that wildlife can be treated ‘any old how’. That’s not true—they need proper care.”—Dr Howard Ralph

Their admiration for Dr Ralph is unmistakable. “He’s got magic hands”, says one. “He’s the best wildlife vet in Australia”, says another. They’re here now because they know Dr Ralph will do everything within his power to save an animal—and because of his extensive skills and experience he usually can.

Dr Ralph’s wife, Glenda, with a joey lucky enough to survive an encounter with a car.

Wildlife carers seek Dr Ralph’s help because they may not have access to care elsewhere. He is often their only hope, a state of affairs Dr Ralph blames on the lowly status afforded to our iconic wildlife. “The fact of the matter is that wildlife suffer from this attitude that they’re a pest and that unless they’re severely endangered, then it’s hardly worth worrying about it because there are plenty of them, which is not necessarily true at all.”

He continues: “We’ve tried to provide a comprehensive, up-to-date, best-quality service because we feel that wildlife should be respected, that they should not be denied modern veterinary management just because they’re wildlife. There’s a misconception that wildlife can be treated ‘any old how’. That’s not true—they need proper care; they need good anaesthesia and pain management and proper medical treatment, they need high-quality surgical attention to detail, to be operated on in a sterile environment and proper care afterwards; they need all these things. That’s why we’re here.”

Dr Ralph has charted an unconventional course to becoming one of Australia’s leading wildlife surgeons. After teaching primary school in the highlands of Papua New Guinea in the mid-1960s, the young Howard returned to Australia where he studied veterinary medicine at the University of Sydney, graduating in 1971 with the University Medal. After working in a general veterinary practice for several years, he embarked on a medical degree (eventually studying post graduate anaesthesia, emergency medicine and forensic medicine).  “I wanted to complete the spectrum of medical/veterinary care. It seemed ridiculous to me not to be able to treat all species,” he says.

For many years, Dr Ralph juggled the demands of both owning his own domestic animal veterinary practice in Mona Vale and working in his capacity as a medical doctor, in the emergency departments of Mona Vale and other hospitals, as a registrar at Calvary Public Hospital, in Canberra, and as an anaesthetist at Moruya District Hospital on the south coast. In 1993, he completed a Masters in wildlife medicine which involved working as a veterinary surgeon and undertaking research in oxygen transport during anaesthesia in wildlife at Taronga Zoo. That was followed in 1995 by a stint at Ragunan Zoo in Jakarta, Indonesia, where as a consultant at the behest of the Governor of Jakarta, Dr Ralph says he “helped them build a properly functioning hospital and taught anaesthesia, pain management, surgery, and sterility techniques”.

Meanwhile, people would occasionally bring ailing wildlife to Dr Ralph at his practice, reporting how hard it was to find veterinarians like him, both willing and able to provide appropriate care. It was this experience coupled with his volunteer work treating the survivors of both natural and unnatural disasters (the latter most notably recreational duck shooting, still legal in some states) that led him, with Glenda, to start SCWC 10 years ago: to redress what he regarded as the inadequate veterinary care of our indigenous creatures.

“It’s a big problem,” says Glenda. “Some in the veterinary profession may have relegated wildlife to the ‘too hard’ department, not deliberately, but they may feel that they do not have the skills, or the knowledge, or the time, or the patience, so there’s this huge group of Australian wildlife that’s not really being serviced by anyone.”

Dr Ralph adds: “Some take more of an interest in wildlife, albeit with limited exposure. If they’ve got more of an interest they tend to ring up and ask, ‘what should I do?’ Or they refer the patient to us. That’s a good thing because we’re happy to take on the complicated care, and I’ve encouraged that for many years, such that nowadays the standard practice is not necessarily to think that if the patient is wildlife it can’t be treated. That was the original concept and approach. I think that the change is partly due to what we’ve done which is to be here, available and provide a comprehensive, up-to-date, very good quality service and therefore show that it can be done.”

“Wildlife suffer from this attitude that they’re a pest and that unless they’re severely endangered, then it’s hardly worth worrying about it because there are plenty of them, which is not necessarily true
at all.”—Dr Howard Ralph

Dr Ralph says the shortage of wildlife veterinarians partly comes down to money. Dr Ralph used all his resources to set up and equip SCWC, but he and Glenda rely on a trickle of donations and what they can earn elsewhere to pay ongoing costs. Glenda, also a qualified medical nurse and physiotherapist, works two jobs at Braidwood District Hospital, and Dr Ralph works in medical practice.

The Ralphs do not charge fees for their services but most veterinarians have to charge to cover their expenses and wages. “Providing modern, up-to-date veterinary management, surgically and anaesthetically is expensive. Drugs cost money, anaesthetics cost money, everything costs a lot of money and the costs are going up all the time,” he notes, adding that if vets can’t afford not to charge and carers can’t afford to pay, euthanasia is often the outcome.

Dr Ralph checks the recovery of a lizard whose two broken legs he repaired using metal pins.

Regardless of species or size of animal, and what needs to be done, Dr Ralph will not turn any away. This has made it necessary to adapt standard equipment and techniques to the needs of particular patients, especially if they are unusual, very small or very young. “A lot of the things that we do have been adapted from dealing with domestic species to the needs of wildlife which are different,” he says. “They respond differently. Their metabolic processes are different. Their anatomy may be difficult so that surgery and anaesthesia, including intubation, present a challenge. They can suffer severely from stress that may be life-threatening, and they may react differently to what we regard as common situations, so that things may go wrong with wildlife that you wouldn’t see in a dog or a horse or a human.”

Pain relief, he stresses, is a big deal. “Wildlife feel pain yet some people don’t quite understand that. Their attitude is that, ‘oh well, they’re out in the wild, they shouldn’t be treated because it’s a natural phenomenon’. Our idea is that these are sentient beings. They feel pain, they suffer and they deserve proper care and respect.”

As the day wears on and the patients keep coming, Dr Ralph—who’s recovering from a bout of bronchial pneumonia—shows no signs of slowing down. There is no time for a lunchbreak.  Glenda says, “He’ll struggle on when he’s not well just because it’s the right thing and often I’ll say, ‘you need to take a rest’, and he’ll say ‘no, there’s no-one else here, the animals will suffer.’”

Yet Dr Ralph insists his is not a one-man band but depends on the dedication and hard work of many others besides his wife, including the three veterinary nurses and other veterinary assistants who regularly volunteer to assist, and an army of carers. “It’s really important to understand that things don’t get better instantaneously. We do the critical work. We put in the orthopaedic pins or plates, we fix the fractures, we attend to all the clinical needs and then the patient gets transferred to the care of those carers who we trust and often have trained.”

Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine who might fill Dr Ralph’s shoes when that time comes. “I’m hoping that when I fall off my perch, there might be somebody to come along and do some of it at least,” he says. To this end, veterinary students who want to do their work placement at SCWC are very welcome. Dr Ralph also runs courses all over Australia in everything from pain management and first aid to burns treatment and fracture care. These are attended mainly by carers but some veterinary surgeons and nurses also participate because, says Dr Ralph, “they feel that they can get some value out of what we’re teaching.”

With so little downtime, one wonders how he and Glenda avoid burnout. They both reply in unison. “We get on with it.” Dr Ralph adds: “Because you don’t have time to sit around moping when there’s another patient waiting. The other thing is—we do have a lot of successes. It’s not all doom and gloom. We treat a lot of patients and most of them get better.”

Still, he says, “it’s an ongoing battle because not everybody believes that what we do is of any importance at all. Because we don’t get paid. It’s not a commercial activity; it’s a charity and if it’s a charity, ‘it’s obviously not worth anything’. And secondly, because wildlife are regarded as a pest by some, and ‘the sooner we get rid of them, the better’. Others find it irritating because we treat wildlife and that may reflect badly on those with a different attitude. We’re here to attend to the needs of our wildlife patients and help carers and other veterinary surgeons as necessary. There is a gradual but steady increase in the number of people who feel, as we do, that wildlife should be treated with respect and compassion”.

If you would like to donate to Southern Cross Wildlife Care, visit southerncrosswildlifecare.org.au

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