Dog star

Photography by Johdi Bilske

A former Sydney resident who moved to the Top End as a graduate vet tells Angela Tufvesson about some of the successes as well as challenges associated with his work treating dogs in remote Aboriginal communities.

Much has been written about the condition of dogs living in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory, in particular that they are dangerous and diseased. But for Katherine and Alice Springs-based veterinarian Dr Alex Burleigh, the opportunity to improve the lives of these animals and their owners has helped him craft a rich and varied career.

Born and bred in Sydney, the newly graduated Dr Burleigh left the city in 2002 to take up his first veterinary job in the Northern Territory; almost 15 years later, he is still living and working up north. Dr Burleigh says much of the appeal of working as a vet in the Territory lies in the work his practice, Northern Territory Veterinary Services (of which he is part-owner) does—providing veterinary services to remote Aboriginal communities.

“Out of my mates I was probably the last one to think about coming up here, and I’ve been here the longest out of all the graduates I went through uni with,” says Dr Burleigh. “What I’ve learned is not to turn your back on any opportunities, follow things that interest you and you might find your life goes in a different direction.

“In these Aboriginal communities, the dogs are loved animals. A lot of the people really care for them but they just don’t have the locality of vets or the funds to be able to see a vet.”

A recent study co-authored by Dr Burleigh and published in the Australian Veterinary Journal found dog populations in Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory are on average more than six times higher per household than in the rest of Australia. Lack of veterinary presence, community remoteness and poor socio-economic factors were put forward as contributors to overpopulation, which in turn affects the health and wellbeing of canine populations.

“In these Aboriginal communities, the dogs are loved animals. A lot of the people really care for them but they just don’t have the locality of vets or the funds to be able to see a vet.”—Dr Alex Burleigh, Northern Territory Veterinary Services

During the more than 20 years that Northern Territory Veterinary Services has been working with Aboriginal communities and their canine companions, Dr Burleigh has helped to expand the number of communities reached and types of services offered. The practice now works with 40 to 50 communities across the Territory—travelling up to 1,200 kilometres per trip—with a focus on disease control and what Dr Burleigh says is akin to herd management for companion animals. Funding comes from a variety of external sources, including government.

“Anywhere between 120 to 180 days a year, we have someone out in the community; it’s actually a big part of our business,” says Dr Burleigh. “We developed quite a comprehensive program that we managed to encourage into the communities which is a combination of desexing, contraception and parasite control. They’ve become extremely effective.”

Since cultural sensitivity is a crucial aspect of working with Aboriginal communities, Dr Burleigh says it is vital that vets respect each community’s beliefs and culture. “It’s by gaining the trust of the people that you can make a huge difference, by encouraging them to either have animals desexed or put on contraception and helping them with parasite control.

“In some communities, there’s a thing called ‘dog dreaming’ where the dog is a totem animal and it’s sacred,” explains Dr Burleigh. “So these communities do not like their dogs to be euthanised, altered or operated upon. So it’s about having more frequent visits and using more contraception in these animals.

alex-burleigh“In one community that we visited for a while, some of the children were sick. The [community members] said as soon as the kids got better the dogs got sick. In their belief the dogs took the illness away from the children. In these communities, sometimes people believe it’s better to have a sick dog than a healthy dog. You’ve got those beliefs that you’ve got to be careful of. It can be just a simple matter of education, for example, to explain that the sick dogs are of greater risk to the children.”

Other times, however, euthanising animals is an unfortunate reality, which Dr Burleigh says is one of the most challenging parts of the job. He says communities may request large numbers of animals to be euthanised, and that the sheer size of the job and condition of the animals makes the task especially heartbreaking. Dr Burleigh believes that on such occasions, it is important to focus on the greater good: “Ultimately the population is going to improve as a whole and there’s going to be more food resources for the rest of the animals.”

Managing herd health among companion animals alongside the provision of care for individual animals is what ultimately differentiates Dr Burleigh’s work from that of city-based vets.

“We look at animal management quite differently to what we would in the cities. It opens up challenges about how you treat individual and herd health in companion animals because you’ve got to look after the individual, and you’ve got to work out how to control the birth rate of a large population of animals when you’ve got limited time and financial resources to be able to do so.”

For vets keen to work with Aboriginal communities, Dr Burleigh says there is no need to venture too far from home.

“There are so many communities around Australia that are crying out for these services and it’s not just about the Territory—there are probably communities near you.

“Where you have Indigenous communities close to your area there’s an opportunity to be able to contribute to their community and animal health.

“And there can be a financial benefit to the practice as well. It’s not huge margins but it’s something that can be beneficial to both the community and the practice.”

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