Dr Bob Doneley: why he’s the bird man

Dr Bob Doneley
Dr Bob Doneley finds birds “endlessly intriguing”. Photography: Richard Whitfield

A presentation to the Budgerigar Society of Bundaberg in 1982 had a far-reaching impact on the career of new veterinary graduate, Dr Bob Doneley. By Frank Leggett

Dr Bob Doneley is fascinated with birds. He has built a long and successful veterinary career with avian medicine at the centre of everything he does. As an Associate Professor and the head of the Avian and Exotic Pets Service at the University of Queensland (UQ), he treats reptiles, small mammals and wildlife. But birds are his passion.

“I’m very comfortable with avian anatomy and physiology,” says Dr Doneley. “I don’t even have to think about it. When a bird flies past, I can picture its heart working, its air sacks and its lungs. Avian medicine is second nature to me, and I really enjoy it.”

A vet in the making

It appears that Dr Doneley inherited some of his drive from his mother. When his father died at a young age, he left a wife with 12 children to raise. “My mother was very determined that I should be a doctor,” says Dr Doneley. “Even though Mum was a force to be reckoned with, she didn’t always get what she wanted.”

While his mother insisted he put down medicine as his first preference, Dr Doneley listed veterinary science as a back-up. “I was overjoyed when I failed to get into medicine but was accepted into veterinary science. I didn’t want to be a doctor. I had done work experience with a doctor and it was all a bit depressing. The patients were sick and never stopped complaining!”

After graduating from UQ in 1982, Dr Doneley had plans to become a large animal vet. He applied for multiple positions and attended many job interviews at dairy practices across Victoria. When that didn’t pan out, he found a position at a small animal practice back in Bundaberg.

Budgerigar awakening

“I tell my students that no matter what they are planning to do when they graduate, life has a way of interfering with those plans,” says Dr Doneley. “The local budgerigar club asked my boss to present a talk about diseases of birds. Of course, he passed it on to me because I was the new graduate. We’d only had two lectures at university on bird medicine and they were actually the same lecture given twice.”

The only information Dr Doneley could find was notes from a bird conference held in 1981 published by the Sydney Postgraduate Foundation. “I can still remember an article by Dr Ross Perry about a beak and feather disease he was seeing in cockatoos. It was fascinating and it really piqued my interest in avian medicine. That interest has never faded.”

Different paths

The next five years were a time of change and upheaval for Dr Doneley. He married and then moved to the UK, working in a variety of practices. There was very little bird work and the majority of his professional time was spent treating dogs and cats.

When a bird flies past, I can picture its heart working, its air sacks and its lungs. Avian medicine is second nature to me, and I really enjoy it.” 

Dr Bob Doneley, head, UQ’s Avian and Exotic Pets Service

On returning to Australia, he opened his own small animal and avian practice, the West Toowoomba Veterinary Surgery. “About 20 to 30 per cent of my income was from treating birds,” says Dr Doneley. “And when you show an interest in birds, word gets out fairly quickly. There was only three vets doing bird work across the whole of Queensland.”

In 1989, Dr Doneley attended a conference in Camden of vets who were doing bird work. At that conference it was proposed that they form the Association of Avian Veterinarians, Australasian Committee. The AAVAC is now 30 years old and Dr Doneley has attended every one of their conferences. The next one is scheduled for November this year.

Dr Doneley recalls, “In 1991, I was granted membership of the Australian and New Zealand College of Avian Medicine. I was then an avian vet but not a specialist. My interest in birds was still continuing to grow.”

Ostriches

This was a golden period to be an avian vet as the ostrich industry was taking off. Ostrich leather was being used to make women’s shoes and handbags while the feathers, meat and offal were also being used in a variety of ways.

Dr Doneley would spend five days a week on the road, travelling to ostrich farms. His treatment area stretched from Kingaroy down to Tenterfield to St George and across to the Gold Coast. Often ostrich farmers would pick him up in a light aircraft and then fly him back home at the end of the day.

Dr Bob Doneley
Dr Bob Doneley with final year vet students (in maroon consulting coats); a 3rd year vet student (in white coat); and intern Dr Akshata Taggers, assessing a wild carpet python prior to its release back into the wild. The Avian and Exotic Pet Service treats not just birds, but also reptiles and small mammals.

“It was hectic, intensive work but I learned a tremendous amount about bird medicine,” says Dr Doneley. “Incubation, chick rearing, intensive husbandry, principles of bio-security, anaesthesia, surgery, medicine and a whole lot of other stuff. I was a far better bird vet at the end of the ostrich industry boom than I had been at the start.”

The new specialist

“In 2003, I sat my fellowship exams. The Avian Health chapter went through a lot of negotiations with the college establishing fellowship guidelines. Shane Raidal from Charles Sturt University (who appeared in Vet Practice’s special feature, ‘The New Innovators’, last December) and myself became the first two vets in Australia to sit the new guideline exams. Prior to that, Ross Perry and Patricia Macwhirter, in Sydney and Melbourne respectively, had both earned their fellowships by examination. Ross was the first registered bird specialist in Australia and Pat was the second. I tell Shane that I was the third because Doneley comes before Raidal alphabetically.”

In that same year, Dr Doneley was awarded the College Prize by the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists (ANZCVS) for outstanding contributions to veterinary science in Australia.

Dr Doneley was now running his practice out of Toowoomba and started to see many more exotics. There was a growth of reptiles, rats, guinea pigs and ferrets being kept as pets. Even though it was illegal to keep rabbits in Queensland, Dr Doneley was seeing more and more at his practice. Fortunately, it wasn’t illegal to treat them.

“There is an expression—you treat disease in small animal medicine but in avian and exotic pet medicine you discover it. We find new things all the time.” 

Dr Bob Doneley, head, UQ’s Avian and Exotic Pets Service

Around this time, the University of Queensland decided to move the vet school from St Lucia to Gatton, halfway between Brisbane and Toowoomba. Dr Doneley was offered the position of head of the small animal hospital. “After about five seconds’ discussion with my wife, we put the practice on the market and I started at Gatton,” he recalls.

University calls

In 2010, after 22 years of private practice, he joined the University of Queensland’s Veterinary Medical Centre as head of Small Animal Services. In 2015 he was awarded the Meritorious Service Award by the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists. At present, Dr Doneley is an Associate Professor and head of the Avian and Exotic Pets Service run out of the University of Queensland. He also lectures at UQ and James Cook University on bird and exotic animal medicine.

“My typical working week is about 50 hours,” says Dr Doneley. “I’ll divide that time between the hospital, lecturing, research and seeing up to 10 cases a day. I could work less hours if I wasn’t involved in teaching but the teaching is what makes it worthwhile.”

In 2010, a textbook authored by Dr Bob Doneley, Avian Medicine and Surgery in Practice, was published and translated into German. A second edition was published in 2016 and also translated into Chinese. Dr Doneley then helped put together a team of experts from around the world to write a textbook on reptiles; Reptile Medicine and Surgery in Clinical Practice was published in 2018. Next in line is a textbook on guinea pigs but that one is on the backburner at the moment.

And, just to ensure he doesn’t get bored, Dr Doneley is also the vice-president of the Australian Veterinary Association.

For the birds

As one of six bird specialists in Australia, Dr Bob Doneley has some advice for general practitioners. “If you’re not seeing a lot of birds, the first thing you need to do is ask yourself, ‘Do I want to see this bird or do I want to refer it?’ There are members of the Avian Health Chapter all around Australia and New Zealand so there’s somebody near you who has expertise, experience, and an interest in avian medicine. If it’s a case where the client wants the very best for their bird, every one of those vets are contactable. You can send emails or you can ring them up for advice. I would not have a day where I’m not contacted by three to five vets asking about cases.

“If you’re a vet with a genuine interest in bird medicine then you should make contact with bird vets. Gain advice, gain experience, join the Association of Avian Vets Australasian Committee, sit your membership exams and become a member of the Avian Health Chapter of the college.”

So, finally, just what’s the attraction of birds? “There are over 9000 species of birds,” says Dr Doneley. “They are endlessly intriguing. I have taught avian medicine in the UK, the USA, Singapore and Bali. I’ve been all around Australia on the back of bird medicine. Birds have given me a tremendously satisfying career.

“There is an expression—you treat disease in small animal medicine but in avian and exotic pet medicine you discover it. We find new things all the time. I’m turning 59 this year and I’m still as excited and enthusiastic as the day I graduated. Every day holds something new to be explored.”


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