Pragmatic, professional and passionate, Dr Bronwyn Orr has worked at the critical junctures of animal welfare throughout her career. By Kerryn Ramsey
Animal welfare is at the centre of Dr Bronwyn Orr’s career. This is why she has worked with the RSPCA, the Australian Veterinary Association and now the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, rather than concentrating on private practice. Her ambition is to improve the welfare of animals on a grand scale and that has led her to advocate and to support policy and government decision-making for positive animal welfare outcomes.
“I realised pretty early on there are two ways you can help animals,” says Dr Orr, who’s a senior veterinary officer at the Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment working in the Animal Welfare section of the Agricultural Policy Division.
“You can impact their lives directly by working at the coalface, which is what most vets do. They’re helping animals live healthier and happier lives on a day-to-day basis—and that’s extremely important work. Unfortunately, the number of animals you can help is limited. Even when I’m doing shelter work, which I do on weekends because I absolutely love it, you can only physically see a certain number of animals.
“When I was doing placement in third year with a government vet, he said, ‘When you work in private practice, you have the ability to positively affect the lives of a couple of thousands of animals each year if you’re really busy. If you are working in government and contribute to changing the law, you can positively affect the lives of tens of millions of animals every single year’,” says Dr Orr, who is currently supporting the finalisation of Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry. These standards encompass all types of poultry including layer hens and meat chickens.
“It’s incredible to have the opportunity to use my veterinary degree in a way I never thought possible when I was younger.”
Animal welfare has become far more prominent in the past 20 years and continues to grow in importance in people’s minds and experiences. It’s an important issue for companion animals, farm animals, and those in shelters.
“Welfare moves beyond biological functioning and recognises the mental state of animals,” says Dr Orr. “The definition of welfare is how an individual animal is coping with its environment—it doesn’t take long to realise we can improve the welfare of a lot of animals.”
She makes the point that a pet owner isn’t breaking any laws by keeping their dog home alone all day and not walking it, however that doesn’t mean that dog’s welfare isn’t being compromised. It’s important that vets acknowledge the subjective experience of an animal is just as important as their physical health.
Helping animals has been Dr Orr’s calling since she was a child. “I constantly bugged my local vet to give me a job,” she recalls. “The legal age for employment was 13 and on my birthday, she came around and asked if I was still interested. Of course I was, and I became the ‘odd jobs girl’, doing everything from washing dogs to cleaning cages. I loved every minute of it.”
Growing up in Mackay in Northern Queensland, she attended James Cook University, graduating in 2013. She worked in private practice, did shelter work, then took a job with the Department of Agriculture. Over the course of her career, she’s been in and out of the department a couple of times but during this first period, she was employed as an abattoir vet.
“It was an unusual and at times, confronting, job,” says Dr Orr. “People found it amusing because I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 17 and having a vegetarian working in an abattoir seemed like an oxymoron. For me, working the abattoirs was a good opportunity to see animal welfare at the critical juncture of slaughter. Although it’s unpleasant, it’s absolutely crucial to ensure that animals not only have a good life but a good death.”
Love is Blind
Eventually Dr Orr moved from abattoir vet to science and policy officer at RSPCA Australia, working with companion animals. At the time, the RSPCA was doing a lot of companion animal advocacy work and running a joint campaign with the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) called Love is Blind, hoping to change the way brachycephalic dogs were bred.
“We were encouraging breeders and the public to choose more moderate features in brachycephalic dogs,” says Dr Orr. “Rather than breeding for extreme flat faces, which is associated with many health and welfare issues, we were calling for breeders to breed dogs that were more moderate.”
Working on that joint campaign gave Dr Orr interaction with the AVA and led her to run for a seat on the board. Being exposed to the inner workings has seen her become involved with the work of the AVA in a broader sense—not just in terms of animal welfare but what the organisation does for the veterinary profession. The AVA has a policy council with representatives from every special interest group in the AVA. They propose new policies, debate them and then send them around to members.
“The board considers these policies and as they’ve already gone through a thorough due process at policy council, most of the time we ratify them,” she says. “The heart of policy development at the AVA is the policy advisory council.”
This big-picture thinking has seen her commit to upskilling her degree. Dr Orr has completed a master’s degree of science, majoring in animal welfare, and she is about to complete her PhD, investigating the health and welfare of pig hunting dogs in Australia. Additionally, she sits on the board of the Game Management Authority (GMA) of Victoria that regulates hunting in that state. She is the first veterinarian to ever sit on the board.
“As I’m a vet with animal welfare expertise, I bring scientific and rational thinking along with the knowledge, values, expectations and ethical framework of our profession,” says Dr Orr. “I’m a professional who cares about the welfare of animals. While duck hunting, deer hunting or any form of hunting is happening, it’s important that things are done correctly. It’s the same with the slaughter of animals for food. Anywhere there’s a critical juncture of animal welfare, it’s really important that procedures are well regulated and informed by science. This is where my interest lies.”
Not that it’s all abattoirs and hunting management for Dr Orr. In 2019, while taking a break from full-time work to focus on her PhD, she was asked to work on a television show by Channel 7. She was employed as the vet on set for Pooch Perfect with Rebel Wilson. Her job was to ensure the dogs were treated well and were not stressed on set.
“In the UK and the US, it’s a requirement that TV or movie productions with animals employ a vet or an animal welfare representative,” says Dr Orr. “In Australia it’s not a legal requirement and is actually pretty rare. The show was a lot of fun and the animals were looked after very well. It was definitely a whole new experience for me.”
While private practice is noble and essential work, Dr Orr hopes that some vets will choose to use their degree as a stepping stone to different opportunities. “I think vets should back themselves and be willing to step outside their comfort zone,” she says. “Veterinarians are well-respected professionals and vets sitting on boards and taking on consultancy and advisory roles should be encouraged. Once you start developing skills in areas such as policy development and communication, the world really does open to you.”