Meet Dr Rick Fenny, star of Desert Vet

Dr Rick Fenny

Photos: Frances Andrijich

Red Dog’s vet Rick Fenny hits the dusty road to film a new TV show called Desert Vet—and reflects on the legacy he wants to leave behind. By Anna Christensen

At age 70, most people are laying down their tools. Not Rick Fenny, the maverick veterinarian best known as the real vet of the footloose kelpie in Red Dog. He’s hitting the road for a 4,000km road trip through rural Western Australia to film the new TV series Desert Vet, which debuts on Channel 7 this December. “It’s going to be quite a party,” he chuckles.

If TV star seems a wild deviation from the usual vet pathway, it’s par for the course for the trailblazing Dr Fenny. “In the vet industry I guess I’ve always been renowned for doing something different from anyone else,” he says. “By the time people follow, I’ve usually moved onto something else. You need to think of ways to reinvent yourself—that makes life interesting.”

It’s hard to imagine him bored. At last count, he has seven children, 10 grandchildren, and 12 vet clinics and hospitals strewn through Western Australia. He runs a cattle station and aquarium in Shark Bay as well as the nearby glamping hotspot Shark Bay Eco Retreat. Then there’s Maitraya, a luxury resort in windswept Albany where Lady Gaga vacationed (and drew artistic inspiration.)

Earlier this year, Maitraya featured on Unreal Estate, a Channel 9 series that profiles extraordinary homes. While the sprawling estate was suitably mind-boggling, a cameraman fixated elsewhere. “He said to me, ‘We think there’s a helluva story in you’,” recounts Dr Fenny. “I said, ‘Really? You’re kidding me? I’m not that important’.”

Producer Matty Roberts would beg to differ. “He’s a gypsy vet with over 40 years of experience, a raft of clinics, and a family deeply rooted in various levels of business,” he says. “There was definitely something worth exploring. We went in completely blind, but we had to know—is he a hero?”

With a cameraman and a scriptwriter, Roberts flew to WA to follow Dr Fenny on his monthly pilgrimage from Perth to the Pilbara—and get their answer. Weaving through Shark Bay, Roebourne and Karratha, they made pit stops at remote clinics, cattle stations, and horse races. “We did 50 hours of filming, just of the stuff I usually do,” explains Dr Fenny. The result was a sizzle reel of sunburnt landscape, colourful characters and the straight-shooting hero they had hoped for. And, of course, a menagerie of animals: from cattle to dugongs, sharks to parrots. “There was almost too much material!” says Roberts.

“He’s a gypsy vet with over 40 years of experience, a raft of clinics, and a family deeply rooted in various levels of business. There was definitely something worth exploring.”—Matty Roberts, producer, Desert Vet

“It’s a bit different from Bondi Vet,” says Dr Fenny. “They have to stage-manage everything because how often can you do something unique in a suburban city practice?”

That’s not a problem in the outback, where the scrub is full of “hard nuts and severe cases”, like racing injuries, horrific tumours and deadly snake bites. With all that real raw drama, who needs scripted performance and manufactured plots? It’s also home to characters you couldn’t make up, from a hardened war veteran whose dog is his only friend, to the pirate-like man with a pigeon perpetually perched on his shoulder. “The pigeon thinks he’s a dog and is jealous of this guy’s wife and always tries to bite her,” grins Dr Fenny.

“I’ve been a vet for 45 years but I really enjoy the interaction with people more than anything; I’m not all that interested in technology or surgery. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the people of Western Australia and their love for their animals.”

Dr Rick FennyFor him, shooting the series represents a return to his roots—and an homage to a life always on the move. After graduating from the University of Queensland in 1971, the Albany native moved to the Kimberley for his first job. Four years later, he opened his first private practice on wheels, based in remote Roebourne. The 16-foot caravan roamed to treat animals all over the Pilbara, as well as cattle stations and horse races. During this time, Dr Fenny befriended Red Dog, the itinerant kelpie who famously travelled across Australia (some even reckon he caught a ship to Japan), inspiring several books and the eponymous feature film. “The Pilbara is an exciting place to be because it represents a lot of freedom, getting away from suburbia,” says Dr Fenny. “It’s very unconventional, the people are free-spirited and open-minded.”

In Desert Vet, rural Western Australia is a character in its own right. There are generous shots of pristine wilderness, rare native creatures, and the rough and ready landscape. “We hope as Australians we can show WA off to the rest of the world,” says Roberts. “The everyday Australians can relate and empathise with the people. But also, the international folks will be like, ‘Holy smokes!’”

With funding from Tourism WA, the “docu-reality” also chronicles Dr Fenny’s adventures through the state. He might swim with humpback whales in Exmouth, explore stromatolites at Carbla Station (“All the David’s have been there —Attenborough, Bellamy, Suzuki…”) or visit Ocean Park Aquarium, co-owned by marine scientist son Ed. “We were just astounded because Ed is so passionate about oceanic wildlife,” says Roberts. “He’d be kissing the fish and talking to them … it was shades of Irwin, really.”

Or of Dr Fenny, for that matter, who is a great believer in telepathy. “I really believe I can talk to the animals, understand them, pick up things from people that other people can’t,” he says. “I have these private conversations with them. It’s probably a gift. I think anyone can probably do it but you really have to believe it.”

“There are a lot of vets out there who shouldn’t be vets. I blame the vet schools for not having a good selection criteria; it’s all about academics.”—Dr Rick Fenny

He first discovered this talent as a young student, teaching his kelpie Kelly to shut the door of his tiny kitchen with her paw. “I got a bit bored one night so I thought I’ll teach a few derivations of this,” he says. “I did French at school, so I said, ‘Kelly, fermez la porte s’il vous plaît, ma chérie,” he says, affecting a theatrical high-pitched voice. “She was asleep but she got up and shut the door. My dog speaks French?! I was nonplussed. Until I realised it wasn’t the words, it was pure telepathy. You form a thought and the dog picks up on it.”

Since then telepathy has formed a major part of his practice, helping to soothe and calm animals, particularly before euthanasia. “I try to have a conversation with the animal then and tell them I’m going to make it better,” he says. “I usually get the owner to leave because the animal picks up on their thoughts and sadness and guilt. You leave the animal with the thought that the nice vet’s going to make it better.”

Dr Fenny’s particular sensitivities and values are what make him an exceptional vet. But these aren’t the things taught in the university syllabus. “There are a lot of vets out there who shouldn’t be vets. I blame the vet schools for not having a good selection criteria; it’s all about academics,” he says. “I’m more interested in achieving results unconventionally through lateral thought. That’s why I struggled as a student. I was taught the wrong stuff by the wrong people.”

Dr Rick FennyFor him, shooting Desert Vet is a chance to give the next generation a different sort of education. “I’m handing on a lot of my observations and wisdom to the younger generations of vets that work for me—they’re like a family,” he says. “Hopefully, vets right across Australia and around the world will get a lot more kudos, people will use vets a lot more, people will look after their animals a lot better. And I’m also handing on stuff to my immediate genetic family.”

For Dr Fenny, his seven children—aged between 26 and 43—are his “greatest achievement”. As well as Ed, a few make cameos in Desert Vet including Sam, a cattle farmer, and Louisa, an accomplished vet and orangutan conservation warrior. “I’ve had a lot of success in life, but my greatest success is raising seven children to successful independence,” he says. “I’m very proud of my children, they’re all exceptional human beings.”

In a somewhat unorthodox move, Dr Fenny passed up cash to appear in Desert Vet as ‘the talent’. Instead, he requested to be an equal partner. “We’ve structured it so if I’m dead and gone, my family retains my shares and can go on to do wonderful things, mostly with wildlife, the ocean and vet stuff,” he says. “The legacy of that is really important.”

It’s something he has been thinking about a lot lately. “In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People it talks about beginning with the end in mind, being at your funeral and hearing your own eulogy,” he says. “I’ve been a vet for 46 years and I don’t just want to ride off into the sunset.”

So, what does he hope his own eulogy will celebrate? “My values—honesty, inventiveness, trust.” He pauses and grins. “And they’ve got to play some good country music.”

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