Veterinarians for Climate Action want to see sustainable outcomes that benefit animals, the profession and the wider community. Kerryn Ramsey reports
Climate change is not just an intellectual concern for rural veterinarians—it’s occurring in real time, affecting livelihoods and millions of animals. The Australian bushfires last summer happened at the end of a drought that had lasted for years. The impact on wildlife and farming communities was truly terrible.
“Should we accept the suffering and death of a billion animals as the new norm?” asks Dr Jeannet Kessels. “That it will happen as a matter of course? And that our vets, who love animals and worked so hard, will need to experience this all over again?”
Dr Kessels is based in Queensland where she built Springfield District Veterinary Clinic in 2006 and Greater Springfield Veterinary hospital—an AVA accredited hospital of excellence—in 2015. She retired from clinical work a few years ago and leaves the running of the business with her managers and 34 staff.
“In 2019, Far North Queensland was in the grip of a five-year drought,” she says. “When the rains finally came, they were so torrential they caused widespread flooding, killing over half a million head of livestock. Those that didn’t drown died of exposure to cold winds. It was completely abnormal—we must respond to the big picture on behalf of animals. Climate change is real.”
Distressed by the tremendous loss and with an awareness that time was rapidly running out to make substantial change, Dr Kessels established Veterinarians for Climate Action (VfCA). She posted on Facebook, inviting people to join the group to talk and take action on climate in the veterinary profession. The response was overwhelming and they quickly formed a board and appointed a CEO.
“The science is clear,” says Dr Kessels. “Humanity has about 10 years to substantially lessen emissions before changes in climate, with cascading impacts and escalating feedback loops, reach a tipping point with little chance of return. It will cause incomprehensible distress to humanity and to the animals we love and need.”
Too hot to breed
VfCA was co-founded by Dr Gundi Rhoades, who has owned and run Gowrie Veterinary Clinic in Inverell, NSW, since 2002. The clinic initially shared its workload 50/50 between large and small animal work. In recent years, small animal work has almost completely taken over.
“The drought went on for so long that the large animal component of our work virtually disappeared,” says Dr Rhoades. “Nearly all the local farmers had to sell 100 per cent of their cattle. We also used to do a lot of artificial insemination in horses but the drought stopped that too. I was living with climate change every day and it wasn’t pretty. It has hugely impacted on myself, my business, the town, the farmers, the stock and the wildlife.”
During the summers, the area experienced consistent temperatures in the mid-to-high 40s. All the grass died and paddocks turned to dust. Hot, strong winds blew the topsoil away and the river and dams all dried up. The conditions were relentless.
“It’s unbelievable what it does to the psyche,” says Dr Rhoades. “A lot of my clients are tough farmers who have been on the land all their lives. They’d been through drought before but not like this one. The cattle they had been breeding for two generations were all gone and they would start crying in the consult room. It was terrible.”
VfCA is a scientific, non-political organisation that is open to vets, veterinary support staff and members of the animal care industries. The organisation was started in November 2019 and already boasts a healthy membership. Their mission is to advocate and achieve climate action within the profession and beyond.
“We want to congratulate government when strong, climate-smart policies are developed,” says Dr Kessels. “And we’ll make public statements when decisions are made that will be harmful to animals through climate change, such as gas and coal expansion. We have a memorandum of understanding with the Australian Veterinary Association to collaborate in raising awareness of changing climate on animal health and welfare. We are currently engaged with over a dozen former chief veterinary officers. We’re working on a Climate Smart program for vet practices, covering areas such as energy, lighting, solar, transport, plastics and recycling.”
As a business owner, Dr Rhoades has experienced the impact of climate change on her bottom line. When a town is dependent on farming, a climate event like the drought has a cascading effect that impacts everyone.
“As farmers lose their stock, they lose their businesses and can even lose their homes,” says Dr Rhoades. “That means my practice and the shops in town receive less business. During the drought, my turnover was about 30 per cent down, forcing me to be a bit creative in order to survive. I lent a couple of my nurses to other clinics that weren’t drought affected. Then I gave them a year off, so I could ride out the drought with reduced staff. I lost a vet and didn’t replace him.”
Fertility testing and assistance can make up a large proportion of a rural vet practice’s income. However, when temperatures remain in the high 40s for extended periods, it can render bulls infertile and have negative impact on other species.
“I’ve seen a lot of infertility over the past two years,” says Dr Rhoades. “Usually bulls find ways of cooling down in dams or under shady trees, but when everything is dry and baked, there’s not much they can do. I was testing bulls that showed to be infertile and I guess their testicles got too hot and the semen was destroyed. The constant heat also meant that horses had trouble getting and staying pregnant. Farmers were running out of water, so just keeping their animals alive was expensive and hard work as all water and feed had to be carted in.”
Dr Kessels believes the veterinary profession is well placed to promote positive climate action. Vets are trusted and they’re used to talking about complex issues in a simple way. They have a rigorous, scientific degree behind them and a broad view of life and society. Vets are involved with our nation’s biosecurity and in the agricultural sector.
“Climate change is real and happening now,” says Dr Kessels. “We can change things for the better but we need the resolve, courage and focus to do it. While a few people are not convinced by the science, overall the profession knows and understands we are facing a very big problem.”
The drought and the bushfires decimated lives, businesses, towns, stock and wildlife across Australia. Nearly 19 million hectares of land was burnt and one billion native animals were killed. There were 3500 homes lost and 34 people killed. This is not normal and we need strong leadership to substantially reduce our emissions by 2030.
“If we disregard natural principles by desiccating landscapes and creating deserts, by poisoning soil and heating the atmosphere, we will ultimately kill the planet,” says Dr Rhoades. “Humankind has wrecked and pillaged, cut down trees, mined and disregarded natural principles. We consume and consume and consume—and now it’s coming back to bite us. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”
- To give the Australian veterinary profession its climate voice.
- To give individuals a way to take action in a manner that is coordinated to have national and local impact. Said action is to include both mitigation and adaptation measures.
- To educate and inform those within the veterinary industry about the impacts of climate change.
- To formulate, promote and support the adoption of environmentally sustainable and climate-smart practices within the veterinary industry.
For more information and to join Veterinarians for Climate Action, visit www.vfca.org.au