Seeking shelter

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Dr Lisa Chimes plans to stamp out pet welfare through her popular educational initiatives. Mitchell Oakley Smith meets Australian television’s favourite new vet.

Australia has a long and illustrious history of animal-based television programs that, at their core, aim to educate the nation about our four-legged and feathered friends. The charming Dr Harry Cooper was first introduced to home viewers in 1993 with Talk to the Animals, followed by his namesake Harry’s Practice, which for seven years spoke to the Australian public about health issues facing domestic animals and how best to treat them. While the show was unfortunately cancelled in 2003, Dr Cooper maintains a veterinary segment on popular lifestyle program Better Homes and Gardens following much the same format as his own.

Queenslander Steve Irwin burst onto television in 1996 with his broad accent—“Crikey!”—and wrangling of much-feared Australian crocodiles. His heady mix of adrenaline-heavy adventure and factual underpinnings inspired Sir David Attenborough to praise Irwin for introducing many to wildlife with his natural storytelling ability. “He taught them how wonderful and exciting it was. He was a born communicator,” he said. And then in 2009 came Bondi Vet, the factual reality show following veterinary surgeon Chris Brown, who inspired anew pet lovers with his striking looks and the fast-paced nature of emergency care.

“I think the main aim—and particularly why I do it—is to teach people about responsible pet ownership,” says Dr Lisa Chimes. “People hopefully learn things about animal diseases and behavioural patterns and the general care of owning an animal. It teaches children, too, because of the number of young people that watch these shows. It teaches them empathy and compassion which are both so important. If we can make one person a better pet owner, then that’s a start.”

Dr Chimes is the most recent addition to the canon of television programs dedicated to animal welfare. A breakout star of Bondi Vet, Dr Chimes was most recently on screen in the debut season of her namesake program, Dr Lisa to the Rescue. In much the same way as The Bachelor, Dr Chimes plays matchmaker, but in this case bones replace roses as she finds permanent homes for rescue dogs from the Animal Welfare League.

It’s a heartwarming plot, but it strikes at the core of an important and widespread issue in Australia, with more than 100,000 dogs finding refuge at shelters across the country each year.
“I think in a lot of situations people have made impulse decisions about getting a pet,” says Dr Chimes. “They’ve bought a dog or a cat when they’re not ready financially, or they don’t have the time or space, or they have a baby, and the pets end up in shelters or neglected. What I’m trying to do is teach people about getting pets—about when is the right time and if they’re suitable.”

Part of the program, too, is retraining the public to view animals from shelters as not being second-best. “There’s quite a good awareness about abandoned animals but I don’t think people realise how good the shelters are or how much care the animals get before they come to a new home. They get welfare training, behavioural training, medical care … They’ve been through an extensive rehabilitation process. They’re not, as most people imagine, these mangy, scabby creatures—not hand-me-downs, but actually in great condition and were just unfortunate that they were in a family that wasn’t ready for them.”

On the show, Dr Chimes matched pets with loving families, and Dr Lisa to the Rescue has had real-world impact, with the Animal Welfare League experiencing a greater interest rate since the program first aired. “If we can get their adoption rates up, get pets out of shelters sooner, then that’s a success. Even if we can get one more pet out a week, I’ll be happy.”

But while the program offers audiences an education about the tools necessary to purchase and care for a pet—the financial means, the time, the lifestyle and the environment—it also speaks to a greater, and rather more sinister, issue that is at the heart of the sheer number of animals in welfare. This is the selling of animals through pet shops, where customers are afforded the opportunity to indulge, to use fashion parlance, on an impulse purchase, and the puppy farms and backyard breeders that supply and support such a sales practice. “We have to ban the sale of pets in pet shops to help put the flames out,” says Dr Chimes. “People are not getting the proper education [here] that they need and in many cases we don’t know where these animals are coming from, which makes it hard to care for and treat them.”

At the time of writing, a Parliamentary inquiry was being conducted by the Companion Animal Breeding Practices in New South Wales Committee, with Pet Industry Association of Australia chief executive officer Mark Fraser telling the Joint Select Committee hearings that the industry needs government regulation to help stamp out puppy farms. “We are calling for increased government regulation of our industry through the establishment of a mandatory licensing system for all retailers, brokers and breeders of dogs,” he said. “The licensing system would be implemented and enforced by government and funded by industry. This model has already been successfully implemented with the sales and licensing of reptiles in New South Wales, wherein the industry and other stakeholders worked together to produce a successful welfare-based outcome.”

Dr Chimes has always had a love for animals—“It’s something that you’re born with,” she says—and a parallel interest in science and medicine growing up, making veterinary the perfect profession to combine her two passions. “My grandfather was a doctor, and my dad is a dentist, so I’m definitely from medical genes, and I had dogs growing up from as young as I remember,” she says. “There were always four-legged creatures running around.”

And while she concedes that the stresses placed on vets are immense, particularly when it comes to dealing with clients about monetary issues and euthanasia, the upside of the profession is contributing to the wellbeing of animals. “The best part of the job is when we have an animal that came in really unwell, sometimes almost dying, and after treating it we’re able to send it home. Seeing the family joy and that wagging tail is an absolute highlight and the stresses seem insignificant in comparison.”

In terms of her transition to silver-screen star, Dr Chimes found the process of filming initially challenging. “It was quite unusual to have to explain what I was doing [to the camera], particularly working in emergency care which is fast-paced, but I really enjoy communicating and I knew what the end result is—that people will be learning about their pets—so I was able to get used to it.”

Following ongoing conversations with the production company behind Bondi Vet, the idea for Dr Lisa to the Rescue was hatched, with all in agreement that raising awareness about shelter pets was an important issue. “It was a natural progression from Bondi Vet, which I’m still doing, but [this show] teaches people about pets in a different way.”

It’s not the only media through which Dr Chimes is helping to educate the Australian public about animal health and welfare. Earlier this year she authored two children’s books, My First Puppy and My First Kitten (both $14.99, Penguin Australia) with illustrations by Tina Burke, that aim to teach children about the responsibilities that come with owning a pet. “I’ve got a two-year-old son and I see how interested he is in our dogs, so writing a picture book that teaches kids in an educational way how to care for their pets has been really rewarding,” says Dr Chimes. “They’re narratives for three- to six-year-olds, and through the story they learn how to take care of their first puppy or kitten, with messages that parents can take away as well. It’s a great way to get the whole family involved in learning about animals.”

Is there more yet on the horizon for Dr Chimes? “It’s too early to tell but we’ve had good feedback so far so hopefully there are more opportunities,” she says. “The reason I do all of this—the television show, the books, my regular job as an emergency care vet—is to help animals, to teach people about animals.”

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