The duo behind Indigenous Dog Health

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Indigenous Dog Health
Rather than volunteer overseas, Drs Michael Archinal and Alison Taylor started their Indigenous Dog Health program. Photo: Sean Davey

Apart from running eight practices in the ACT, Drs Alison Taylor and Michael Archinal regularly travel to remote Indigenous communities to de-sex and treat dogs. By Kerryn Ramsey

Utopia, a remote Indigenous homeland in the Northern Territory, covers an area of about 3500 square kilometres and is home to about 1200 residents. Drs Michael Archinal and Alison Taylor, business partners in eight veterinary practices in the ACT, regularly make the 2700-kilometre journey to Utopia as part of their Indigenous Dog Health initiative. Over the past decade, their twice-yearly visits have seen 1700 dogs desexed and tens of thousands treated with internal and external parasite medication.

“We’re in the community for eight or nine days at a time,” says Dr Taylor. “Whether it’s Mike, me or my husband Bill leading the trip, it’s a big responsibility and takes a lot of organisation.”

Dr Archinal continues: “When we started, it was a bit of a blessing that there was no mobile phone reception because of the remoteness. But in the past few years that’s crept in. There’s no break from the digital world now. The motivation to start our Indigenous Dog Health program was the chance to use skills other than just in general practice. While a lot of vets volunteer their time overseas, I realised there was a pretty big need in Australia.”

“I had a young family and simply couldn’t go away for months at a time,” says Dr Taylor. “I approached Mike about doing some work in remote communities and he was very keen. My husband [Dr Bill Taylor] is a vet at Queanbeyan Veterinary Hospital and he wanted to get involved too.”

Invited to help

Before their first trip, Drs Taylor and Archinal became affiliated with an organisation called Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities (AMRRIC). Its work is founded on a respect for the cultures and traditional ways of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities while recognising the intrinsic role of companion animals in those communities.

Indigenous Dog Health

Before starting their own program, Dr Taylor did some work with AMRRIC and joined a volunteer trip to a remote community. “It was a chance to improve my skill base while learning about the people and the community,” she says.

When the Utopia health clinic approached AMRRIC and asked for help, the two vets finally had an opportunity to go seriously outback. “AMRRIC sent us along with some experienced people to have a look at the situation,” says Dr Taylor. “Mike and I were positive we could help and decided to get more fully involved. We’ve been making trips ever since.”

The community they visited on that first trip had never had a regular veterinary service. They’d had people do bits of work now and then but there was not a consistent structured program in place.

While a lot of vets volunteer their time overseas, I realised there was a pretty big need in Australia.

Dr Michael Archinal, Indigenous Dog Health

“We wanted to provide sustainability and longevity,” says Dr Archinal. “We wanted to be the team that provided continuity of care. For the first few years, Alison and I visited together but now we piggyback each other. In a single year, Alison will take one team and then I’ll take the other team. We’ve been working that way for over 10 years.”

Dog issues

One of the myths is that the dogs in remote communities are unowned and running wild. The truth is that the dogs are all owned, have a name and are well-loved. The vets need to seek permission before desexing a dog and one of the biggest challenges can be finding the owner. 

“The two biggest dog issues in the communities are overpopulation and the prevalence of scabies,” says Dr Taylor. “Those factors lead to dogs being underweight. Once skin diseases and reproductive stress are under control, the condition of the dogs generally improves.”

Dr Archinal adds: “We also need to be very sensitive because the area where we are working backs onto Dog Dreaming country. The role of dogs in the life of the communities is exceedingly important. There are certain cultural barriers that we had to approach with a great deal of sensitivity.”

Working with volunteers

Along with Drs Archinal and Taylor, the backbone of the program is the volunteers who join them. They usually take four or five vets, two nurses and one person who has nothing to do with the veterinary industry. That person looks after all the lifting and shifting—just like a roadie in a band. 

Multiple family members and friends have been part of the program, as well as builders, engineers and army personnel. Staff members from their group of vet practices often join the team which makes their employment all the more interesting. The staff members who volunteer continue to have their salary paid while in the outback.

“Canberra’s not a very big place so word has got around and people from other clinics frequently accompany us,” says Dr Taylor. “We also have a relationship with a group of clinics in Gippsland, Victoria, who want to provide the same opportunity for their staff but don’t want to adopt the whole program.”

Indigenous Dog Health

“Canberra’s not a very big place so word has got around and people from other clinics frequently accompany us,” says Dr Taylor. “We also have a relationship with a group of clinics in Gippsland, Victoria, who want to provide the same opportunity for their staff but don’t want to adopt the whole program.”

It takes about six months to organise each trip and funding is always an issue. The council responsible for the remote communities and their animal management pay some of the costs. Unfortunately, it’s usually a token amount and sometimes zero as they run out of money. Sponsorship from corporate partners has been a real assistance to the program with Mars Petcare and PETstock Assist generously donating to the cause. The two vets also created the Canberra Mob, a group that runs fundraisers for the Indigenous Dog Health program. 

Reaching out 

The team has started expanding their reach and visiting other communities in the region. “We go down to Atitjera, also known as Harts Range, and we service another six or seven communities now,” says Dr Archinal. “We’ve seen that our model is sustainable, which was our main objective, so we’re now mentoring a group of veterinarians through PETstock Assist to visit five more communities in the Papunya and Kintore regions on the Western Australia border.”

We wanted to provide sustainability and longevity. We wanted to be the team that provided continuity of care.

Dr Michael Archinal, Indigenous Dog Health

The results of Drs Archinal and Taylor’s work has been overwhelmingly positive—and not just for the dogs. Due to their mange, worms and parasite treatments, skin lesions in the human population of the communities has been reduced from 87 per cent to just nine per cent. 

“We measure the body condition score and the dog population that once consisted of extremely underweight dogs now presents as dogs in good condition,” says Dr Taylor. “There has also been a reduction in unwell young animals and there’s no longer an overpopulation of dogs—just the number that people want.”

The work of these two vets has not been unrecognised. In 2016, they were nominated as ACT finalists for Australians of the Year. 

They didn’t win but, as Dr Archinal says, “the bloke who did win is a mate of mine with whom I play golf. It makes for some interesting games!”

Expanding the program

With the program running effectively and sustainably, Drs Taylor and Archinal will continue their trips to Utopia, treating dogs, interacting with the community and improving the quality of life for all concerned. They are in it for the long haul.

“There are people who have assisted us on multiple trips—like my husband—who have been able to lead programs,” says Dr Taylor. “That takes the pressure off us and helps make it even more sustainable.”

“If there are any vets or nurses who would like to get involved, we would encourage them to contact AMRRIC in the first instance,” says Dr Archinal. “People come at this with their heart in the right place but it’s hot, dusty, hard work. Everything about it is difficult. It’s also incredibly rewarding and if you’re the right type of person, it can be a satisfying and fulfilling part of your career.”

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