Report of the 6th National Conference
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Walter Morgan, Environmental Health Worker and Rae-Jon Bunting, Palm Island Aboriginal Shire Council
“Like everyone else I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Irukandjii People, and their Elders. Our talk today is about the Palm Island Animal Management Team. The team consists of me as supervisor, Rae-Jon as my assistant, and four other workers who do all the hands-on work out in the field. This team started off with no funding; just some left over money from other council projects plus CDEP, and a Queensland health worker who was interested in animal control work.
Our animal control program focuses on all animals kept as pets, because they are the most dangerous with regard to health as they are neglected and not looked after. This leads me to the next part. Since time began, dingoes/dogs were useful to our ancestors for hunting and catching food. His reward for that might have been a piece of bone or meat. Moving forward a few thousand years, the dog is still with us, but the family are flat out feeding themselves, let alone feeding the dog. There are a few who do look after their dogs – who feed and groom them properly, and there are still some good hunting dogs out there that people own. However, the majority of dogs on communities don’t go hunting anymore. Instead, they hunt around the tucker table, and are still living on scraps. They are neglected to the point that they live miserable lives as pets – they are flea-ridden, have worms, scabies and other exotic diseases that are also linked to health problems on communities.
My talk today is on Palm Island. I am talking about my own community, so no-one can get offended. We as EHWs must be compelled to observe and carry out mainstream laws and legislation with regard to animal control and welfare. It is up to us to apply them for the betterment of our people, and it is also up to us to educate and involve the community to make them understand they can’t continue to treat pets badly. Our actual program and presentation covers a lot of what we are going to talk about, such as micro-chipping, registration and how we go about doing our jobs”.
“Thank you for having me here. I was first drawn to Palm Island in 2003, when it was much shamed in the international press about the way the animals were being abused and the way horses were being hurt. I was very fortunate to be invited by friends to come and stay to see what I could do to help. In those days I lived with my friends in a camp that was running the horse carers group. After going to Palm Island a number of times and helping with first aid with the horses, and trying to teach kids better ways of looking after their horses in particular, I came across DPI there on one visit. They saw the work that we were trying to do, and said they didn’t really want to go to Palm Island and do the things that the press was saying, but they had an obligation. They asked me if I could continue my work with the community so they could look after their own problems. Some time after I stopped going there (by the way, DPI just paid my airfare as I am a pensioner), I was picked up by ICB as a volunteer. This is a brilliant organisation. I had a contract between Council and ICB that I work as a Council employee without wages.
When we first started on the animal program there was a direct link between healthy animals that are loved and cared for, and sick animals and community health. In early times on Palm Island there were anywhere between 20 to 25 to 50 dog bites a week that went unreported. Today we might have just one dog bite a month. In the early days there were many reports of scabies through the hospital. The incidence is now very, very low, but there are also very few dogs left on Palm. In the early days there were about 2500 dogs. Now there are around 98% fully-registered, healthy dogs on Palm. To start with, the community didn’t want their dogs touched. Now they ask us to take care of the dogs, and they are very much involved in looking after their own health and welfare by looking after their animals. The community assists in the registration process, and helps keep the dogs as healthy as possible. The horse population has also improved out of sight, together with welfare issues.
This slide show was done eight months ago, and the program had been going long before the slide show was produced. However, when Council decided they were going to do dog registration we started with microchipping, and the concept was to microchip every dog on the island. You might recall that I said there were 2500 dogs on Palm so that process began. I think they had microchipped about 80 dogs at Butler Bay, and in the following weeks animal control had picked up about 20 dogs, and had destroyed them. In the short term we abandoned the microchipping program, and took up the collar and tag registration. We will resume microchipping as soon as the numbers are more practical and it’s financially viable. So that process is really working well and we are resuming microchipping next week. Futuristically, for any dog that is found without a collar or tag (because we can see them at a distance), the animal control fellows will catch those dogs and take them to the pound.
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The community then has five days in which to get them released from the pound, and if they are not collected they are forfeited, then destroyed. It is very funny, but we found that lots of people had lots of dogs but only one dog lived at the house. We would ask them which dogs they wanted registered, and they would hand over the other dogs. The community support has been absolutely wonderful. I am mainly involved with teaching the animal control officers their work, workplace health and safety mechanisms, showing them common-sense basic ways to catch dogs. One of the big things was the RSPCA – they taught the animal control officers how to implant a microchip. It is rather interesting – it is one thing to learn how to microchip a dog, but another thing when you go to the houses and come across dogs that try to take your arm off. The animal control officers now wear armour-like gloves and use catching poles. It is a very big job – it is just not that easy to say ‘we will microchip every dog’. However, all of these processes were learned as we went through the mechanisms, and when we hit hard spots we would go back and talk about ways of overcoming them.
It is working very, very well. We now have 20 or so cats registered, and Council is really looking forward to having a feral cat hunt shortly. The horses are being branded and registered for ownership, and Council has a rather wonderful view of community and other outcomes that are now very much possible because of the improved stage of animal control and animal welfare. They now have no reason to be ashamed of the horses, and no reason to be ashamed of the dogs. Should they have a visitor to Palm, that person won’t end up at the hospital because of damage from a dog that rushed them. One of the things we found difficult was that the Council asked for mechanisms to be put in place to enforce bylaws . Council has had bylaws for 30 years, yet they have never been enforced, nor the community educated that those bylaws were even there.
So all we are doing is what council now wants under the bylaws. One of the problems we found is that kids were riding on the road at night. We now have animal control operating a night patrol to stop kids riding at night. I go to the school and explain that horses don’t have head lights or tail lights, therefore they should stay off the road. The kids seem to understand that message pretty well. However, for the children who just don’t listen and say ‘I am going to do what I want’, the Justice Group steps in, and we have had a number of children go through the Justice Group. The really good news is that none of these kids have reoffended. They have never been out again, and there have been a couple who have gone through kids court who were really bad, and of course we are not privy to know who they are. I know there are about three, but I don’t know the outcomes because they are children. However, Palm Island Council is very happy about how the processes are going.
The equipment and mechanisms for microchipping are really simple. I don’t know if I would say go to microchipping the first time, as you have to be able to be able to identify animals at a distance. However, it is a very good process as an end goal to have all your animals microchipped, because it goes back to ownership. It is a very technical process with needles, scanners and muzzles – it can take three people to do the job with ropes, collars and registration tags, and you will need a vehicle. There’s a lot of infrastructure needed to put this mechanism in place. It may not work for all communities – the simple collar and tag might be more efficient. However, this is where Council wants to go on Palm so we will go there. We just have to work out how to do it for them, but it is working well.
The microchipping program at Butler Bay took so long as the training had been on dead dogs and dogs that had been operated on. Therefore, when it came to the practical task of catching the dogs to do 35-40 houses between 3-4 weeks, for Council it became a very expensive exercise with four men to work between 3-4 weeks to do only 80 dogs. It makes it very, very expensive. There were many problems associated at the eginning of that process. We will certainly resume this and get it done, as it’s become Council policy. With the hard work the animal control workers have to do, we just have to find a way for them to do it safely, and not be injured. Also, one of our bylaws is that there are only two dogs allowed per household and that’s where I am saying we microchipped every dog, then found we had to go back and destroy half of them when the dog owners had to decide how many dogs they wanted. They had to decide what dog they were keeping, and what dog they wanted destroyed. That’s why we actually adjourned the microchipping process, as it got to be too expensive and unrealistic to follow that procedure. When we hit a brick wall, we go back and think about what we can do, what we have got, and how we can get this end result that Council wants”.
“We still have a long way to go before we are where we should be. In the near future, Palm Island is looking to move to tourism, but we need to fix this problem first - we can’t have a busload of tourists going through town with a bunch of leatherbacks on the corner. Thank you“.
For further information
C/o Palm Island, Qld 4816
Ph: 07 4770 1302 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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