28 puppies!! Picture: Gloria Morales
28 puppies!! Picture: Gloria Morales

This is our bathroom floor few months ago…thankfully (?) I was away working at the time. I’m told there were 28 puppies in the house at the time – on top of our usual extended canine family. It is a sort of Where’s Wally” exercise but I can count 21 just in this photo…a few others must have wandered out of shot.

For a few years now we have taken puppies from litters (recovered/relocated?) around Yuendumu and taken them to the RSPCA in Alice Springs. There most of them, unfortunately, have been put down.

Estimates of how many have ended up at the RSPCA over the past few years are somewhere north of 300. I can’t take much of the credit for this – I just drive the car, put up with their crying and feed and clean up after them – usually we only keep puppies for a few days, and lately, largely because of an active breeding control program, the number of new litters around Yuendumu has dropped substantially.

Many of the problems with dogs and their people in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and elsewhere arise from conflicts between the traditional relationship between humans and dogs that stretches back long before the arrival of European invaders in 1988.

Alice Springs Veterinarian, Dr. Honey Nelson, has been working with Aboriginal people in many parts of the Northern Territory and summarised the relationships between Aboriginal people and their dogs in her 2007 Report to the Commonwealth and NT governments “Dog and Family Health in Remote Aboriginal Communities. A Critical Welfare issue for Animals and Aboriginal families”, the subtitle of which is telling – A Plague of Beautiful Dogs.

Dr. Nelson says, in part, that:

  • Aboriginal people have an ancestral love and duty-of-care for dogs, which they still carry out today.
  • The native Dingo is self-sufficient for food, breeds once-yearly, and limits its own population.
  • The European Camp Dog quickly displaced the Dingo as an Aboriginal companion, and is dependent, needful and breeds large litters twice yearly, without self-limitation.
  • Remote Aboriginal communities are overwhelmed by Dogs in plague proportion, with no (or rare) access to veterinary care, or assistance with humane population control.
  • These Dogs suffer from endemic debilitating diseases, such as mange, ticks, fleas, worms, constant fight injuries, and roafd trauma – without any available treatments, pain relief or euthanasia.
  • There are demonstrable serious adverse effects on family health and hygiene, related to dog faeces and parasitism’s, including transmissible diseases such as scabies, ringworm, fleas, hydatids, ticks, risk of roundworm retinitis, and opportunistic bacterial infections which can cause or exacerbate not only skin sores by systemic infections such as kidney, liver and heart valve disease.
  • Dog control in some communities consists of a mass round-up and shooting of dogs, often publicly.

And there is much more. When I have an electronic copy of Dr Nelson’s paper I will link it to this post.

Here at Yuendumu the dogs are almost universally healthy – most dogs have had some form of fertility control and have receive the quick and simple treatment (usually using the cattle tickicide Ivomec) to remove the high loads of ticks and other external and internal parasites that many dogs are carrying. And the visible side of dog health is something that is easily taken for granted in a community where these simple and relatively inexpensive measures have been implemented – go to a township where there is no similar dog health and control program and the difference can be shocking.

There is much that needs to be done here – Aboriginal people have an undoubted love for, but often a diminished capacity to care for – largely because of lack of access to appropriate, if any, veterinary services – for the domestic animals they share their living spaces with. Through the good work of individuals Dr Nelson and many in the Yuendumu community much has been done to control many of the problems that dogs cause here.

But there is still no ongoing funding or certainty that the necessary work will be supported and agencies like the newly formed Central Desert Shire, the NT and Federal Governments and the local Australian Government Business Manager have a unique opportunity to implement real and effective dog control – even as a trial program.

And there is an increasing interest in addressing these issues in many centres in the NT – last month AMRRIC – Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities held a conference looking at these issues – for more information go to the AMRRIC site.

Got a view about this post or about dogs in Aboriginal townships? – got a camp dog?

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