I first ran into Stephen Cutter at Maningrida – or maybe it was Elcho Island – about ten years ago not long after he started his veterinary outreach services into Aboriginal communities across the Top End of the Northern Territory. At that time veterinary services in remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and much of the north of Australia,  were virtually non-existent.

In recent years, through the work of a small group of dedicated vets, vet nurses and a small network of concerned locals this situation has improved but for the majority of small communities in northern and central Australia veterinary services are expensive and largely inaccessible due to the tyrannies of distance, poverty and unfamiliarity.

Recently Stephen was at Yuendumu in central Australia with a crew from the Darwin-based animal welfare group AMRRIC (Animal Management in Rural & Remote Indigenous Communities) and the Animal management officer from the local government authority, the Central Desert Shire.

I caught up with Stephen in Alice Springs just before he flew back to Darwin.

Most of the photo’s shown below were taken by Jan Allen, Program Manager at AMRRIC.

The Northern Myth: How long have you been living in the Northern Territory?

Stephen Cutter: I grew up in Alice Springs. Now I’m based in Darwin and run a veterinary clinic called The Ark Animal Hospital.

Red-tailed Black Cockatoo - and Stephen
A Red-tailed Black Cockatoo - and Stephen. Photo: The Ark Vet

TNM: You’ve been involved in providing veterinary services to Aboriginal communities across the Top End for a few years now.

SC: Yes, primarily across the East Arnhem region and the Tiwi Islands. There have been a lot of highlights during that time, but it is hard to pick any particular one as a standout.

TNM: In that time have you developed some insights into the relationships that Aboriginal people have with their dogs?

SC: Yes, absolutely. The overall impression I have is that the more I find out about Aboriginal people’s relationships with their dogs the more I think they are normal relationships. Initially it can look quite different but primarily their relationship is very much like my relationship with my dogs.

Tianna Ross with Magpie, Fianca Penhall with Smokey & Lukey Penhall with Andy Capp, Yuendumu, December 2009
Tianna Ross with Magpie, Fianca Penhall with Smokey & Lukey Penhall with Andy Capp, Yuendumu, December 2009

TNM: Do you think that there are some misunderstandings in the broader community about the relationships Aboriginal people have with their dogs?

SC: Yes, it is certainly apparent that most people aren’t able to count dog numbers accurately! (laughs) There are a lot of dogs in the NT compared to other jurisdictions. And it is important to note that there are more dogs per person in the suburbs of Palmerston & Darwin than there is in most Aboriginal communities.

Like many other aspects of life in Aboriginal communities the dogs there are far more visible in Aboriginal communities where there are few fences and the dogs can all be seen in public, whereas in the suburbs of Palmerston and Darwin the dogs are all behind fences and locked inside houses and you just don’t see them.

TNM: Is it true to say that a lot of the work that vets do in Aboriginal communities has to do with population and breeding control and trying to effect some changes in the overall structure of dog populations?

On the castration table - from top - Scrawny Shawn, Unknown, Bluey & Shorty
On the castration table - from top - Scrawny Shawn, Unknown, Bluey & Shorty - Yuendumu, December 2009

SC: Yes, basically un-desexed male dogs are painful and they cause a lot of trouble. As a general rule the male dogs are the trouble, and the female dogs are the controllers of the actual population numbers. So if you take out the males you’ll reduce a lot of the nuisance, the dominance-aggression, the fighting between dogs and the fighting over females.

17 - yes 17, count 'em! - dog foetus' in utero
17 - yes 17, count 'em! - puppies in utero. Yuendumu

TNM: One other thing I’ve observed over time are changes in the size structure of dog populations. In some communities people have medium-sized dogs, in others there are lots of big kangaroo-type hunting dogs or little handbag-type dogs like Chihuahuas.

SC: In part that reflects the history of each community. Originally all communities had dingoes, which were medium-sized dogs. After that it depends on what other breeds have been introduced over time. A lot of the first dogs that came through into the NT were greyhounds and they made good kangaroo dogs. Another example is from Elcho Island where the Rev. Harold Shepherdson, the missionary who founded the settlements on Elcho Island, kept Corgies and they were introduced into the dog population.  So there are a lot of short-legged dogs on Elcho Island.

In many communities there are now two competing selection processes.   Many people want small dogs because they can carry them and they are easier to  love and they can have a different relationship with a smaller dog. There is also a difference between the Top End of the NT where a lot of people have pig-dogs for pig hunting etc. Overall the dog population is almost splitting in two different directions.

TNM: From my time at Yuendumu I’ve noticed that there appear to be the same sort of preferences. Some families’ only want small dogs and might want one or two big dogs to protect the smaller dogs.

SC: There is an emerging trend of a strong preference for smaller dogs, particularly with women. I was on the Tiwi Islands north of Darwin a while ago and I asked an older lady how many dogs she had. She told me that she had two, but she actually had eight.  Two were big, normal-sized dogs. The other six were Chihuahua’s, but to her they weren’t dogs, they were family. (laughs)

TNM: Do you have any observations about your long-term work on Elcho Island after working there for ten years or more? Particularly compared to going a new community where you don’t have those long-term relationships with people and their dogs?

SC: Yes, It is definitely easier to work in a community where you have a history of service and consultation. Again it depends on the history of the community and what else has been going on. Going to a community where you have been before, basically you get there and you are straight into your work . Whereas in other community’s you’ve got to explain who you are and what you might want to do and all that. But I have noticed some real improvements.

Jan Allem (AMRRIC) and Stephen Cutter in the "surgery" at Yuendumu
Jan Allen (AMRRIC) and Stephen Cutter in the "surgery" at Yuendumu

TNM: Do you still find people that are so unfamiliar with the role of a vet they might see your work as being very intrusive and that requires a lot of work to get around those views?

SC: Yes, when I first started going to communities many people had no idea what my role was and you’d say “I can fix that dog with no hair – I can give him medicine and make his hair grow back” and people would say “No, he was born that way”, because they had no concept that it was abnormal for a dog to have lost all of it’s fur from mange or some other disease. Now most people have some idea – even if it is misinformed. Trust is still the biggest issue – there are still some very bad experiences going on out there.

TNM: For many people – particularly people down south – they would really balk at the notion that we should have some sort of sympathy for Aboriginal people and how they manage their pets and not being familiar with breeding control and zoonoses etc. In the NT it is really quite different – apart from occasional and often very ad-hoc services – for a very long time there have been no vet services at all for Aboriginal communities.

SC: Yes, and it is all about choices. In a lot places there just isn’t any access to a vet.  A good example is Elcho Island. The nearest vet – if you need a vet you would have to charter a light plane to put your dog on it and that would cost you maybe two thousand dollars to send your dog into Darwin. And that is before you got the vet’s bill! Much of the work that groups like AMRRIC are trying to do is about giving people on remote communities an option.

Here in the Centre there is a vet in Alice Springs, but the next nearest vet is in Katherine, twelve hundred kilometers away to the north. A vet does provide occasional services to Tennant Creek, but essentially it is twelve hundred kilometers between vets. And a lot of communities are on islands…or only accessible during the dry season.

For the vast majority of Aboriginal communities in the NT it is basically impossible to achieve anything like the access to what we might expect of access to vet services in suburbs down south. So if the dog population in a community is out of control need a concerted effort on a community level to get it under control. Only then can people start to take control.

TNM: You have just been out to Yuendumu – an Aboriginal community on the fringes of the Tanami Desert 300 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs – you’ve not been there before?

SC: Not since I was very young.

Vet and patient at Warlukurlangu Artists
Carer and patient at Warlukurlangu Artists, Yuendumu

TNM: Gloria Morales – the assistant manager of the Warlukurlangu Artists centre at Yuendumu – and the committee there, have made a pretty concerted effort over the last five or six years in terms of dog health control and breeding control. The Alice Springs-based vet Honey Nelson has done a fair bit of work on population control in particular.

SC: I was pleasantly surprised. Having somebody like Gloria in a community who has provided ongoing support and assistance has made a real difference. The efforts by Gloria and the other staff at Warlukurlangu Artists have made a really big difference.

The dogs at Yuendumu are on the whole very good, quite friendly and quite healthy.

Fianca penhall and nathan Ross with a vet patient at Yuendumu
Fianca Penhall and Nathan Ross with a vet patient at Yuendumu

TNM: For a long time no-one has had a firm grasp of the size and nature of the so-called “dog problem” in remote communities.  In the past – and maybe still – one dog control option that I’ve seen in all sorts of different places was for someone, often a white administrator or policeman, to unilaterally decide that “There are too many dogs here – we have to do something about” it and problem dogs are just taken out and shot by the cops.

SC: It is very complex and there are a whole lot of issues here. The motivation might be good, people might say “Look, there are lots of dogs, they are causing problems – let’s see if we can find a way”. But the approaches that have been taken in many places have caused all sorts of trouble.

I grew up in the Centre and I can distinctly remember seeing dogs shot in front of me as a kid. That is traumatic in anybody’s book. There are better ways and again it is all about giving people choices and information and a say in the process.

BG: How did you go at Yuendumu last week?

SC – We de-sexed ninety-one dogs. About half males, half females. It should be a significant dent in the population I think and it is permanent. We’ll be going back again with the Central Desert Shire early in the new year and then about every six months or so. It is an on-going and sustainable program.

Mass de-sexing - from top - Norman, unknown, Wombat, Sophie, Shorty, Scrawny Shawn, Bluey, Unknown
Mass de-sexing - from top - Norman, Unknown, Wombat, Sophie, Shorty, Scrawny Shawn, Bluey, Unknown - Yuendumu 2009

BG –Yuendumu is really an exceptional circumstance isn’t it?

SC – Yes, Yuendumu is very unusual in having someone on the ground, and a local agency like Warlukurlangu Artists, that is committed to working with local dogs and their owners.

And I am really encouraged that cross the NT there is an increasing number of communities that do have similar arrangements. Elcho Island is another one  that has a good setup of people offering a similar service.

BG – Is that part of the answer for the future – to have that local liaison and facility on the ground? To have at least one contact person and some infrastructure – maybe a mini-pound or something like that?

SC – Yes, I think that in the long run that might be one way to go. The Central Desert Shire already has an animal management officer and they are moving into that and having a committed focus on dog control measures in each community that they service. An on-going animal management plan can be put in place, all the sorts of things that happen in other towns I think are really important to have in remote communities.

If dogs keep breeding uncontrollably and people keep getting dogs I think that you’ve just got to keep working on it and keep going because it is really easy to have one big burst of activity and everybody is happy for a while, everything is really good for six months.

But it is like cutting the grass – you’ve just got to keep going.

And doing it sustainably and rationally and doing it with the local people is the most important thing.

The AMRRIC gang on the Tanami Road
The AMRRIC gang on the Tanami Road

Consultation and local ownership is very important. You have to make sure that you have the people working with you.