AMRRIC (Animal Management in Rural & Remote Indigenous Communities) is an independent group of Veterinarians, academics, health workers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that facilitates sustainable dog programs in remote Indigenous communities across northern Australia to improve the health and well-being of the entire community.

Jan Allen - AMRRIC Program manager
Jan Allen - AMRRIC Program manager

I caught up with Dr. Jan Allen, Programs Manager of AMRRIC, just after she’d driven a dusty 300 kilometres from Yuendumu back to Alice Springs.

Jan had been at Yuendumu for a very intensive week’s with Darwin-based vet Stephen Cutter (subject of a previous post here), a bunch of volunteers and Dr Kim Benning (Veterinarian and the Animal Management Officer from the Central Desert Shire).

Vets and the AMRRIC crew, Yuendumu December 2009
Vets and the AMRRIC crew. Yuendumu, December 2009

The Northern Myth: You are the Programs Manager at AMRRIC. You’ve just been out to Yuendumu for a week and you travel around a lot of communities. AMRRIC is a pretty bold venture in many ways isn’t it?

Jan Allen: Yes, I suppose it is. We are trying to set some sort of an example. AMRRIC was derived from a group of concerned vets sometime around 2004 that were interested in – and keen and passionate about – getting effective dog management and care programs going in Aboriginal communities that are sustainable and owner-driven. And AMRRIC is always guided by what the local people want.

From that these vets and other supporters have developed AMRRIC.

AMRRIC  is covering a wider field now in that we are trying to help out with not only facilitating vets into communities but also to help the local Shires in the NT with animal control policy and legislation, trying to increase awareness at the Federal government level of the problems with animal management nationally and we are also trying to increase education of the community  – of the people and the kids at school on each community – on how to treat their dogs. How to be kind to them and treat them rather than as pests but as pets.

Increasing people’s pride in their animals is important. And once the dogs are looking good there is more pride in that particular dog. Not in having a whole mass of dogs but in having one or two good healthy dogs.

We’ve just been looking at a DVD that one of our vets has made of the dogs at and their owners at Ngukurr (a small Aboriginal community on the Roper River 800 kilometres south-east of Darwin) and she was talking to people there about what they find is valuable in their dogs.

It is such a lovely thing. people value their dogs for all manner of reasons – for hunting, for companionship, for child-minding – all of those values.

Caring for a vet patient...

TNM:  So a whole lot of values that we in urban society would not think of as relevant to dog ownership? For many people in the suburbs there is a real duty – sometimes onerous –in having a dog. There is real work involved – you have to walk them etc etc. But you are saying that for many Aboriginal people those relationships are different, not just cultural but “…this is how we live with our dogs

JA: Yes, it is not just a spiritual value – the dog may have value as a hunting animal – this dog may be a good goanna dog, or a good pig dog…

TNM: So people value their dogs for a range of different reasons?

JA: Particularly the older people, especially the women. They often have quite a lot of dogs – they are real companions for them.

TNM: What will happen with AMRRIC over the next twelve months – will you continue to roll out programs across the NT and beyond?

JA: Well, it all depends on the government. We’ve been struggling along for the past couple of years with a little bit of funding from FaHCSIA (Federal Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs) and a philanthropic organisation and I think that finally we are starting to be heard and that governments and agencies are realizing that there are problems in animal management and that animal management is underfunded.

A big feature of addressing animal management problems is the lack of local environmental health workers on the ground. Having local indigenous people doing the work on the ground is, from our point of view, essential. There are just not enough of local people in those jobs. For example in Queensland they are really overloaded, they have to look after waste-water & rubbish and things like that. Dogs are at the bottom of the list. And in the Northern Territory we have just two indigenous environmental health workers across all the Councils and Shires. We really need them in every community.

I think the key thing is education. Working on the people caring for their dogs, having an empathy for their dogs. If you throw a stone at a dog, then it is going to hurt the dog as it would hurt you. Education is the bottom line.

And at Yuendumu Gloria Morales and the staff at Warlukurlangu Artists have done a lot work in changing local attitudes towards the health of dogs at Yuendumu. There has been a huge change in attitude to people and their dogs at Yuendumu over the past few years.

Dogs taking people for a walk...
Dogs taking people for a walk at Yuendumu...

JA: We had a great time out at Yuendumu – we went for a walk with Gloria Morale’s dogs to that wonderful place known as the amphitheatre – where that photo of Sole was taken that you put in a previous blog posting. It was just so special to take – no to be taken – for a walk by so many dogs…

At the Amphitheatre
At the Amphitheatre