Leatherback campdog. Photo courtesy of AMRRIC
Leatherback campdog. Photo courtesy of AMRRIC

In Part One of this series I looked at some of the Findings by NT Coroner Greg Cavanagh’s Inquest into the deaths of Michael Hardy and Robert Roe following attacks by dogs at Aboriginal town camps in Alice Springs in mid-2008.

Coroner Cavanagh considered the respective role of the two local municipal service providers, the Alice Springs Town Council (the ASTC) and Tangentyere Council (Tangentyere), and their various responsibilities in relation to these deaths.

The ASTC is a ‘mainstream’ local government authority that has responsibility for the provision of local government services to the small central Australian town of Alice Springs. Tangentyere is an Aboriginal-owned incorporated body that receives a large number of grants – big and small – to provide social and municipal services to the eighteen town camps scattered around Alice Springs.

In his Findings Coroner Cavanagh noted that the ASTC had direct legislative responsibility, because of the operation of the NT Local Government Act, for animal control and management in its area. He also noted that pursuant to an MoU between the ASTC and that Tangentyere shared some of the ASTC’s responsibility for animal control and management.

One issue I want to consider here is how effectively Tangentyere could have met that responsibility.

On its face it appears that it was not very well-resourced to manage such a complex problem.

Tangentyere received two grants that were used for dog control and management – one a $50,000 wages grant for the position of an Environmental Health Officer, the other to engage a consultant veterinarian, again for a total of $50,000 per annum.

I am also interested the actions of Federal, Territory and local Governments in relation to dog control and how they might better address what is clearly becoming an issue that requires urgent attention – particularly in rural and remote Aboriginal communities in the NT.

Dr Honey Nelson was engaged by Tangentyere to provide veterinary services and advice. She is an experienced vet that has practiced for nearly thirty years, mainly in the eastern states. Dr Nelson moved to Alice Springs in 2007 and started working with Tangentyere in mid-2007 through to late 2009 when she had to relocate to Sydney because of family illness.

I spoke to Dr Nelson following the release of Coroner Cavanagh’s Findings.

She told me that when she first started work in Alice Springs she found herself in an environment where veterinary services were drastically overstretched – the Town Camps had a human population of about 2,500 and a dog population of around 1,500.

Dr Nelson told me that funding for veterinary and dog management services in the town camps was very limited and that Tangentyerre had never had sufficient financial and human resources to be able to acquit its responsibilities, either generally as a supplier of municipal services or within the terms of the MoU between Tangentyerre and the ASTC.

Dr Nelson pointed to the need to establish a broad and inclusive approach to dog management in the town camps of Alice Springs that would take into account the unique characteristics of the canine and human population of each camp, with an initial focus on the removal of troublesome or “cheeky” dogs, followed by the simultaneous desexing of a high proportion of the canine population.

She told me that an early focus on desexing was critically important because:

“As long as you have female dogs breeding at one end of town while you are desexing at the other end – it is like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge – you cannot finish it until you have enough people and services available to actually simultaneously desex 85 per cent of the local population,” she said. “That is the tipping point that you need to reach before you can effectively control population growth.”

Dr Nelson believes that once the breeding capacity of a dog population is stabilised other long-term management approaches can be established. She says that this must include strategies that involve consultation with and the close involvement of local communities, noting that in many parts of the NT dog control strategies had in the past often consisted of a local cop summarily dispatching troublesome dogs with their service sidearms – often to the considerable distress of community members and dog owners.

Dr Nelson also strongly refutes the commonly held view that Aboriginal people living in the town camps of Alice Springs and remote communities do not care for their dogs:

“I’ve yet to meet an Aboriginal person who didn’t say ‘Yes please, do it now’ when I’ve offered to sterilise or check their dogs”, Dr Nelson said “Everyone I’ve met wants their dog sterilized, their dog’s mange fixed. It is a myth that people don’t care – they don’t want to have sick or cheeky dogs around them. Whenever I’ve seen the services available people flock to them.”

I also spoke with Julia Hardaker of the non-government organisation Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities (AMMRIC).

AMRRIC is an independent group of veterinarians, academics, health professionals and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that works to improve the health and well-being of companion animals and improve the overall health of remote Indigenous communities, initially in the Top End of the NT but is now expanding its activities across the country.

Hardaker was supportive of the strong call by Coroner Cavanagh that FaHCSIA, Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin’s department, continue its recent increased funding for a comprehensive dog management and control program in Alice Springs and its more active involvement in dog management policy and activities in indigenous communities across the country.

Speaking of dog management and control issues more generally she told me that in the NT:

“…we are about twenty or thirty years behind accepted best practice and policy as it is implemented elsewhere in the country. In Queensland and Western Australia most Aboriginal communities have trained – and properly resourced – Aboriginal environmental health workers and animal management officers running holistic programs that include dog management and control.

“We just cannot continue to have events like these deaths in Alice Springs and in Maningrida [a central Arnhem Land community where a man was mauled by a pack of dogs in late 2009].

“Council’s in the NT have never been properly resourced to deal with these issues. Dog fights and attacks are happening in communities and towns all over the NT far too frequently. We need to see some real commitment across the board from all Federal and Territory departments and agencies.”

Hardaker is right to note the breadth of the dog control and management issues in the NT and the need for some strong and effective legislative and policy guidance – and the need for governments at all levels to make a substantial contribution.

Most States in Australia have seen fit to lump legislative and policy provisions for dog management control under a single Act, with responsibility for the administration of that Act resting with a single department or agency.

But in the NT, as our politicians keep reminding us, we do things differently. Just how well we do that in relation to feral dog management and control is very much an open question.

The NT did once have specific legislation relating to dog management and control.

The Dog Act was introduced the year after the NT was granted self-governing status in 1978.

On 20 September 1979 the then Minister for Community Development, Nick Dondas told the NT Legislative Assembly during the Second Reading of the Dog Bill that:

“I believe that all members of this Assembly will agree that there is a dog problem in the Northern Territory. It is a growing problem associated with an increasing dog population and an increasing number of uncontrolled dogs. The government introduces this bill as one step towards a solution of this intractable problem.”

Minister Dondas recognized the scope and geographic spread of the dog control problem:

“The dog problem is not confined to the larger urban communities although it is probable that, in these areas, the manifestations are most obvious. Many of the smaller communities in the Northern Territory are similarly affected and, consequently, the legislation must be broad enough to give the means for controlling dogs in those communities.”

Shire and community government councils were given substantial responsibility for dog control and management through the development and implementation of local By-Laws – but Councils were given a discretion whether to develop those By-Laws or not.

The Dog Act commenced in March 1980 and remained in effect until it was repealed by the Dog Act Repeal Act in 1991, which was introduced in late 1990.

Following the repeal of the Dog Act provisions relating to dog management and control in the NT have been scattered through a raft of  individual pieces of legislation.

General animal welfare issues are covered by the Animal Welfare Act, dog diseases are dealt with in the Exotic Diseases (Animals) Compensation Act, feral animal control is governed by the Pastoral Land Act, the dishlickers are controlled by the greyhound racing provisions of the Racing and Betting Act, the control of dogs – domestic and dangerous – is controlled by the Summary Offences Act and the Local Government Act provides general responsibility for animal management to local councils.

A literal dogs breakfast…

While, as AMRRIC’s Julia Hardaker notes, that some Federal government agencies are taking some belated interest in and positive steps towards providing realistic funding and support for dog management programs in the Aboriginal town camps of Alice Springs and providing assistance and support for agencies like AMRRIC to develop appropriate benchmarking of service delivery, it may not be enough to address what is a continuing, complex and challenging issue.

The NT government has left effective dog management and control policy and legislative leadership to the local government authorities, and, as is apparent from Coroner Cavanagh’s Findings, they can have great difficulty in meeting their responsibilities – even in a relatively well-resourced local government area like Alice Springs.

And as I noted in part One of this series, some local Councils, particularly the Litchfield Shire Council in Darwin’s rural hinterland, just cannot even get to first base and develop a consensus about what their local dog management and control By-laws should contain, let alone take much in the way of effective action to address the serious management issues n their area:

… the NT News [reported] that dog control officers of the Litchfield Shire Council on Darwin’s rural fringe reported at least 37 “dog incidents” in the two months of February and March this year.

What is increasingly apparent to many that work in or are closely involved in this area is that there is an urgent need for  NT, Federal and local governments to show some policy and legislative leadership on dog management and control and to commit real human and financial resources to addressing this problem.

Not too many people out here will be holding their breath waiting for that leadership to be shown.

Listening to AMRRIC and others that are leading the way in this most difficult challenge might be a good start.