Someone suggested that we could call this fine specimen of a leatherback camp dog “Jenny” as a tribute to the abject failures of the Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin’s NT Intervention to do very-much-at-all-really about the parlous state of health of too many of the dogs that live in the 73 communities subject to that most flawed of recent attempts at social engineering on the grandest of scales.

But I thought it better that we give her a name that was more suited to her undoubted charm and character – so for present purposes we’ll call her “Fluffy”.

Fluffy is the best example of a leatherback camp dog that I came across during the last week or so of travelling through some remote corners of the NT.

In many of these communities the Federal government appointed “Australian Government Business Managers”, (AGBM’s) whose job it is to represent the interests of the Commonwealth there.

AGBMs live in demountable buildings or converted shipping containers in secure compounds behind tall barbed-wire fences. It is safe to say that the pay and conditions of the AGBM make the AGBM the most well-paid person in town – for an idea of their terms and conditions see this flyer from FaHCSIA.

How effective – from the perspective of local communities – those AGBM’s have been is a very open question. But it is undisputed that, like many of the measures implemented under the NT Intervention, AGBMs represent a clumsy and expensive attempt at delivering improved services to the 73 remote townships in the NT that they have effectively controlled for the last two years.

And, as one community member told me this week while we were watching Fluffy gobble a lump of meat I’d given her, if either of the NT or Federal governments allocated a mere fraction of the money they’ve wasted on the NT Intervention to looking after the health and welfare of the dogs in those communities then the Intervention might be seen as being more effective and would be more readily accepted by Aboriginal people here.

As it is now, there is no systematic approach to the health and welfare of dogs in remote townships by either the NT or Federal governments. But it is not all bad news – a number of dog health programs are supported on an ad-hoc basis and there is at least one non-government organisation that has done some great work to both raise the profile of dog health ad welfare as an issue for governments and to inform  Aboriginal people of the real benefits that can come from careful and well-planned programs of dog welfare and control.


In the past dog control in remote townships has been conducted by two main measures – either “do nothing” or to conduct unilateral control measures with minimal community engagement.

The do nothing approach is sadly typical of the approach of governments to domestic animal control generally. For many remote councils and the NT and Federal governments it has been seen as just too hard to establish and build lasting relationships with Aboriginal people to work out fair and equitable systems of animal control and welfare. Local councils were generally overwhelmed by gross under-funding, lack of administrative capacity and appreciation of alternatives. Territory and State governments appear never to have quite come to grasp the seriousness of the situation.

Too often the alternative to doing nothing was the apparently easier but far less effective option based on a unilateral decision by a local (usually white) town clerk or administrator that there were “just too many bloody dogs around town” and arranging for someone, often the local policeman, to round up the arbitrarily-selected “excess” dogs and shoot them – sometimes out of town – often in front of their owners. Sometimes the more humane, but no less traumatic for the owners of the dogs, alternative was to arrange for a vet to come out and do a mass cull.

Slowly – too slowly for many – more enlightened approaches to remote community dog management are emerging. In my home town of Yuendumu the local Warlukurlangu Artists arts centre has for several years been supporting and funding a dog welfare program.

You can see some photos of healthy Yuendumu dogs and their close involvement with Warlukurlangu’s artists at the art centre’s website here.

Warlukurlangu describes dog program as:

After several years of running an ‘unoffical’ dog program, the Art Centre Committee agreed to formalise the art centre’s commitment to improving the health of the many dogs in Yuendumu.

The management of the art centre strongly believes that ‘healthy dogs mean healthy people’. As part of this program the art centre feeds dogs, de-ticks and cares for sick and abandoned dogs as well as providing daily advice to community members on how to better take care of dogs. WAAA also helps to fund vets to come to the community and sterilise dogs and treat them for various diseases.

In November 2007 and January 2008 the art centre together with Yuendumu Council organised for the Veterinary Doctor Honey Nelson to spend several weeks in the community putting down unwanted dogs and inserting birth control implants on as many male dogs as she could.

Warlukurlangu has received some assistance from the local Council and has also recently received limited funding from FaHCSIA through the local AGBM.

Another example of a more enlightened approach to the management of dog health and welfare in remote townships is AMRRIC (Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities), an organisation that:

…is an independent group of Veterinarians, academics, health workers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We facilitate sustainable dog programmes in remote Indigenous communities to improve the health and wellbeing of the entire community.

AMRRIC receives some funding from FaHCSIA and some other government agencies and is gradually expanding its reach and programs. One important part of its work is to provide relevant and culturally appropriate training material for veterinarians.

Most recently AMRRIC has developed the first-ever manual for Veterinarians and communities undertaking dog health programs in remote Indigenous communities. Conducting Dog Health Programs in Indigenous Communities: A Veterinary Guide has been produced by Dr Samantha Phelan, a Northern Territory-based veterinarian with significant field experience in remote Indigenous communities.

AMRRIC has also recently received funding from the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy to produce a DVD based on Samantha Phelan’s Veterinary Guide.

AMRRIC Board member Dr Samantha Phelan wrote this guide for Environmental health Practitioners (EHP’s) nationally. This key resource is a reference guide for people wanting to make dogs healthier in their own communities or in communities they work in. It was written for the wide range of people who take part in Environmental Health Programs in communities, such as Indigenous Environmental Health Workers (EHW), Environmental Health Officers (EHO), Area Health Services and Health Boards, Departments of Local Government (DLG), State Government Environmental Health Units and Indigenous Land Councils, to name a few. ‘The book is written to help each of those people to do a better job’.

The AAWS Funded DVD will be a project that involves a number of key players. First of all the background will be Samantha’s AMRRIC manual information and some of its illustrations will be animated. There will be film footage taken by the Media Students from Batchelor Institute for Indigenous Studies. Our actors will be Indigenous Students from Batchelor who formed the focus groups for the development of the Manual. This education DVD will enable EHP’s to educate schools, individuals, communities and groups on issues such as Stopping Skin Sores, Stopping Ticks and fleas, the benefits of desexing dogs, Stopping dog bites and what to tell children for staying safe, Stopping Worms in dogs and stopping them getting into people and Stopping dogs getting diarrhoea and spreading germs to people. It is anticipated that the project will be completed by the end of August.

AMRRIC deserves more support from governments and the public – Fluffy looks like an absolute wreck that most people would not hesitate to put down immediately – but, as I’ve seen from personal experience – it is relatively easy to save dogs like Fluffy and restore them to the good health they deserve. All it takes is food, some treatment for mange and ticks and some loving attention.