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April 20, 2024

Lennox vet helps animals beyond borders

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Lennox vet Toni Kealy. Photo David Lowe.

Lennox Head-based vet Toni Kealy recently returned from a trip to Vanuatu, where she was volunteering with the international animal charity organisation Vets Beyond Borders. She explained that Vets Beyond Borders works across remote areas of Australia and other countries, particularly in the Pacific Islands and across Asia.

‘What they do overseas is mostly these sorts of programs, where they send a team of vets to areas that have minimal vet services available. This time was Vanuatu, but they also do Fiji and the Cook Islands; Indonesia, India, China.’

Ms Kealy said the volunteer program was run by Tasmanian vet Annie Phelps, with the idea being to provide local communities in need with a vet service, via mobile clinics. ‘We did whatever work needed, mostly desexing programs, but also vaccination and general population health.’

The Australian team from Vets Beyond Borders in Vanuatu. Photo Jordan Stotter.

Vets Beyond Borders also provides training opportunities for local people who want to learn veterinary skills.

‘Yes, one of the major aims is to try to get permanent vet services available in those places,’ she said. ‘So training local people is a big part of it.’

In the past, Toni Kealy was involved with a similar program in Cambodia. ‘That’s now operating as a well-run Hospital in Phnom Penh, with a local guy running it.’

She also remembers working with stray dogs at the local wats [temples]. ‘We had a local lady that’s an animal lover over there. And she helped to set us up.’

As well as providing treatment for dogs and cats, Ms Kealy has worked with much bigger animals overseas, such as at Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai Province, Northern Thailand, established by the famous elephant rights advocate, Saengduean ‘Lek’ Chailert.

She remembers being in Thailand as a volunteer vet shortly after catastrophic floods hit the country, with animals of all shapes and sizes desperately needing veterinary attention. ‘They’ve got a policy where if an animal needs help, they take it in,’ she said.

For her latest volunteer trip to Vanuatu, Toni Kealy was joined by Northern Rivers veterinary nurse Natalie Palmer. ‘We work together at North Coast Emergency Vets and she also works at the Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital.

Vet Toni Kealy with a patient at the Vanuatu clinic. Photo Jordan Stotter.

‘There were two other girls, and they were from Cairns. It’s good if you can get a vet and a nurse that are used to working together, and they also work together as partners.’

So is this what you do on your holidays?

‘It sort of is a holiday!’ she laughed. ‘Every other time I’ve done this, it’s been totally self funded. I pay for my own flights and accommodation and so on.

‘But with this one, Pet Barn Foundation offered to pay for flights. It was only one month’s notice – they were looking for people. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.’

Ms Kealy was away for a week in Vanuatu, and ran the clinic for five days during that time. Her team was based on the island of Santo, north of Port Vila, in a town called Luganville. ‘It was very beautiful, near the beach. There’s reefs and islands off the coast, but there is a lot of poverty too.’

She said French is the main language, as well as the Indigenous language, and a lot of people also spoke English.

Another happy visitor at the Vanuatu vet clinic. Photo Jordan Stotter.

So what drives you to do volunteer work with animals, on top of all your work commitments?

‘I’m a real animal lover, you know, and animal welfare is important for me,’ she said.

‘Whenever I do travel, and I’ve traveled a fair bit, I always find it sad to see the animals in such a poor state of health. I like to be able to go and help them.

‘Also, a lot of these programs that have been running for a fair while now, like in Bali and Thailand and so on, it’s really having a positive impact. I can see that’s happening. And I like to be a part of that. The animals are in better health, and the people have a better relationship with the animals.

‘Because, if you let say, a dog population get out of control, then you’ve got a lot of dogs roaming the streets, they get into fights, it’s more than their owners can really cope with to look after all the puppies and so on, it just gets too much. But if they can have pet dogs without the populations getting out of control, people can feed them and look after them.’

Have you got any more trips planned?

‘I’d like to keep going to Vanuatu,’ said Ms Kealy. ‘This was a pilot project, because we didn’t know how the local community would take to it, whether they wanted to get involved. It turned out to be really positive. Our clinic was full every day – we did as much work as we could fit in.’

Locals and their animals at the Vanuatu clinic. Photo Jordan Stotter.

She said a local vet named Fraser was helping the Vets Beyond Borders team, and is keen to set up an operation in the area, with no veterinary service in Luganville apart from an expensive visiting vet who comes from Port Vila every couple of months.

Ms Kealy said another problem is the lack of veterinary knowledge about what diseases are affecting the local animals in Vanuatu, noting that many of the puppies they desexed were very anaemic, with heavy parasite burdens.

‘Vets Beyond Borders is partnering with Melbourne University, running a study,’ she explained. ‘So we took blood samples from all the dogs and fecal samples, and we’re looking what parasites and diseases are present so that when we run future clinics, we’ll know what to target.’

If the local government allows it, Vets Beyond Borders intends to run more clinics in various locations around Vanuatu. The charity is also active in Australia, including in bushfire and other emergency situations, as well as work in remote communities. ‘They’re a great organisation,’ said Ms Kealy.

She suggests that interested people check out the website to find out more or make donations. Ms Kealy also wanted to highlight the role of program leader Annie Phelps, who was instrumental in organising the volunteers and equipment for the Vanuatu clinic.

Wild Aid

Closer to home, this weekend is the big Wild Aid fundraiser featuring The Cruel Sea, raising funds for the Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital. Toni Kealy is one of the vets who supports the Wildlife Hospital, as well as working at clinics in Lennox Head and Bangalow. Like many, she’s upset that the state government has withdrawn funding.

Vet Toni Kealy in Ballina this week. Photo David Lowe.

‘They do a fantastic job and they see a lot of animals,’ she told The Echo.

‘For the government to turn around and say that they don’t think that it’s value for money to help support the Wildlife Hospital just seems ludicrous to me, because as a local vet, it’s made my job so much easier.

‘Prior to the Wildlife Hospital being around, I’d have to finish my day job and then spend about an hour at the end of the day seeing wildlife, because it was the only time I had available to do it. I don’t have to do that anymore. Now they get proper service, X rays, blood tests, really high quality vet service, and it’s great.

‘It’s expensive to run though, so they’re trying to run on volunteers as much as possible,’ she said. ‘I think the other concern some people might have is that animals end up in the Wildlife Sanctuary, but that’s not the situation.

‘I think there’s only been one case where that’s happened. It’s very much about helping wildlife and returning them to the wild.’

Tickets for Wild Aid are still available here.

You can learn more about Vets Beyond Borders, and support their work, here.

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