The path of a polymath: Lloyd Reeve-Johnson

 

Lloyd Reeve-JohnsonMany Australians have read about veterinarian Lloyd Reeve-Johnson in his capacity as a live export investigator, particularly when his journey to Mauritius to examine flaws in regulation of the trade gained national media coverage.

During the trip he noted pregnant cattle, misleading paperwork, unaccounted calf euthanasia and a general failure to implement OIE recommendations.

However his interest in the live animal trade is a relatively small part of an impressively polymathic career which encompasses areas such as drug development, education and even a novel.

The 43-year-old grew up internationally, spending his childhood in remote rural Zimbabwe and feeling the influence of the generations of farming in his family.

More drawn to animals than crops, he rode horses from the age of three and looked forward to one day owning the family cattle ranch.

“Becoming a veterinarian seemed the logical way to add value to the animal management and breeding aspects of the ranch,” Reeve-Johnson said.

And so after attending the historic Rugby School in Warwickshire, UK, he moved on to a veterinary degree at Edinburgh University.

Reeve-Johnson worked as a country vet in the South of Scotland/North of England for a pleasant couple of years (“in a clinic very akin to that described in the James Herriot novels”), before being hired by a multinational, an experience which brought him to 60 countries over an eight year period.

“I was able to use my foreign languages on a weekly basis, work in some fascinating cultures across emerging Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and Asia at a time of a lot of change and growth,” he said.

Reeve-Johnson assisted in the development of some new treatments such as the macrolide antibiotic Tilmicosin, which is sold in 120 countries.

He was also involved in the development of ionophores, hormones as well as number of companion animal products, including some which were used to assist human drug development.

The experience in the corporate world helped Reeve-Johnson acquire the necessary nous to establish the PetDoctors UK clinic chain in 2002 with two other vets and a banker.

PetDoctors grew from a couple of branches with a dozen staff to 28 multi-vet clinics, a major tertiary referral site and a large diagnostic laboratory (Greendale Diagnostics) within a few years.

Expansion enabled Reeve-Johnson and his team to release some of their own branded products and conduct ethical research in to new treatments.

In 2005 Reeve-Johnson moved to Australian and was appointed Head of Veterinary School at the University of Queensland, spending an “interesting couple of years” of reform.

“The highlight was a tenure as a Chair of the Australasian Veterinary Deans’ Committee,” he said.

However, the politics of the UQ job would eventually grate.

“There was a presumption the school would miraculously become world class without painful decisions,” he said.

Despite the difficulties, there were certainly some colleagues who appreciated his style, including Cathy McGowan.

“Progress was being made for the benefit of all in the School and decisions were open and transparent,” she said.

Paul Mills also praised Reeve-Johnson’s openness and ability to listen to different opinions.

The pedagogical aspects of the position, however, remained elusive.

“It seems to me the focus at veterinary schools is so heavily on generating funding via research activities that teaching is routinely a poor second priority,” Reeve-Johnson said.

“Having said that, I met some great people and had some great experiences such as being Chief external examiner for the Malaysian veterinary school (and) collaborating on exchanges with Japanese scientists.”

Another highlight was hosting a research fellow who was head of a Chinese veterinary school, acquainting Reeve-Johnson with some interesting Chinese herbal remedies.

After leaving the job to start Pacific Animal Consulting & Agribusiness, Reeve-Johnson managed a vaccination program as part of Queensland’s response to the equine influenza background, eradicating a disease which has become endemic in the USA and Europe.

Zali Brooks worked for Reeve-Johnson as a part of the response, and described him as a fantastic mentor.

“It had a very big impact on my life and as a result I am now revisiting ideas with a keener vision,” she said.

Though he acknowledges larger action groups can bring more attention than individuals to problem areas in the industry, Reeve-Johnson is wary of compromising his values by acquiescing with the policy of an organisation.

In this capacity Reeve-Johnson has been a valued independent voice various debates including the one over live export debate, where he lobbies for transparency above all.

“Something that has been detrimental to issues surrounding live animal trade is that viewpoints seem to be polar opposites; I think it is important to engage and consider the perspectives of stakeholders on all sides in forming an opinion,” he said.

Reeve-Johnson believes government agencies and live exporters alike are concerned with public opinion and what will become of the trade if it is exposed to greater scrutiny.

“The context is that there are always radicals who attempt to hijack a debate, however the more you try to hide things, the more credibility is given to radical opinions,” he said.

He believes the ongoing “cover-ups and failures to admit malpractice” will continue if corners can still be cut with little reprimand.

“The Live Export program of DAFF was there to oversee this predictable outcome and repeatedly failed to do this adequately with disastrous consequence to animals as well as to farmers and others who are punished in the backlash from the public and consumers,” he said.

The scant evidence of public accountability by the AQIS live exports program continues to rankle, as have the unsuccessful calls for an independent body to oversee the trade and reassure the public.

Reeve-Johnson takes issue with the fact veterinarians are chosen and paid by live exporters while also working as Australian Accredited Veterinarians for the federal government because it casts doubt on the integrity of vets in the those roles.

“It is somewhat analogous to being allowed to choose and pay your own government tax inspector, then if you don’t like his findings being able fire him,” he said.

Among it all, somehow Reeve-Johnson has managed to work on sustainable food provision and preventative health measures in low income countries as well as the challenging area of post-disaster and post-conflict response.

He is also an adjunct professor at the Queensland University of Technology.

“I love keeping current with a diverse range of clinical practice and research experiences around the world and retain membership of a number of international veterinary associations,” he said.

Reeve-Johnson has also released his first novel, Spindrift – Swept From Zimbabwe, which deals with war and land dispossessions.

“It is a story of resilience, compassion, humanity and at times inhumanity as people resort to different techniques, some good, some reprehensible, to survive,” he said.

Writing commenced while sitting on sheep ships during live export voyages where there is “quite a bit of downtime.”

“You can’t go anywhere or go and get a coffee, so I thought I’d record a bit of history for my kids, and it went from there,” Reeve-Johnson said.

The book is presented as a novel but relies heavily real events; a combination Reeve-Johnson hopes to try again.

“It occurred to me there’s not a country in the world where I haven’t met some Zimbabwean who hasn’t been kicked off his land; black and white, I might add,”

“I did my best to suspect any kind of judgement in the book, because it’s about humanity.”

In between writing chapters for a sequel, Reeve-Johnson will be spending the summer with his wife, veterinarian Mia Reeve-Johnson (who has just completed a PhD on diabetes in animals at UQ), and their two sons and daughter.

Unsurprisingly, he coached his older son’s under sevens rugby team, helping the boys bring in the Kenmore Bears’ Team of the Year trophy.

“It was great to have shared this and see it spawn devotion in a six year old and together we avidly followed each moment of the Lions-Wallabies saga then Bledisloe this year,” he said.

“We have horses and enjoy riding and love travelling as a family; it takes me back to many of the things I could only dream about as a kid and now are actually possible.”

To the general public, the affable Reeve-Johnson will likely be best known as an articulate campaigner for an independent body to oversee the live export industry.

“It would not be productive to go through the motions of yet another inquiry, like the Keniry report where recommendations were then selectively ignored, or the recent Farmer inquiry which offered little new,” he said.

“I believe the best way to make progress is by getting out of opposing trenches, having independent oversight and dialogue.”

Though it is just one of Reeve-Johnson’s many areas of expertise, his approach to live animal export regulation, in which he values consultation and transparency above all, serves as a helpful microcosm for the rest of his career.

“Edward de Bono [said] you learn a great deal by listening to opposing ideas with an open mind, and Sun Tzu in the Art of War also made the point that you learn most from the opposition,” he said.

“While I have criticised the industry strongly for many years, I am not an advocate of just shutting it down, however, significant increases in oversight by an independent body the public can trust should be implemented swiftly.

“Animals can be moved humanely but there are now multiple alternatives to mass live transport, [and] the fact we have alternatives presents us all with an ethical imperative to our decision making.”

 SAM WORRAD