Canines, caring and community

Mary Jan and Steve in the ute2Veterinarian Jan Allen has had a varied career, working around Australia and the South Pacific, but it is her work in Indigenous communities which she has found most rewarding.

Allen is currently the One Health Program Manager for Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities (AMRRIC). The organisation is a national, non-profit charity founded to improve the health and welfare of companion animals in communities where access to veterinary care may be limited to absent.

Allen grew up in Kempsey with family on a dairy farm before moving to Nelson Bay then to Sydney (Harbord) where she went to high school to ensure she got a good education.

“I was applying for a Commonwealth Scholarship for a Bachelor of Education but Dad said I might as well try to get into veterinary science,” she recalled. “It was a big surprise to me when I got in.”

After graduating in 1976, Allen took a six-week “apprenticeship” at the RSPCA’s Yagoona shelter before taking a mixed practice position in Tasmania.

“They shouted me a flight down for an interview which really impressed me,” she said. “They really needed vets. The caseload was trotters, smallies, greyhounds and wildlife – a bit of everything.”

After a couple of years she headed back to Sydney where she locumed around before hanging her shingle at Seaforth Veterinary Hospital with Terry Collins.

“That was back when it was a tiny practice, just Terry and I,” she said.

Two children and several locums later, Allen relocated to Nana Glen, north west of Coffs Harbour. She worked in mixed practice in Grafton and Coffs Harbour areas for around twenty years.

“In 1988 I opened my own practice in Nana Glen,” she recalled. “That was pretty cool, people would knock on my door at all hours of the day or night and say Jan, you won’t mind coming out to have a look at this…”

That lasted for around two years, when Jan closed the doors and the family took off for a year wandering around Australia. She grew increasingly interested in the big picture of human and animal health and the environment.

Looking for a change in direction, Allen did a Masters of Environmental Management externally through University of New England.

“I did some pro bono work on environmental impact studies but I wasn’t really getting anywhere so I applied to volunteer overseas with AVI (Australian Volunteers International) – something I had always wanted to do,” she said. “I didn’t hear anything for a few months, but then I got a call between Christmas and New Year. Someone said ‘we have a position for you in blah blah’ and I said yes. Then I got off the phone and thought, ‘did they say Somalia or Samoa’?”

In a sense, it didn’t really matter.

“The kids were old enough and not leaving home so I decided to leave home instead”.

At the time Samoa’s tourism industry was growing. Stray dogs were becoming something of a public nuisance and public relations nightmare. The Lonely Planet guide at the time warned tourists to be wary of the dogs in Apia, the capital of Samoa.

Allen became the volunteer veterinary manager with the APS -Animal Protection Society – who provided the only small animal veterinary services in the developing country of Samoa.

“We did mostly house calls,” she said. “There were no street numbers or street names, so people would tell us to turn off the airport road near the big breadfruit tree and go to the first blue house. Thank goodness I had a Samoan vet nurse who became my best buddy.”

The case load was a little different.

“We saw a lot of parvovirus, botulism, mange, animal welfare problems, and machete wounds,” she said. “We also saw many paraquat poisonings because farmers would poison dogs that wandered onto their plantations.”

It was not uncommon to see puppies with severe hookworm infestation and ventral oedema. The team also treated wildlife admitted by the public.

“We had a lot of after hours, but people were really grateful.”

The resources were fairly rudimentary. Surgery was often conducted on a baby change table outside of the owner’s house.

“We only had rompun-ketamine for anaesthesia because there wasn’t anything else,” Allen said. “I remember my partner Craig topping up the rompun-ketamine on a Saturdary afternoon leg amputation. When we took the dog back the owner said, ‘whatever, just put him out the back there’. It was very casual.”

The team provided a desexing services, visiting communities to provide on-site desexing.

“I remember one occasion where we had set up in a village school and the teachers invited us to come in and show the kids what we did. So we did some desexings on the front desk. All of the kids from the school were there, standing on tables surrounding us. It was a great opportunity to talk about anatomy and dog behaviour and control while the teachers had an extended morning tea!”

Nearing the end of her stint in Samoa, Allen heard of AMRRIC’s work in Australia and attended an AMRRIC conference.

“I flew over and met so many great people, and worked in a dog program in Maningrida.”

Allen returned to Australia permanently in 2006.

“By then the kids had taken over the house. I went to work at Grafton Veterinary Clinic which was so supportive,” she said.

But the prospect of doing work in remote indigenous communities within Australia appealed more and more. Allen attended more dog programs and workshops, and finally moved to Darwin where she has been based since.

“I was very attracted to AMRRIC because there was such a need, the conditions of dogs over here was actually worse than in Samoa – we saw dogs with a lot of mange, a lot of transmissible venereal tumours, and the living conditions were poorer,” she said.

“It was a real surprise for me. There was and is a massive need for services in communities where people just don’t have a choice. Things are certainly improving but compared to Samoa the politics and culture are way more complicated here. There are so many different clans and tribes and languages and groups of people to factor in.”

Allen was particularly impressed with AMRRIC’s community consultation, but also with the concept of improving one health.

“Indigenous people say that when there are sick dogs there are sick people, but in the Northern Territory that link is not readily acknowledged. Animal health is not on the Territory government’s agenda (as it is in WA and Queensland), animal control is left up to the local councils to organise which is a major ask.”

According to Allen there is no question that human and animal health are closely linked.

“Our programs can have an impact on human health problems like dog bites, scabies, ringworm and ticks. These agents can contribute to skin sores in humans which often involve Streptococcal infections. This can result in drastic long term outcomes for community members. Repeated Strep infections especially in young children can lead to rheumatic heart disease and glomerulonephritis (chronic kidney failure).”

AMRRIC supports research into one health. Over the years volunteers have collected samples to investigate staph and strep infections for Menzies School of Health Research; for MRSA research at Flinders University; and Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumour samples for Cambridge University. Thousands of ticks have been submitted to Murdoch University for a study on vector borne diseases, many of which are zoonotic. Samples have been collected for research into strongyloides through Flinders University and Melioidosis through Charles Darwin University. AMRRIC is involved in cooperation with rabies research projects through Sydney University and the University of New England.

The organisation also allows veterinarians, nurses and other volunteers to participate in community work. It’s a great opportunity to provide services where they are most needed, while enjoying the experience of vetting in the field.

“You have to be really practical,” Allen said. “Volunteers need a lot of tolerance – of heat, dust, flies – the flies are terrible at times. We also have to be very flexible as plans often don’t go accordingly, arrangements can get cancelled because of Sorry business or because people have moved away for ceremonies.”

A number of universities sponsor regular community programs, allowing students to participate in programs and experience bush surgery in some of Australia’s most remote locations.

Of all of her career achievements, Allen is most proud of the work done by AMRRIC.

“The health of the dogs has improved across the board,” she said. “People in communities have seen the improvement, they call the dogs cleanskins because they are desexed, fatter, healthier and no longer have mange. It’s wonderful to go back to an area and see shiny coats, dogs playing and not scratching.”

“The management of dogs has improved – not just because of AMRRIC but I think we’ve helped up the level of respect and cultural sensitivity by setting an example.”

Of course there is still plenty of work ahead.

In September AMRRIC is marking its ten anniversary with a conference themed around One Health – Indigenous Community Animal Management. For more information or to register visit


Pictures Jan Allen

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