Veterinary care in Papua New Guinea

If you’re wanting to volunteer your veterinary or vet nursing skills abroad, but don’t want to travel too far from Australia, then consider Papua New Guinea in the south west Pacific region.

Papua New Guinea is Australia’s closest international neighbour, yet many Australians may never have considered travelling there. In the Torres Strait between the two countries, the closest of Australia’s islands sits a mere four kilometres off the Papua New Guinea coastline and there are close traditional ties between the people living in the area. Australia has had significant involvement in the development of Papua New Guinea as we know it today, as Papua New Guinea used to be administered by Australia since the time of the first World War through until independence in 1975. The military history of war in Papua New Guinea is well known, including the famous battles along the Kokoda Track between Australian forces and the invading Japanese army during World War II.

Australia still contributes a significant amount of international aid to Papua New Guinea, and there are still strong ties between the two countries. Many Australian’s travel to Papua New Guinea in order to hike the Kokoda Track to learn about the historic military campaign which occurred there, along with experiencing the culture and landscape of the Owen Stanley Mountain range through which the Kokoda Track passes. However there is more to Papua New Guinea that just the Kokoda Track.

Papua New Guinea tourism uses the slogan, ‘the land of the unexpected’, and it definitely lives up to this description. There are over 800 language groups in Papua New Guinea, and it is a culturally and topographically diverse country home to an incredible array of plant and animal biodiversity. Being close to the equator, the climate in Papua New Guinea is tropical and hot with the wet season between December and March, however it can rain at any time. Dense tropical rainforest blankets a large proportion of the country. Divided into twenty provinces including various islands, each has its own cultural and natural attractions. English is spoken by many Papua New Guineans, however there is widespread use of pidgin or Tok Pisin which can be an amusing language to learn.

The traditional Melanesian way of live is one of subsistence agriculture with the majority of the Papua New Guinean population living in traditional societies consisting of small villages of thatched roof huts with plots of lands known as gardens where the produce is grown. Some people also keep animals such as chickens and pigs (pigs are integral to traditional Melanesian society, and are used for exchange in terms of payment), and there are also many village dogs which hang around scavenging for food.

The concept of keeping an animal as a pet is definitely not something that is inherent to the Melanesian culture. Animals are mainly kept for food, protection or as a sign of wealth. However, as western influence spreads, the idea of having a pet dog or cat and the welfare issues associated with keeping animals as pets is developing.

Technology is slowly infiltrating the country-side of Papua New Guinea, with mobile phones now becoming popular. One of the most striking contrasts of travelling through the remote areas of Papua New Guinea, is to see people talking and texting on mobile phones despite living in often very basic circumstances in traditional huts with not much in the way of material wealth. With this advance in the availability of modern technology and communication, the younger generations of Papua New Guineans will have more access to what many Australians would take for granted.

Given that education is often considered the key to a better future, teaching children about the role of pets in our lives and how to look after a pet, will hopefully lead to a better knowledge of how animals should be treated, and a greater understanding of the feelings of responsibility and empathy towards animals and pets. There is currently an education campaign being conducted by the RSPCA in Papua New Guinea, which involves specially trained RSPCA staff visiting schools to teach children about pets and animal welfare.

The RSPCA education team consists of a group of local people who are employed part-time to visit schools around Port Moresby and sometimes further afield, to run short workshops with the school children about how to look after a pet. The team of instructors involve the children in a discussion about what the RSPCA does, and then introduce their secret-weapon, a large plush-toy dog puppet named ‘Wantok’. The toy dog definitely gets the kids attention, and together with the instructors help, the children are taught about how to feed and provide water for the dog, plus how to pat and groom it, and what to do if the dog is injured. The dogs name ‘Wantok’ is a local word that can be used to refer to relatives or friends.

As dogs may often be used for guarding, many local people can be afraid of dogs. So by showing the children how to interact safely with the dog, this can also help improve their self-confidence around dogs and helps to make them more aware of the welfare issues associated with having a pet dog. Spending some time with the education team as they teach the children is an enchanting experience, as it’s not hard to see that the children are enthralled by ‘Wantok’ the dog and the important messages that the education team are trying to impart.

The RSPCA in Papua New Guinea ran its first school education program back in 2005 which involved a qualified Papua New Guinean teacher who was employed to take information about the humane treatment of animals to various schools in Port Moresby. The program proved to be a huge success and in 2009, a further seven education presenters were recruited to continue the work.

The education workshop was further refined by Kellie Ireland and her team from the RSPCA Queensland’s Education Division in consultation with RSPCA PNG. Kellie along with Daniel Young of the RSPCA Queensland Inspectorate and Rachel Smith of WSPCA, devoted their time towards the training of the seven new presenters recruited in 2009.By the end of that school year, the program was able to reach out to 7,614 students across 57 elementary level (grades 1 to 3) schools in Port Moresby and surrounding villages.

The education workshops provide benefits not only to the school children in terms of what they learn about animal welfare, but also there is the benefit to the education presenters themselves of having a rewarding job and a valuable opportunity to work in a city where jobs can be hard to find.

The RSPCA Veterinary Clinic in the Port Moresby suburb of Waigani is the only private veterinary clinic in the whole of Papua New Guinea. The RSPCA of PNG was incorporated in Papua New Guinea on the 26th August 1976 and acquired the land to open the Veterinary Clinic in 1981.  Initially, the business was leased, then the RSPCA took over the management of the clinic in 2003 with the assistance of the RSPCA of NSW and many other benefactors.

The RSPCA PNG Veterinary Clinic currently has a full time staff of seven, including Filipino veterinarian Dr Berlini Endaya, clinic administrator Solo Damena, veterinary nurse Aloysius Vali, kennel hand Suanhilda Ao, administration support officer Pauline Galopo, community relations coordinator Salote Vagi, and a field operations coordinator Vincent Moi-he. The team are proud to be working in the veterinary clinic, and provide a professional and well run veterinary service.

RSPCA PNG is also currently hoping to recruit a second full-time veterinarian to assist Dr Endaya. There is also a raft of honorary staff who devote their time to helping with the running of RSPCA PNG including Vice-President Anne Ames who is passionate about the welfare of animals and the work of the RSPCA in Papua New Guinea. Australian veterinarian Dr Alan King who manages a piggery just out of Port Moresby, also occasionally helps out at the veterinary clinic on an honorary basis. The RSPCA PNG has previously also had assistance from RSPCA NSW veterinarians who have locumed in Port Moresby for short stints, including Dr Lydia De La Motte who has worked in the clinic several times over recent years.

The Veterinary Clinic is a two storey building with the consulting and treatment rooms on the ground floor, along with an office, operating theatre and hospital cages. The second floor contains accommodation for the vet along with further office space. The building sits within a secure guarded compound, and has kennel runs for dogs and a cattery, along with an animal exercise area. Boarding is offered for both cats and dogs in these facilities. The practice is computerised with RxWorks software, and also has an Idexx blood analysing machine in its small laboratory. The RSPCA PNG also have a clinic vehicle which is used to transport animals, as well as ferrying the education presenters to the schools.

The local dog pound in Port Moresby has also been run by the RSPCA since 2006, and is managed by Pound Coordinator Mr Sent Muld. Dogs that are found roaming the streets are caught during weekly dog collection rounds and taken to the pound, and others can be surrendered to the RSPCA. Depending on the animals condition, some dogs may be euthanized to alleviate their suffering. However the RSPCA looks to treat as many of the dogs as possible, and they also run a re-homing program whereby the dogs can be given a second chance and adopted.

With many of the fences and premises around the city of Port Moresby covered in unsightly graffiti, the RSPCA PNG is in the midst of completing an art mural project to adorn the outside walls of the clinic compound. This was a project initiated by Australian Business Volunteer Leigh Martin. After enlisting the help of long-term local artist Martin Morububuna, who has painted large panels with a mural depicting all the creatures great and small found in Papua New Guinea, it is hoped the mural will help to increase awareness about the RSPCA and its ideals.

Veterinarian Dr Berlini Endaya is kept busy with an average daily caseload of between 15 – 17 animals, and this is made of up about 70% dogs, 10% Cats, and the rest an array of other animals which can include pigs, cuscus, wallabies, birds, goats and deer. The vet is often called upon for after-hours emergencies as well, so the need for a second veterinarian to help ease the workload is vital. There is a large expatriate population in Port Moresby who bring their pets to the RSCPCA Veterinary Clinic and utilise the pet boarding facilities, plus there is a large caseload of guard dogs which are kept by local security companies.

The types of surgical procedures performed in the clinic would compare with many Australian veterinary hospitals, and include sterilisation surgeries, lacerations, lump removals, aural haematomas, abscesses, fracture repairs, entropion surgery, caesareans and exploratory laparotomies. Dr Endaya explains that the most common medical conditions seen at the clinic include; worm infestations, allergies, dental disease, Parvo-virus diarrhoea and skin parasites including ticks, fleas, lice and mange.

Every few months, the RSPCA PNG organises field health clinics to a variety of towns in the more remote regions of Papua New Guinea. These field clinics involve a dog sterilization program, along with treating animals for parasites and other diseases. As these field clinics can be quite expensive to run, they are often reliant on local businesses or mining companies to help cover transport costs.

The RSPCA Veterinary Clinic in Papua New Guinea can always do with more help, so if you’ve been thinking about doing some overseas volunteer work as a veterinarian or veterinary nurse, then considering a stint at the clinic would be worthwhile and personally rewarding. RSPCA PNG is also after donations of money and veterinary medicines which will help it continue improving the welfare of animals in Papua New Guinea. As imported veterinary pharmaceuticals can often be quite costly, this means they are often unaffordable to the local people. Hence donations of veterinary medicines would allow the RSPCA PNG to provide affordable and sometimes free veterinary services to more Papua New Guineans. The RSPCA PNG is also currently redesigning the clinic facilities to accommodate a general increase in workload.

An immediate need at the veterinary clinic is an x-ray machine, so this might be a situation whereby an Australian veterinary practice could directly assist with the day to day workings of the RSPCA Veterinary Clinic in Port Moresby by considering donating an x-ray machine. The RSPCA PNG can also advise on what other requirements there may be to help their clinic run better.

In Australia, we hear a lot about the dangers of the security situation in Port Moresby. The key to living in and travelling around the Port Moresby is to use common sense in not putting yourself in a situation that could be dangerous. As can occur in many large cities, there is a crime problem in Port Moresby. One of the main reasons for this is that a large number of people have moved from the rural areas to Port Moresby looking for work, and with high unemployment levels and a high level of poverty, this can lead to crime and other problems. As a result it pays to be careful and to always travel with others, and make an effort to find out from local contacts about where it is safe to go.

There is travel advisory information on the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade smartraveller.gov.au website which is also regularly updated. It’s important to remember though, that the Papua New Guinean people are some of the most helpful and friendly that you’ll find anywhere on earth, and despite the hardships faced by many of them in terms of standards of living, they are extremely generous and will be keen to tell you all about their country and help you enjoy your visit.

If you are considering a trip to Papua New Guinea, there is an array of tourism attractions centred on experiencing the natural wonders that the country has to offer. The jungle is home to a remarkable array of bird life and animals which would be of interest to animal lovers and bird-watchers. Keep an eye out for tree kangaroos, cuscus and the Bird of Paradise which is also the country’s national emblem. Papua New Guinea’s islands and coastline offer diving, snorkelling and fishing in abundance.

There are a lot of historical sites of military significance in Papua New Guinea – not only the Kokoda Track, but other battle sites including Rabaul and its nearby volcano on the island of New Britain, and around Milne Bay which is to the south-east of Port Moresby. Other hikes to rival the Kokoda Track include the Lark Force Wilderness Hike near Rabaul, and the Black Cat Track and Bull Dog Track near the town of Wau north of Port Moresby. Tours can be arranged from Australia, or locally within Papua New Guinea. And if you follow rugby with a passion, then you’ll feel right at home in Papua New Guinea, as it seems the entire nation is mad about rugby and follow the NRL State of Origin games with interest.

Another thing to consider if you are travelling to Papua New Guinea, is that various travel vaccinations are recommended, especially if you plan to work with animals. Your local travel doctor can advise on what immunisations you may require, as well as malarial prevention and other precautions. The tropical heat will often slow you down a little upon your arrival, but usually within a few days you’ll have acclimatised. If you can, speak to someone who’s travelled there before to get some personal advice, plus there’s an array of websites which will provide further information.

If you are interested in researching Papua New Guinea, there are several good books worth reading which will give you an insight into Papua New Guinea and different aspects of its history. These include Tim Flannery’s “Throwim Way Leg” which covers the biologists early travels in the country, Peter Fitzsimons “Kokoda” which details the military history of the Kokoda Track campaign, and Sean Dorney’s “The Sandline Affair” and “Papua New Guinea: People, Politics and History since 1975”, which both cover the political history of the country since independence.

Working in the RSPCA PNG veterinary clinic may seem like a challenging task when you consider that it is the only veterinary clinic in the entire country, however it just goes to show that every little bit of effort helps, as shown by the passionate and caring team who work there and who are making a difference in terms of alleviating the suffering of animals and improving the knowledge and education about animal welfare issues in Papua New Guinea.

If you are interested in finding out more about volunteering at the RSPCA Veterinary Clinic in Papua New Guinea, or if you are wanting to make a donation, whether monetary or medicines, then the best method of contact is via email: rspca@rspca.org.pg and the RSPCA Veterinary Clinic telephone number is (+675) 325 2363, or fax (+675) 325 6833. Papua New Guinea is a beautiful and fascinating place, and a trip there will certainly prove rewarding. The RSPCA PNG is certainly doing its best to help all creatures great and small in the land of the unexpected. Lukim yu!

Phil Tucak