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Kowanyama dog control reduces disease and keeps community safe, but more is needed

As the sun begins to take the chill out of the morning air, a litter of puppies emerges from its den of building materials on a vacant block of land.

They are still young enough to feed from their mother’s tea, but they sleep outside among pallets and insulation.

Soon the puppies disperse onto the streets, disappearing among dozens of other dogs that roam without boundary across Kowanyama, a remote Indigenous township in Queensland’s far north.

In this town, roving dog packs are normal.

Packs of large dogs roam the streets of Kowanyama with fights and attacks on other animals at regular occurrence.(ABC Far North: Holly Richardson)

The western Cape York community has a problem with loose dogs.

They fight, they breed uncontrollably, they attack other animals and sometimes, they turn their attention on humans.

“We’re supposed to love them,” says Samuel ‘Sinker’ Hudson, Kowanyama’s animal control officer.

“Not just get them as a pup, make them big and then let them walk around and don’t want them no more because they’re not cute.”

An Indigenous man sits at the wheel of an all-terrain buggy wearing a khaki rangers uniform.
Mr Hudson says his love of dogs began at an early age and drives him to seek better outcomes for Kowanyama’s canines.(ABC Far North: Holly Richardson)

Mr Hudson is part of a small team of people trying to change the way locals care for their animals in Kowanyama.

And he has a big job on his hands.

Overcoming unchecked breeding

There are 455 dogs registered with the Kowanyama Aboriginal Shire Council, about one for every 2.5 people in the community.

It’s not known how many unregistered dogs there are, and unchecked breeding is an issue.

Innisfail-based veterinarian Zane Squarci covers the 500 kilometers separating the two towns every three months to treat and desex pets, staying between three and five days each time.

“I think I’ve desexed about 100 dogs this year so far,” Dr. Squarci says.

A man in a striped shirt sits in a veterinary surgery.
Dr Squarci operates a fly-in-fly-out vet service in Kowanyama about every three months. (Mark Rigby ABC Far North)

“But they’re breeding quite rapidly so the rate that they’re breeding versus the rate I’m desexing them is definitely the biggest challenge.”

Things are beginning to change in the community, though.

Mr Hudson, Dr Squarci and the others who help them are slowly but surely rounding up the town’s dogs and treating diseases and parasites that can threaten both canines and humans.

“With the efforts of our desexing, treating them for worms and ticks and mange and all that sort of stuff, the majority of the population is healthy,” Dr Squarci says.

“The life expectancy of those dogs is definitely going up.

A dog lies prone on a stainless steel bench being tended to by a vet and an assistant.
Dr Squarci says he desires an average of 10 dogs per day on each visit to Kowanyama.(Supplied: Samuel Hudson)

“Thankfully, with the hard work that we’ve put in, we now have a waiting list of people wanting to have their dogs desexed.”

‘There’s a lot of mistrust’

The successes on display in Kowanyama are music to the ears of Brad Milligan, the manager of Environmental Health for the Queensland government’s Tropical Public Health Service (TPHS).

“Improved animal health translates into improved human health due to the close proximity and living arrangements between Indigenous people and their animals,” Mr Milligan says.

A small brown puppy sits among large purple bags filled with insulation material on a building site.
One of many puppies in Kowanyama was born as a result of unchecked breeding in the community.(ABC Far North: Mark Rigby)

Queensland’s health department provides funding to remote Indigenous council areas for public health measures, including animal management.

Mr Milligan admits it’s a challenging issue.

“There are strong cultural beliefs with dogs in Aboriginal communities,” he says.

“There’s a lot of mistrust (because) people have gone into communities in the past and taken dogs off them because they think they’re not looking after them.”

Two puppies sit in the middle of a tarmac road while another walks away in the background.
Puppies, along with adult dogs, roam freely around the western Cape York community.(ABC Far North: Mark Rigby )

Countering that mistrust requires people like Mr Hudson, who the community knows and respects.

“I do it for the animals, to make them healthy,” Mr Hudson says.

“They can’t go to the shop and say, ‘Can I have a packet of tablets to get myself wormed?’ or ‘I’m hungry and I need water’, we’ve got to do that.

“That’s why I try to teach this mob around town. They’re getting the hang of it now, they’re getting pretty good.”

More dogs behind fences

Improving the health of Kowanyama’s dog population and slowing down breeding presents the community with its next challenge—keeping animals behind gates and fences.

“Just shut the gate — that’s what I want,” Mr Hudson says.

“So people can walk around the town not worrying about walking down the road and getting bitten.”

Two tan colored, medium sized dogs walk on dusty ground outside a chain link fence.
Large dogs roaming the streets of Kowanyama are a common sight.(ABC Far North: Mark Rigby)

Dr Squarci says Mr Hudson’s efforts within the community are securing more dogs behind fences, but better facilities are needed to help pet owners succeed.

“Their fences aren’t tall enough, their yards aren’t big enough, and those are the things that make keeping a large dog contained quite difficult,” Dr Squarci says.

“At the end of the day, the people of Kowanyama want to have their dogs for as long as they can, just like everyone else.

“They love their pets, and they’re pets that they really take care of once we show them what’s required and what they need to do.”

The Kowanyama Aboriginal Shire Council is funding a fence repair program for residential homes across the community.

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