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

As the sun begins to dispel the chill from the morning air, a litter of puppies emerge from their den of building materials on a vacant lot.

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

Soon the puppies scatter through the streets, disappearing among dozens of other dogs roaming without boundaries through Kowanyama, a remote Aboriginal township in far north Queensland.

In this town, packs of roaming dogs are normal.

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

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

They fight, they breed out of control, they attack other animals, and sometimes they turn their attention to humans.

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

“Don’t just have them as puppies, make them big, then let them roam around and not resent them because they’re not cute.

A native sits behind the wheel of an off-road buggy dressed in a khaki rangers uniform.
Mr. Hudson says his love of dogs started at an early age and drives him to seek better results for Kowanyama’s canines.(ABC Far North: Holly Richardson)

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

And he has a lot of work to do.

Overcoming Uncontrolled Breeding

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

It is unknown how many unregistered dogs there are, and uncontrolled breeding is a problem.

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

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

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

“But they breed quite quickly, so the rate at which they reproduce versus the rate at which I de-examine them is definitely the biggest challenge.”

Things are starting to change in the community, however.

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

“Thanks to our efforts in de-sexing, treating them for worms, ticks, scabies and all that kind of stuff, the majority of the population is healthy,” says Dr. Squarci.

“The life expectancy of these dogs is definitely increasing.

A dog lying on a stainless steel bench is cared for by a veterinarian and an assistant.
Dr. Squarci says he de-sex an average of 10 dogs a day on each visit to Kowanyama.(Provided: Samuel Hudson)

“Fortunately, with the hard work we have put in, we now have a waiting list of people wanting to have their dogs de-sexed.”

“There is a lot of mistrust”

The hits on display at Kowanyama are music to the ears of Brad Milligan, the Environmental Health Officer for the Queensland Government’s Tropical Public Health Service (TPHS).

“Improved animal health translates to improved human health because of the closeness and living conditions between Indigenous peoples and their animals,” Milligan said.

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

The Queensland Department of Health provides funding to remote areas of Indigenous Councils for public health measures, including animal management.

Mr. Milligan admits that this is a difficult question.

“There are strong cultural beliefs about dogs in Indigenous communities,” he says.

“There’s a lot of distrust (because) people have gone into communities in the past and taken dogs away from them because they think they don’t care for them.”

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

Countering this mistrust requires people like Mr. Hudson, whom the community knows and respects.

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

“They can’t go to the store and say, ‘Can I have a pack of deworming pills?’ or “I’m hungry and I need water”, we have to do it.

“That’s why I’m trying to teach this crowd around town. They understand now, they’re getting pretty good.”

No more dogs behind fences

The improved health of Kowanyama’s canine population and slowing breeding presents the community with its next challenge: keeping the animals behind barriers and fences.

“Just close the door – that’s what I want,” Mr Hudson said.

“So people can walk around the city without worrying about stepping on the road and getting bitten.”

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

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

“Their fences aren’t high enough, their gardens aren’t big enough, and those are the things that make it pretty difficult to contain a big dog,” says Dr. Squarci.

“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 animals they really care for once we show them what’s needed and what they need to do.”

The Kowanyama Aboriginal Shire Council funds a fence repair program for residences in the community.

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