Saviour wildlife surgeon: the time to act is now

Dr Howard Ralph with kangaroo joey Daisy.

By Jana Black

Dr Howard Ralph with kangaroo joey Daisy.

It’s early on a rainy Saturday morning and Dr Howard Ralph is already at work. The day is probably irrelevant. He’s here seven days a week – caring, repairing and quite literally, saving lives.

Work for Dr Ralph is at his veterinary clinic on a remote property about an hour from Canberra.

The setting is classic Australian bush. A shearing shed sits among tall gums and rolling hills.

The exterior of the shed gives no sign of what is happening inside. It’s clean, sterile and calm – just as you would expect in a medical clinic.

This is where Dr Ralph meticulously goes about his work, saving thousands of animals every year. He has been doing for it for the better part of four decades. For him, it is more than just a livelihood.

“I believe that we are one of many other living creatures and we all deserve equal respect and I’ve never ever believed that we should be treated in a manner that the others can’t access,” Dr Ralph said.

Dr Ralph’s commitment to Australia’s native animals is evident in the way he treats them. Not just as a vet, but philosophically, too.

He says ‘hello’ to them when they enter his clinic. He explains the treatment they’ll receive, and he reassures them they’ll be ok. He is softly spoken and gentle, but most of all he is respectful.

“Wildlife […] are living sentient beings and they do feel pain and they do suffer, and they do need attention,” he said.

To say Dr Ralph knows the pain and suffering of wildlife is an understatement. He feels it.

He has treated injuries caused by cars and shootings, violent attacks where people have kicked animals and hit them with lead pipes. He has even removed an axe from a kangaroo’s head.

“I get upset every day, every ten minutes I get upset because I see this terrible stuff coming through the door and I guess every night I have a bit of a weep,” Dr Ralph said.

Dr Howard Ralph talks to his patients as if they were human beings. (By Jana Black)

In the past 12 months, the Threatened Species Commission has warned of wildlife  decimated by drought, fires, heavy smoke and floods. And then there are the estimated four million mammals that are killed on Australian roads every year.

Dr Ralph says if only we could care about the preservation of our native wildlife like we do our own pets.

“Dogs get treated, horses get treated, […] and wildlife are somehow over there. But they’re not really, they’re over here and they need to be treated with respect,” he said.

Dr Ralph and his wife Glenda fund their free vet service with the money they earn in their day jobs. He works as a surgeon treating people, while Glenda is a physiotherapist and a nurse.

They have a team of vet nurses who all volunteer. One nurse says she won’t work anywhere else because Dr Ralph’s skills and work ethic are unmatched.

Watching Dr Ralph, it’s easy to see what she means. He is no doubt a skilful surgeon. He cares for his patients much the same way a family GP would treat a small child.

When animals come into his clinic, he introduces himself. He allows them time to process the situation. He sooths them and ensures any pain inflicted is minimal and done with compassion.

Wildlife carers drive hundreds of kilometres across NSW to see him because they know where other vets euthanise, Dr Ralph will treat.

But for all his efforts, he knows unless there is a change in Australians’ indifference to wildlife, the iconic animals we proudly show to the world face a tough battle for survival.

“We’re losing species all the time and we’re losing habitat all the time.

“I guess they (Australians) need to, first of all take it seriously, as species, and they need to take it seriously, as individuals.

“They (wildlife) do suffer accordingly and they suffer from inadequate attention to their preservation,” Dr Ralph said.

Scientists predict it will take years for the habitats of these animals to return to normal after last summer’s bushfires and it will only happen with human help.

Dr Ralph says the time for that help to start is now.