A country practice

From zebras to babies, a country vet practice embraces diversity


Life & Style
Macleay Valley veterinarian Heather Walker and baby Holly, four months. Juggling family and practice is a pleasure for this busy mum.

Macleay Valley veterinarian Heather Walker and baby Holly, four months. Juggling family and practice is a pleasure for this busy mum.

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Macleay Valley vet Heather Walker best understands horses and cattle but isn't adverse to castrating a buffalo or needling a zebra.

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When Macleay Valley veterinarian Heather Walker isn’t castrating donkeys, or injecting zebras she is breastfeeding her new baby girl. The juggling act keeps her busy and Ms Walker reckons it’s a pleasure.

Born at Murundi and raised at Mudgee, Ms Walker grew up on property and learned to love horses at a young age. Now she calls Crescent Head home where the sound of thundering surf, not hooves, rumbles up from the ground.

As a rural vet in a coastal town this country girl relishes the variety of practice.

“I work a lot with lifestyle farms,” she says “They need support and I find it’s nice to look after them.”

Diversity a thrill

The diversity thrills her, even when it involves de-sexing a cat or grinding down the front teeth on a pet bunny with a Dremel drill.

“I also get to work on saved wildlife, like sea turtles, but the strangest animal I’ve had to deal with would have to be a zebra, which belonged to a circus trainer,” she said.

“I’ve also castrated water buffalo. Doing that was a bit of a rodeo.”

Hendra vaccination is an important part of her business and while she still attends to horses that have yet to get the jab, it is a job her partner Steve reckons is too dangerous for a busy mother. And don’t get him started on the time a cranky calf kicked her, heavily pregnant, through the crush.

“He wants me to have a “no vax no touch” policy,” she said – noting that veterinarians were in the firing line from many sides and especially from clients, when dealing with the infectious disease.

“I gown up and take samples and send them away but if that happens to be on a Friday it might not be until next Wednesday before I get a result,” she said. “If it’s only colic the horse might unnecessarily suffer. I hate it that this limits how well I can treat the horse but there’s a dedicated  anti-vaxxer contingent out there.

Desexing a cat is also part of the day's diverse work, followed by a bit of bunny dentistry. When it comes to dealing with buffalo ... that's a rodeo.

Desexing a cat is also part of the day's diverse work, followed by a bit of bunny dentistry. When it comes to dealing with buffalo ... that's a rodeo.

“It’s not like us vets to be drama queens but the Hendra issue is so controversial.

“All vaccines carry some risk of side effects including this one. However to date, this vaccine is our best weapon in preventing the disease and reducing zoonotic risk.

“I’ve talked to Richard LeStrange from Zoetis about this many times and while no one can establish a causal link between the Hendra vaccination and a sick horse, they can’t prove that there are no side effects –  it’s the same argument as with any other vaccination.”

The debate has been made more difficult because there is no longer the legal requirement to register a horse that has been vaccinated, which makes it difficult for veterinarians to know what’s the go when attending a sick animal.

Meanwhile there is Holly, four months, who needs continuous attention throughout the day, even at two in the morning after Ms Walker has just pulled a calf or collected an animal sick with a tick.

That’s why she brings the baby wrapped in a doonah to those early morning jobs.

Babe in arms

“I’ve actually stitched a border collie while rocking holly in her pram with my foot,” Ms Walker said.

“Then there was the time a dog came in after hours with red-belly snake bite while Holly was screaming with wind. 

“There are times when I wear all my hats at once.”

Baby Holly is a new addition to her growing family, which includes her first two daughters Annabel, 10 and Sophia, 8.

“I’ve been sleep deprived for the past decade,” she said. “So I’m used to it.

“It was a big step to start up my own practice. I spent three years as a single mum and if I had not owned my own business I couldn’t have worked and I have no family nearby.

“Yes I’m always on call and that is a big commitment but I love the fact that I have a role to play in this town.

“I can walk to the clinic and I can slip up to the school for assemblies.

“Not many people are lucky enough to work and live in this beautiful place. It’s like finding the Holy Grail to do a job that I value and to live in a community that I love.”

Biosecurity

Biosecurity is an important subject these days, says Ms Walker, who notes that our “antipodean status make us complacent”.

Back in the “good old days” government vets made sure livestock were tested for tuberculosis and brucellosis but since those halcyon times funding has tightened and biosecurity has slackened.

“Now we have Hendra,” she says. “And it’s a big deal. Biosecurity is very important.”

Ms Walker suggested greater collaboration between “human medicos and vets” to help eradicate dangerous cross-over diseases like Hendra and Brucelolosis –  after all hunters and feral pigs get very close sometimes.

“With serious global antibiotic resistance already upon us, primary industry and vets get implicated as having a role in this.

“It therefore makes sense for vets and primary industry to be involved in finding solutions in a collaborative effort with human scientists.”

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