When John O’Dell first became a vet on Flinders Island more than two decades ago, his operating table was from the local hospital and his x-ray machine was out of date.
The Tasmanian government has committed almost a million dollars to help the Flinders Island Council develop a purpose-built vet practice and entice a full-time vet to work there
Two privates vets currently work on the island, but both are semi-retired
Residents want the Tasmanian government to reinstate a public service vet to help the situation long term
Twenty-one years on and not much has changed.
“The [practice] room has a few cupboards, shelves, a sink and a fridge,” Mr O’Dell said. “And the x-ray machine lives in a shed outside.
“It looks archaic. In fact, I saw my antiseptic machine, which I brought back in 1999 or 2000, and there’s one in the local museum.”
Dr O’Dell is one of two vets on Flinders Island, which has a population of just over 1,000 people
The island’s farming sector is its main economy, so animals, both domestic and livestock, are aplenty but not without issues.
The Tasmanian government has committed to giving $980,000 to the Flinders Island Council to help it develop a purpose-built veterinary practice and provide incentives to get another private vet to work on the island full time.
So, why does one small island need more vets?
While the island currently has two vets, both are semi-retired, and residents have started to worry about what the island could be like without a vet at all.
Scott Anderson is a second-generation Flinders Island farmer and runs beef cattle.
He said most farmers on the island were OK with looking after and caring for livestock themselves, but it was the small animals that most needed a vet.
“A lot of the time, it’s the dog that has a mishap or the cat that gets scratched up,” Mr Anderson said.
He said residents wanted more certainty around the future of vet services and believed the government needed to look at underpinning the role as it had done in the past — not just helping to recruit a private vet.
“In the past, the island hasn’t been able to sustain a practice, that is why for the past 30 years there was a government-assisted vet here and that’s what’s changed.”
‘I’ve got a few more years left in me’
Vic Epstein moved to the Bass Strait Island in the early 1990s and became the second state-appointed veterinary officer — taking over from Mick Middleton, also known as Mick the Vet.
“We were doing a lot of farm extension work, a lot of sheep work and animal production,” Dr Epstein said.
He said the Department of Agriculture changed its course in the years that followed, and he left the role in the late 90s to work around the world.
That’s when Dr O’Dell — who is now 74 years old — took over.
But in 2017, the Tasmanian government removed its veterinarian officer all together and Dr O’Dell was instead employed as a full-time biosecurity officer, doing his own vet work on the side.
Dr O’Dell has now retired from his government role, but still does his private domestic vet work out of the “archaic” building supplied to him by the government.
Dr Epstein works from his home on the island when needed, but agreed a better long-term solution was needed.
“The island needs a vet facility, there’s no doubt about that, and it’ll be nice if I can get in there and use it,” he said.
“John’s getting to the age where he’s sort of had enough. I’ve got a few more years left in me, but then I’ll be going the same way, and then they’ll have to find a vet to take up the reins.”
Dr Epstein said trying to entice private vets to the island was “always tricky” as making an income wasn’t easy.
“When you’re got a population of about a thousand you’ve got to look at the revenue you can raise,” he said.
He agreed with Mr Anderson that the Tasmanian government needed to consider re-employing a public vet instead, or at least partly funding one.
“For a person to come here and try and run a veterinary clinic and make money, it is going to prove a bit difficult — that’s why in the past it’s been part of another job with the Department of Agriculture or Biosecurity,” he said.
“You needed to have the veterinary service as part of another service, but the government is a bit hamstrung in the fact that biosecurity wants biosecurity people.
Single blokes in abundance
Flinders Island Mayor Annie Revie said it was by luck the island was getting by with two semi-retired vets.
“We’re just kind of lucky that most of the time, one of them is there, but there have been occasions when people have had accidents to a dog and they’ve had to send the animal over to Tasmania or Victoria,” Ms Revie said.
She said the council had chosen land where a potential new practice could be built.
“We’ve got a little hub just outside of Whitemark where the showgrounds are and the community shed is, and we’ve got plenty of room there, so we think that’s the probable place for it,” she said.
But she said growing the island’s population was key to enticing more essential workers, including vets.
“We have a population of around 1,010 people … if we had about 1,200 people we believe we’d be more sustainable,” Ms Revie said.
Mr O’Dell agreed getting more people to the island was needed to improve services and entice young single professionals.
The council hoped its new purpose-built clinic could also include boarding kennels for domestic pets.
The island currently doesn’t have any kennels to house animals when residents go off island.