Australia

Flying around the country to treat remote Australia’s pets? Life’s not so idyllic as an outback vet

This story contains reference to suicide 
Dr Campbell Costello isn’t your typical vet.
He’s spent twelve years working as a veterinary practitioner but he’s also managed to get himself a pilot licence and says flying serves as a pressure relief valve after a tough day working on animals.
“I don’t have to be a vet at that moment, Campbell says.
“It’s just the aeroplane and I. It’s my way to decompress. As I say, take off my vet hat and put on my pilot hat.
“I do like being a flying vet. I like the challenge. It makes you feel alive”.
His two hats have allowed him to travel all over Australia, servicing remote communities which often haven’t seen a vet in years.
Campbell grew up in Charters Towers, in northern Queensland and it’s where we meet him for our outback adventure.
Our first stop is the remote western outpost of Boulia, a 9-hour journey by road, two-and-a-half by air.
We arrive on a pretty big day for the town – the Boulia Easter Races. It’s an event that attracts horse owners and race-goers from far and wide – some have travelled for a day or two to get here.
Campbell has answered an SOS call to be the official veterinarian of the race.
“You know, there are so many eyes on this race between stewards, race-callers, barrier attendees, and a vet, to make sure that these animals from start to finish, are fine, are okay” Campbell says.
Not only is Campbell the official vet, he’s also the drug tester.
“We’ve gotta do it all (pulling blood samples from horse) in front of the trainer. , Someone has to make sure that I’m not doing the dodgy or swapping it.”
“The buck stops with me as far as this whole thing going here now.”
As the day wraps up after five back-to-back races, Campbell gets a call from a local woman asking him to check on one of her animals.
A short drive out of town we meet farm owner Maryellen Blacket, who has lived in Boulia for the past eight years. She’s got four kids and has lost count of the number of animals. Today she needs Dr Costello to examine a young orphan camel.
“We don’t normally get vets, it’s very hard to get a vet out here,” Maryellen says.

“If there’s something very serious, you’ve nearly gotta go to Townsville for real big things like horses with colic or broken legs and bits and pieces like that..”

Man pets a camel.

Dr Campbell Costello examining a young orphan camel.

And Townsville is about a ten-hour drive from Boulia, Maryellen explains.

“So yeah, it’s quite a stint. Quite a lot of the vets from Mount Isa and even Longreach work 24/7, like there’s no weekends off or anything like that. They’re always under the pump, poor buggers. And everybody’s got an animal these days.”

Campbell says while animals are in high demand, vets are in short supply.

“There’s plenty of bricks and mortar clinics out there. The one thing that is in such high demand is, bodies, is human resources. It’s a lot of heavy work as a flying locum or a bush vet.”

Mt Isa’s Vet Shortage

On our second day on the job with Campbell we travel to Mount Isa and meet Dr Gillian Tenni.
Gillian is due to have her first baby in just a few weeks and she’s still working as one of only two vets in Mount Isa. The city in outback Queensland has a population of more than 20,000 people, plus their pets.
“I love what I do, every day is different. I love the clients. I’m really fortunate to have such a good community.
She’s been advertising a full-time vet position to work at her clinic for more than a year now. But instead has had to rely on locums such as Campbell to help when they can.

“I think my personal life really has suffered, Gillian explains.

“I don’t really see my partner very often because by the time I get home at 10, 11:30 at night [after starting work at 8.30 or 9am], he’s had dinner and he is gone to bed.”

Two women in scrubs treat a dog.

Dr Gillian Tenni (right) has been advertising a full-time vet position to work at her clinic for more than a year. She has had to rely on locums such as Dr Campbell.

She says the long hours have made it difficult to plan for a family.

“It has been a tough road. I kind of got to a point where I thought I might not be able to have children and kind of just gave up.”
“This is my first pregnancy, so I’m not really sure what is the norm, but my plan is to work as long as I can and have time off when the baby’s born, but I don’t anticipate it’ll be very long before I’ll have to come back to work and bring the baby with me here.”
“And I do feel guilty sometimes because I am working so much. Am I putting the baby at risk? The doctors have said ‘oh, you have to step it back’. But it’s just too hard.”
Campbell says burnout is a common theme across many regional and rural vet clinics.
“I see vets like Dr Gill all the time, “ he says.
“She’s putting her baby and herself and personal life secondary to this job.
“I’ve thought about leaving the profession a couple of times. Just the burnout, the long hours, you know, the low remuneration, ” he says.

After spending several years at university, vets are among the lowest paid professions upon graduation.

Veterinarian staff shortage ‘crisis’

Warwick Vale, president of the Australian Veterinary Association, says the industry’s staff shortage has almost reached a crisis point.
“We don’t have enough veterinarians working to fulfil the hours of service that are needed in practices, “ he says.

“We’ve got lots of jobs being advertised for veterinarians. The list is huge if you go on the recruitment sites and look at practices that are looking for veterinarians.”

Man stands next to a plane

Dr Campbell says his time in the air helps relieve the pressure after a tough day working on animals.

It means that the staff in those clinics are working harder than ever right at a time when animal ownership is soaring.
“The clinical practices are reporting up to 20 to 30 per cent increase in demand for services. So that’s an increase in demand for services on principally companion animals – dogs and cats. And that is from city to city across Australia” Mr Vale says.
Plus, there’s a major problem which has been associated with the veterinary profession in Australia for years now
A study published in the Australian Veterinary Journal found that suicide rates for veterinary workers in Victoria and Western Australia were up to four times that of the general population.
Vet Life Australia a charity dedicated to mental health awareness and suicide prevention reports that the rate of suicide equates to one veterinarian dying by suicide every 12 weeks.
Mr Vale says the veterinary workplace model needs to change.

“On the two issues of workforce shortages and poor mental health, they’re intertwined, and we’re seeing them as that. And we’re working on them. We have to sort our own house out, there’s no doubt about that.”

Two men talk in a room.

Dr Campbell says there are changes the industry should be making to better support the mental health of people in the profession.

Among the things he wants to see change is more government funding to help sustain the industry and also change to community attitudes about the value of veterinarians.

Campbell says he’s ‘sick to death’ of hearing the ‘same narrative.’
“I think what upsets me the most is we bury another vet just because they got burnt out, they were abused and they’re not getting paid well. You know, people are dying and it is just some simple things that can be changing.”
“People acquire a pet or get one given to them and they’ve done no due diligence to go, well, what’s the cost of this look like? you know, what does a dog getting run over or bitten by a snake look like? I can tell you now – it’s thousands of dollars. There’s no federal or state government picking up the tab on this.

“1.9 million pets were acquired during COVID, you know, more people went and got a pet.”

‘We love what we do’

Seeing the challenges of this job – the long days, the emotional and physical toll – it seems there’s an obvious question:
Gillian says she’s always wanted to be a vet from a very young age.
“It can be a very rewarding career. It’s nice when you can perform a surgery and save an animal’s life. We love what we do.”
And Campbell too, says he wouldn’t have life any other way.
“There’s always gonna be second dying animals so that, you know, whether you are there or not, but you, you can’t make a difference if you are gone.”
“It will test you a hundred per cent, but my gosh, it’s worth it.”
Readers seeking crisis support can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged up to 25). More information and support with mental health is available at and on 1300 22 4636.
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