Companion animals play a significant and versatile role in rural and remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, providing emotional support and safety. They serve as loyal companions, physical and spiritual protectors, hunting aids, a source of warmth on cold nights and help to keep rodents and snakes away. Many animals roam freely, out of choice, but there is always someone looking after them – an individual, a family or sometimes an entire community. For those living away from community, companion animals bring a sense of connection to home – keeping people grounded because they are connected to their land.
For some, dogs are woven into the fabric of community and culture, language centres, kinship systems and totems that are all important cultural determinants of health. The bonds between people and their animals can be as strong, or even stronger, than the bonds shared with family. The connection between people and their animals is raw and powerful. You can see a difference in body language and the sense of pride that is felt as the animals follow them around the community.
Companion animals take away feelings of loneliness that can come from social isolation, especially for the older generations and Elders. There is a comfort in knowing that they will be there when people need them the most. It’s the type of relationship that fills the heart, and the rest of the body is at peace. When people don’t have their animals with them, it takes a massive toll on both their mental and physical health.
But people don’t have enough health information. They don’t have services available. Some are living hand to mouth and need to think about their own welfare. In remote areas without access to basic health and veterinary services, and with the closest facilities hundreds of kilometres away, many owners have no choice but to watch as their animals give birth to litter after litter. As parasites build up on the animal and in the home, or as their much-loved animal’s health deteriorates, the community’s perception and behaviour towards the animal can change.
People on the outside looking in may ask – why don’t they get help? But it’s not that easy and, if they could, they would. Not having access to services that are considered basic in urban settings, causes shame and makes people who are vulnerable at the best of times, even more vulnerable.
Large packs of dogs, and even cats, can become aggressive. These ‘cheeky’ animals can cause massive fear and concern for people who want nothing more than to protect the safety and welfare of all members of the community. Roaming cats can be so destructive, peeing everywhere and killing native wildlife living in areas surrounding remote communities – animals the community members depend on for food and that play an important role in culture and tradition.
Not having anyone to call for help or information in these situations leaves many lost and without options – with damaging effects on the mental health and wellbeing of both individuals and communities.
Working with rural and remote communities to provide culturally and contextually appropriate access to animal health and veterinary services, education and training, has a huge impact on the wellbeing of all members of the community. When consistent services are available, the health and welfare of the animals improves and the mental health of the owners also improves. It gives community members a voice and empowerment, and they no longer need to feel shame or vulnerability when it comes to their animals. They can stand up and be proud that they are getting help.
Developed with contributions from the Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities (AMRRIC) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Committee.