It’s a tricky business entering RSPCA’s vet care centre at Lonsdale during a mass cat desexing day. As soon as you creak open the front door, your eardrums are hit with the echoing beeps from heart rate monitors, and you have to delicately step through the maze of cat carriers piled up at the entrance while a bucket brigade of veterinary nurses and volunteers squeeze past, with a kitten in each hand.
At first glance, this busy scene looks somewhat chaotic. However, if you can stand out of the way and observe all the action, you start to appreciate how intricately choreographed the whole procedure actually is.
Chief Veterinarian Brad Ward dubs it a ‘logistical triumph,’ a production line that sees 50 to 60 cats desexed in a single day. It’s a result that would have been impossible for RSPCA to achieve 15 years ago when Brad first started.
An archaic law was preventing RSPCA from making the vital change it needed
Prior to 2007, RSPCA South Australia didn’t have a resident vet. The animal care team would transport sick and injured animals to external clinics, where they would barter for the best price. One of the few staff members who remember this period, Rescue Team Leader Nalika van Loenen, described the pre-vet era as a continuous struggle.
“It was a nightmare, we had to outsource everything,” said Nalika.
“I even started collecting bottles and cans to help raise enough money for minor treatments. When the shelter was full, I would reach out to clinics all around Adelaide until I could find vets prepared to offer us a discount for things like desexing. It was extremely expensive and took a lot of sweet-talking and running around.”
RSPCA was in desperate need of its own vet but a legal obstacle prevented the organisation from recruiting one. A cutout from RSPCA’s 2007 annual report details the historic moment when the passing of the Veterinary Practice Act effectively gave the organisation permission to employ its own vet.
The times they are a-changin’ – a fortuitous moment leads to Dr Ward becoming RSPCA’s first-ever vet
In 2007, Dr Ward was at a crossroads in his professional career. The clinic he had worked at for years had been sold and was now under new management. Brad knew he was ready for a change.His next decision would see him working at RSPCA South Australia for the next 15 years.
He was first alerted to the job by a close friend within the organisation. Brad had previously assisted the organisation’s inspectorate in court, where he had written a report on a neglected animal and appeared as a prosecution witness – an experience that would play a pivotal role in Brad making the decision to become RSPCA South Australia’s first-ever vet.
Chief Inspector Andrea Lewis worked at RSPCA for two years prior to Dr Ward’s employment and recalls the state of the organisation’s medical clinic as being something from another time.
“There was virtually no medical equipment and the medicine for the entire shelter fitted into a single cupboard. Brad was essentially building our veterinary infrastructure from scratch. He was definitely in uncharted waters,” said Andrea.
With an ever-increasing number of animals coming into the shelter, Dr Ward found himself handling the behemoth task of providing veterinary support for hundreds of animals.
“It was very much a fish-out-of-water experience. The facilities in an animal shelter clinic are different from what you would see in a private vet clinic, and in those days we didn’t have all the equipment we have today.
“There was no x-ray machine, for example. We had a large number of animals but what I was able to provide in veterinary care was much less than our team does these days,” said Brad.
“I had three days of desexing. I’d have Friday and Sunday off and on Saturdays, I provided vaccinations for the public. We had an animal house upstairs at the old city premises on Morphett Street and I had to go there one day each week to check on the animals. In between all this, I had to write up legal reports for prosecutions of cruelty offenders.”
Building an animal care network from the ground up
Today, you will often find Dr Ward roaming the corridors of the cat care centre with a small assembly of vet students, volunteers and vet nurses walking double-time to keep up with his long stride. You can see the level of concentration on their faces, as Brad reviews each animal’s care plan and delivers his instructions. He has a surprisingly gentle voice for a man of his size and stature, yet there is a stoic allure about him. During the interactions, you can always sense a high level of respect and admiration for Brad and his immense wealth of medical knowledge and experience.
Dr Ward now manages a team of 16 who provide veterinary care to around 9,000 animals a year. Back in 2007, as RSPCA’s only vet in South Australia, the overwhelming workload made expanding the team a major priority.
“It became apparent that we needed more staff and eventually we had some coming in part-time. It was a demanding environment, for our small team and I have been pleased to help facilitate its expansion over the years,” said Dr Ward.
When the team had grown to an adequate size, Brad felt ready to put down the scalpel and pick up a pen.
“Early on I choose to focus more on animals coming through for prosecutions.
I chose to stand back from surgery and give opportunities to new vets. They come with a goal to prove skills in their area. Roles change and I think that we have extended our capability a lot.”
Despite the success of Dr Ward’s grassroots vet team, he still needed to look outward. A large percentage of animals coming into RSPCA’s care were requiring specialist veterinarians, and fostering good relations with the wider veterinary community became paramount.
“During the past decade, we have been able to establish relationships with other clinics and offer opportunities for external vets to assist with surgeries. Many of them do very generous work for RSPCA for minimal or no cost.”
It’s always been about the animals
After all these years, Brad’s passion for animals remains unchanged. There’s something about his demeanour when he is handling a puppy or scruffing a cat’s chin that conveys a genuine sense of happiness.
When asked to identify his proudest moment, Brad responded, “I don’t have one.” Instead, he focuses on his victories as a collective.
“There have been so many legal prosecutions, where neglected, incredibly stressed and sick animals have come into our care.
“Helping to restore those animals’ health and watching their confidence build to the point where they are ready to find homes has definitely made my time working here worthwhile.
“As time has gone on, our reputation has spread far and people will often now surrender animals to us if they have concrete problems or they can’t afford to care for them. It shows that the community has grown to trust us.”
Brad leaves behind an impressive legacy. Under his guidance and leadership, RSPCA South Australia has been able to lower its euthanasia rates to record levels, to the point where nine out of every ten animals is now being rehomed.
“We never thought we’d be able to rehome animals with pre-existing medical problems but here we are finding homes for those who need it most. Lowering the euthanasia statistics to where they are today is a source of great pride for me and the rest of the team.
“It’s always good to think you’re growing, expanding, changing and improving.
“We have employed passionate and capable, visionary vets to help expand what we do and that’s been a really enjoyable part of this job.”
Brad says he will enjoy watching the growth of RSPCA from the sidelines
The retirement of RSPCA South Australia’s first vet, coinciding with the announcement of RSPCA’s new Animal Care Campus, feels like the end of an era. Moving to the new facility without Brad’s leadership will feel bitter-sweet for the vet team he created, but Brad is confident about their future.
“I’ll miss the daily interaction with the team and the unique personalities of the staff. It has been great working alongside people who share the same goals and have the same attitudes towards the work we do. I have had a lot of fun and will always remember the people I have worked with. I’m so proud of everything they have done and how they have benefited animal welfare positively in South Australia.”
When asked if he had any advice for the next chief vet, Brad said it was important for them to simply enjoy the journey.
“It’s not going to be perfect. You will have your dark days but remember that every little thing you do is going to be beneficial to an animal somewhere. Every animal you help is a life that wouldn’t have received help anywhere else. What we do is valuable. Appreciate that and pat yourself on the back every single day because you are doing something special.”
Brad said he has plenty of sleep to catch up on. He is excited to start hobbies, travel and of course, keep an eye on what’s happening at RSPCA South Australia from afar.
Brad, you will be greatly missed by your team and the organisation as a whole. Thank you for building a brighter future for animals in South Australia, and we all wish you the very best in your well-earned retirement.
We are currently on the lookout to find RSPCA South Australia’s next Chief Veterinarian – those who are interested can apply HERE.