In our new column ‘Introducing…’ we speak to a different veterinarian each month, to spotlight the unique and passionate individuals that make up our diverse profession. This month we caught up with Bronwyn Orr, a veterinarian and Scientific Officer at RSPCA Australia in Canberra, ACT. Bronwyn is passionate about animal welfare and has worked with the RSPCA in some capacity for most of her life. This ongoing relationship with the organisation helped her secure her current position as Scientific Officer for Companion Animals with RSPCA Australia.
You’re currently one of the young leaders in animal welfare in Australia, take us back to how you started and where it all began?
I went to JCU (James Cook University) in Townsville and graduated in 2013. The thing I really liked about JCU is that it offers one of the few veterinary degrees that’s located all in one place – you don’t have to go off to another campus, to complete your study. This meant that I could stay in touch with other things that were important to my life; my part-time job, my community, my friends.
Being from North Queensland – I’m from Mackay – meant going to JCU was really my best local option too. I also did rock climbing and, it might not surprise you, volunteer work with the local RSPCA, while I was studying.
So, from JCU, I went to my first job with RSPCA Victoria at their Pearcedale shelter. Pearcedale is semi-rural and I got to work as the shelter vet, looking after the shelter animals and also doing public consultations and surgeries, like private practice work.
This was a fantastic new grad job, I learned so much, we were super busy, but I was well supported by experienced vets. Oh, and we saw a lot of horses, Pearcedale used to house all of the seized horses.
Tell me more about how the RSPCA came to be an important part of your work?
I’ve always been interested in animal welfare from before university, from when I was a little kid. The RSPCA is appealing because it's aligned with my personal views and is the most influential animal welfare organisation in Australia.
I’ve been actively involved with the RSPCA since high school when I ran a fundraiser in my final year of school. The aim was to raise funds to build a local animal shelter. When I was growing up there wasn’t one in Mackay. It was pretty successful, we raised $10,000 and the CEO of RSPCA came to Mackay and we presented him with one of those big cheques [chuckles.}
How did you progress from that first job with RSPCA to where you are now in Canberra?
I couldn’t stay long at RSPCA Vic because my partner needed to find work, it was difficult to find work in Pearcedale – so we moved back to Mackay and I went into private practice for the first time. I think being able to put roots down in a place that you work is really important. If you can’t connect with the area and community, you tend to feel lost and unsupported.
I talk to veterinary students that I mentor about this – consider the 'non-vet' aspects of a job that you’re looking at taking – how supported will you be? If you’re unsupported, you’re likely to not stay, pull up stumps after only a year or two and head to somewhere where you can find the support.
It’s a strange thing that I’ve noticed about veterinarians when they come out of vet school. I think it’s to do with the isolation and focus of the training, we’re really only there to do one thing: to get through school and a lot of the other life-giving activities get put to the side. It’s almost as though when students graduate, get their first job, they have forgotten how to live like normal people.
This leads to a kind of 'depression' where the rosy thoughts of being a vet wear off and people start wondering “is there more to life?” and perhaps they want to be close to friends and family. This is one of the factors behind why I think we have so many vets leaving the profession after 5 years, their job isn’t able to give them everything they want.
How did you cope with this feeling of being flat once you’d graduated?
I’m definitely a workaholic, I freely admit it. But it was when I made the transition from clinical to non-clinical practice that I felt the biggest positive change. I’d been working in Mackay in private practice and I changed jobs to become an abattoir vet. This was a pretty tough transition, I felt like I was breaking up with myself. You know, “you’re not a real vet if you don’t do clinical work”. But it was liberating.
I was earning good money for the first time, I could rekindle my other interests, hobbies, friends. I realised for the first time that having a well-rounded life makes me happy.
It’s interesting you say that because Dr Brian McErlean says the same thing in our interview with him about mental health, that paying vets more allows the other parts of life, the parts that are so important, to be lived.
I agree. I got into animal welfare for philosophical reasons but having more free time and money means I can live a more rounded life and be happier.
One of the things I talk to veterinary students about is think about the job you’re going to take from the life-giving aspects it provides. Will it allow you to engage in those other activities that are so important, or will you be isolated and, over time, become unhappy?
You chose animal welfare for philosophical reasons; how do you keep progressing in your career?
I was looking for a job in animal welfare policy when this job opportunity at RSPCA Australia came up. It’s a wonderful feeling to be working alongside other vets and scientists who are committed to improving animal welfare.
A government vet once told me that in private practice you might treat hundreds of animals, but by influencing policy, you can change the life of thousands. I liked that, I’ve always been someone keen to get involved and help. The RSPCA provides that avenue.
But in addition, I've been studying animal welfare and doing a Masters. I’ve also commenced a part-time PhD in pig dog health and welfare. It’s about getting better all the time and taking up opportunities as they present themselves.
And going forward, I see myself in animal welfare long-term. There are so many opportunities these days. I remember at uni a lecturer once said to me, “there are no jobs in animal welfare.” Well even just a few years on, it’s different. Even Coles and Woolies have animal welfare managers, the community expectations are so much higher than they used to be. And I think that’s a good thing.