A pet project

Photography: Melaine Roselea Stubbs
Photography: Melaine Roselea Stubbs

Presenter, activist and campaigner Dr Chris Brown tells Jane Duru about his latest mission—to make Australia more pet-friendly.

If the success of Bondi Vet proves anything, it is that Australia is a nation obsessed by its pets. Running since 2009, the TV show has averaged around one million viewers and is now into its 7th season. Its success is due, in part, to its likeable frontman,  Dr Chris Brown.

Charming and down-to-earth, Brown is the antithesis of the preening TV presenter. His easygoing charm and unaffected bedside manner have won him legions of four-legged—and two-legged—fans.

But there’s more to Brown than meets the eye. Indeed, considering Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world, with an estimated 63 per cent of the country owning 25 million pets, his latest mission might come as a bit of a surprise.

In 2015, data by Mars Petcare Australia showed that over the previous 12 months, cat numbers had dropped 11 per cent by 200,000, and the dog population by 100,000—a 2.9 per cent decline. In Western Australia, the drop in cat ownership was sharpest at 16 per cent, while Victoria witnessed the biggest decline in dog ownership, at 11 per cent.

Unfriendly regulations relating to pets combined with the fact that many pet owners may not replace their animals after they die, mean levels of ownership are beginning to decline, particularly in the cities. So in June this year, Brown joined the Keep Australia Pet Friendly campaign in its bid to help raise awareness of declining levels of pet ownership.

“The way we see animals has changed,” says Brown. “In the last 20 years, they’ve become fully-fledged family members. People want that to be reflected in where they can take their animals, the facilities they can offer them, and how included pets can feel in their daily lives. Yet, out there in our communities, it’s very hard now.”

Brown is very keen to communicate the health benefits of pet ownership. While most pet owners state companionship as the primary reason for getting an animal, the physical pluses can be extensive—from encouraging owners to do exercise, to reducing their risk of heart attack and lowering blood pressure. Pet therapies for a diverse assortment of patient groups have become an accepted therapeutic tool within the mainstream medical community, while the global rise of the cat café phenomenon—where patrons come simply to stroke and cuddle the feline ‘staff’—reflects a growing awareness of the many advantages of being around animals, even for those who are not ill.

“A lot of the time, we take for granted a lot of the benefits that pets bring to people and across all ages, from toddlers right through to the elderly,” says Brown.

“The way we see animals has changed. In the last 20 years, they’ve become fully-fledged family members. People want that to be reflected in where they can take their animals, the facilities they can offer them, and how included pets can feel in their daily lives.”—Dr Chris Brown

Among the reasons pet ownership is in decline, he suggests, are the lack of effective facilities and infrastructure for animal lovers, and regulations that limit the quality of life owners can have with their animals—all factors that disproportionately affect urban areas where space is at a premium and there are a higher proportion of renters.

“There simply aren’t enough off-leash dog parks and it’s very hard to rent property if you own a pet,” Brown notes. “And for people to get around with their animals is almost impossible unless you own a car. So, at a time where we’re encouraged to use public transport, you can’t get on public transport with pets. You can’t go to your local café or restaurant if you have a dog with you when you’re out on a walk. Quality of life becomes very difficult.”

Given such a state of affairs, it is hardly suprising that Sydney came last in the Pet Positives Score, making it the least pet-friendly city in Australia.

It is a situation greatly at odds with the pet-owning culture in Europe or North America, where animals are ubiquitous: on local public transport, at the pub—and no, they are not relegated to the beer garden.

Brown says he was recently on a flight in Italy where he found himself sitting across the aisle from a pug. “It was the best behaved passenger on the flight. When you compare Australia to North America and Europe, you realise how different we are. Despite us seeing ourselves as pet-loving society, we’re quite a way behind those places.”

Which is why the #keepauspetfriendly campaign has seen Brown speaking with politicians, both state-wide and nationally, about the plight of our pets, and promoting the hashtag across his social media channels. “There’s so much still to be done with the pet-friendly campaign,” he says. “We want to see tangible benefits and results out of that, so that’s going to keep me going for quite a while.”

In making it his business to champion Australia’s pets, Brown has talked to a number of local councils about what they can do to improve community facilities. “We’ve had some amazing results in the last couple of months. At the last count we had eight local councils in Australia start to install off-leash parks,” he enthuses.

He even started his own pet census, after the official version failed to ask any questions about pets.

“The whole thing came about because of frustration,” he admits. “The mantra the government gave us about making sure that we know our community so we can build better communities; well, nothing brings communities closer together than pets do. So I just found it a mixed message—that you can say you want stronger closer communities yet you don’t actually want to know how many pets there are out there.”

dr-chris-brown1Within two days of launching the census, 100,000 people had filled it out—evidence, if it were needed, of how much influence Brown wields.

His early census results indicate that almost 60 per cent of pet owners either share a bed or bedroom with their animal, while another 40 per cent show their affection by kissing their pets. “Our pet owners out there are incredibly passionate about their animals,” says Brown.

Although having a public profile has been crucial in helping Brown raise awareness of these issues, he is adamant workaday vets can also make a valuable contribution to the debate, particularly when it comes to understanding the needs of the local pet-owning community.

“Find out what’s important in your area—whether it’s an off-leash area, whether it’s a dog beach or dog park or a lack of pet-friendly rental property,” he advises. “Put up a notice in the vet clinic waiting room to find out what people are most interested in, what people need out there, and then you’ve got your own collection of data to find out what’s important to your people.”

Once vets have real data, they can use that to inform and influence the decision-makers in the local area, he says. That’s particularly true if any of those decision-makers happen to be customers. “The greatest thing about a vet clinic is that it’s a real part of the community. Vets and vet clinics can be real community leaders in this whole push.”

Brown may wield influence, but it has not all gone to his head. While he does an increasing amount of television work—he also presents I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here and features on The Project—customers at can still catch him working at the clinic, tending to patients and pet owners alike.

Somewhat modestly, he attributes his success to passion, integrity, and simply loving the job. “I still see it as a big priority to keep on working in the vet clinic as much as I can, so I’m still in there whether the cameras are in there or not; that’s a really big part of what I do.”

On the days he is not in the clinic or on camera, escape comes in the form of nature photography—just take a look at his Instagram feed to see some stunning landscape and wildlife shots.

But he is not going anywhere just yet. And, while there is plenty more of Brown to come on our screens, it may be in our communities that he makes the biggest difference.



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