Volunteering as a veterinarian

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volunteering as a veterinarian
Dr Nigel Gillan at right with (from left to right) Dr Dan Edson, Dr Peter Thornber and-Dr Yushara Wijerathna from DAFF. Photo: DAFF

For veterinarian Dr Nigel Gillan, volunteering as a veterinary mentor in Solomon Islands was so worthwhile he hopes that by sharing his experience, other vets will be inspired to volunteer overseas too. By Dr Phil Tucak

Solomon Islands is only a three-hour plane flight from Brisbane, but the country—which consists of hundreds of islands—only has a handful of para-veterinarians with minimal diagnostic facilities and equipment, so there is the potential for livestock diseases to go unchecked. 

It is for this reason Australian veterinarian Dr Nigel Gillan leapt at the chance work with local agricultural officials in Solomon Islands, helping to support animal health and community livelihoods.

Dr Gillan, whose background is working as a veterinarian in rural NSW, travelled to the country on an Australian Volunteers Program assignment to work as a veterinary mentor with Solomon Islands Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.

“My work is ultimately about trying to develop the knowledge and skills of local staff, rather than simply providing a service myself,” says Dr Gillan.

“Most of that capacity building happens ‘on the job’—for example, taking staff along to perform necropsies or collect blood samples on a disease investigation. I’ve also been called on to provide some technical input on a wide range of topics such as slaughter practices, import risk, and nutrition.”  

Based in Honiara, the capital of Solomon Islands, Dr Gillan’s work has also taken him to some of the more remote parts of the country, where he has experienced the beauty of the region’s volcanic islands with their dense rainforests and pristine coral reefs. 

“It has been fascinating to work in a very different context with a very different style of livestock production. The opportunity to work with village livestock producers has been a real privilege, and I’ve met wonderful Solomon Islanders wherever I’ve travelled,” he says. 

“I’ve also been fortunate to have a few opportunities to travel outside of Solomon Islands to Timor-Leste and Fiji for veterinary conferences and workshops, which has been a fantastic way to meet veterinary colleagues from the broader region.”

With limited access to medications, laboratory facilities and veterinary equipment, Dr Gillan describes his work as challenging yet fun, with the rewards coming from the mentoring and technical expertise he can share.

“Working somewhere like Solomon Islands, everyday life becomes more challenging, interesting, and sometimes amusing because it’s all so different. Learning enough of the local pidgin language to communicate with shop owners, farmers, and staff has been enjoyable and rewarding. Even my commute to work on the local bus network, with its entertaining bus conductors, is an interesting experience—full of organised chaos.

“Australia is fortunate to have a high standard of livestock production, with pretty good access to veterinary services in most places, and it’s easy to take that for granted,” adds Dr Gillan. “Of course, a short-term volunteer can never compare to the great long-term work the local staff are doing, but hopefully an assignment like mine can support, in some small way, what’s already happening.”

Developing veterinary capacity and capability in the Pacific region is vital not only for enhancing animal health in countries like Solomon Islands, but disease surveillance in the region, specifically monitoring the spread of exotic animal diseases that could potentially threaten Australia’s agricultural industry is also beneficial. Dr Gillan says he has been fortunate in that there are lots of experienced vets back in Australia he can rely on for support to discuss the local animal health challenges he’s dealing with. “A really enjoyable and fruitful collaboration during my time here has been with the veterinary officers from Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) Pacific Engagement Program for Animal Health (PEPAH). Along with local livestock officers, I had the chance to support PEPAH’s seroprevalence surveys and farmer interviews in four provinces, and we’ve worked together on disease investigations around Honiara.

“The problem-solving nature of my veterinary work has always intrigued me. With herd-level work in particular, I was always drawn to being able to contribute to the ‘bigger picture’ of livelihoods and food security, which is particularly relevant in a development context. The fact that contributing to healthy animals can contribute to sustainable rural livelihoods is a simple but compelling idea.” 

Recruitment to an Australian Volunteers Program role involves interviews and a thorough onboarding process—mainly focused on the general attributes needed to undertake an assignment in a developing country, with the different challenges that brings.  

“Unfortunately, there are many Pacific countries which have very few or no vets either in private practice or in government roles, and it can be hard to attract people to stay long term. The Australian Volunteers Program provides great support to volunteers to make the experience as smooth as possible,” says Dr Gillan.

“For me, working as a vet with farm animals combines lots of enjoyable components—being able to work outdoors, in a job that is practical but also intellectually challenging, with the opportunity to work alongside farmers. Work like this won’t be for everyone, but it is a way to experience something different, work with great people, and contribute in a small way to an area of need.”

For Dr Gillan, his time spent volunteering in Solomon Islands has created many lasting memories and learning opportunities.

“I’d strongly recommend to other veterinarians they consider an international volunteer placement; there are some fantastic opportunities available!”

The Australian Volunteers Program is an Australian Government funded program. For more information, visit: https://www.australianvolunteers.com/.

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