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Wildlife vet saves thousands

Howard Ralph Tawny Frogmouth

By Maria Taylor, District Bulletin, April 2012

HOWARD RALPH is a legend amongst wildlife carers in Palerang and in Sydney and becoming so across the nation.

Based in eastern Palerang, he goes where other veterinarians can’t or won’t go and he has an awesome lifesaving track record.

Lesley Machin, a wildlife carer from Wamboin, who has taken many wombats to Dr Ralph for treatment, recalls how he fixed the back leg of her eight-year-old neighbourhood Eastern Grey Kangaroo.

“She hit something and dislocated her back leg. It was completely facing the wrong way. Other vets would just have euthanized her but Howard managed to pull the leg back into the socket, which wasn’t easy, tighten up the ligaments which he then stitched up, and splinted and bandaged the leg.”

Machin said that the challenging part was the post-operative care which worked because ‘Tinkerbell’ was fairly habituated to humans and did not stress in confinement.

Dr Ralph himself says that wild adult kangaroos are amongst the most challenging cases because of the need to restrict the patient in post-operative care and the stress that it causes. The operations he calls standard, but the post care is not, because kangaroos die of stress.

Very many of his patients are the victims of cars – with large numbers of broken kangaroo legs, broken tortoise shells, lizards with back injuries, baby wombats with run-over mothers. He has resuscitated a kangaroo in cardiac arrest.

All manner of birds are also brought in, like the tawny frogmouth he was nursing at our visit. He does a lot of surgery on eye injuries and cataracts, because most wildlife cannot survive blind.

“He’s never turned a person or an animal away,” says Machin. He doesn’t charge for wildlife work, now relying on a fundraising charity and other donations and the considerable support to the enterprise of his wife Glenda who works as a physio and nurse (also both human and veterinary) in Braidwood and in Queanbeyan.

Dividing his time between the Braidwood property and a Sydney practice, Howard Ralph is now fully dedicated to wildlife work.

It wasn’t always like that for this remarkable physician who holds a human medical degree as well as his veterinary training. In fact it was his former work as an anaesthetist that honed his skills in getting tubes down narrow and short throats that often present in wildlife work, says Machin.

“He could have had an easy and wealthy life as an anaesthetist, you know holidays in Europe the whole thing, but instead he’s chosen this. He’s saved thousands of lives,” says Glen Ryan, one of a small cadre of dedicated volunteer assistants. Ryan clearly thinks Dr Ralph is too modest as he sits in the kitchen of his farmhouse telling the Bulletin how he came to do this work.

He says the doctor now gets constant calls to give free veterinary advice to people all over the country and even overseas.

Wombat brain surgery

Howard Ralph is over six foot tall with hands to match. It’s hard not to marvel at how he does such delicate surgery on some pretty small anatomy.

Asked to recount a recent challenging case, he tells of a wildlife carer who brought in a 2kg baby wombat which looked alright but had a terrible smell coming from a small hole in its head. It was infected, and on examination related to a compound fracture of the skull which was starting to destroy the brain.

Several multi-hour skull operations were followed by a post-operative period just like a human case with tubes and monitoring. The wombat survived and is now doing well.

Dr Ralph started his humanitarian career in New Guinea as a teacher before entering Sydney University in the late 1960s to study veterinary medicine. He thought he should do a human medical degree as well because his parents were ailing and he might have to help them.

When some people turned up with a sick child and a lizard at his general practice in Newport in the 1970s, the dye was cast for the multi-strand career and further training in animal and human medicine. Until his own health forced him to slow down and chose between the two.

He chose wildlife, after seeing the after-math of the 2000 bush-fires on the South Coast. He has since volunteered after the Queensland floods and the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria which he says had a horrific impact on wildlife (swamp wallabies with their eyes burned out, faces burned off and so forth) with very minimal help available.

How does he view his work? He says he is “busting the myth that wildlife cannot be treated successfully”.

www.southerncrosswildlifecare.org.au is the charity raising money for the wildlife medical practice.

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