DEW farewells long-serving animal welfare manager

After 27 years at DEW Dr Deb Kelly is retiring from her role as Animal Welfare Manager, leaving behind her a body of work that’s made a significant difference.

Deb started her career at the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, as it was then known, in 1994 as a Principal Animal Welfare Officer, and since then she has worked in some of the most contentious areas of the environment portfolio, at many different levels and in a variety of roles.

She has been responsible for animal welfare and fauna permits, and for a number of years was the Executive Officer of the Dog and Cat Management Board. For all her time with the department she held the role of Executive Officer to the Animal Welfare Advisory Committee.

It was pioneering work which at times was shaped by Deb’s own experiences.

‘Many years ago I was driving through the hills with my daughter when she was little and there was a dog in the back of a ute in front of us and I said to her “Do you think that should be allowed?” and she said “No, it might fall out, hit the windscreen, kill us, and kill the dog”,’ Deb said.

‘So we added that to the amendments which were out for consultation on the then current Dog and Cat Management Act – and consequently the Act was changed.’

At the national level, Deb worked at improving animal welfare policy and legislation through her membership of the National Consultative Committee on Animal Welfare, which evolved into the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy. As part of this strategy, she led the Wildlife Working Group.

Despite the lack of precedent for this type of legislation, even early on in her career at the department Deb suspected that there was the potential to make significant change.

‘I knew it to a degree. Before I joined the department I was a vet in practice then I was a TAFE lecturer,’ she said.

‘As a vet in practice you get the dog that’s been hit by a car, so you get to fix the dog but you don’t fix the problem. And it really is fun to fix the problem.’

Deb was a member of the Stakeholder Advisory Group for development of the Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Land Transport of Livestock, for Cattle, for Sheep and for Poultry and was a member of the Drafting Group for Australian Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Poultry.

She has authored a number of legislative improvements including the Animal Welfare Act and Regulations as well as various other legislative instruments.

To many of us it’s heavy, arduous work and at times this was quite literally the case – back in 2007 her review of the Dog and Cat Management Act required her to work through two suitcases full of public submissions.

Even so, according to her colleagues Deb has an amazing ability to reduce something to its essence and communicate it in a way that hits the mark perfectly in an incredibly short amount of time. 

This ability is also what’s made her so successful in talking to the media over the years. That, and her relatable manner. She’s an expert at communicating practical information about how to interact with wildlife in a way that resonates with the public.

Her colleagues will miss her knowledge, but most of all they will miss the stories that come from working with someone who’s seen and done it all. After all, it’s not every day that your colleague has a dead dolphin in a body bag in the back seat of their car.

Deb was at Bolivar with her son trying to get a dead dolphin, which was hard to move due to rigor-mortis, out of the back seat of her car at the museum cetacean facility (which is behind the Bolivar treatment works) on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

They were bending, pulling and pushing the dolphin, trying to get it out of the car, when they were pulled up by a local fisherman who was understandably alarmed.

When he asked, ‘What’s with the body bag?’ Deb’s response was equally understandable, ‘It’s a dead dolphin. Now can you stop talking and give us a hand to get it out of the car.’ He quickly realised he was not an accessory to a murder – it really was a dolphin – and helped them out.

When Deb was asked about a career highlight, it was obvious for her.

‘The best bit is making a system work, actually getting an outcome and getting legislative change,’ she said.

‘It’s just too easy to say “Oh, it’s the system’s fault, you can’t do it”. But it’s not. If you work through the system you can make real changes.’

As for what comes next, Deb was adamant that it wouldn’t involve either watching TV or writing letters to the Minister.

‘I’ll see what happens – my immediate focus is getting the garden in order, finishing a quilt I’ve been doing, but I’ve got no intention of just watching TV forever so I’ll find something that’s interesting and do it,’ she said.

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Animal Welfare Manager Deb Kelly’s role is incredibly diverse. Here she is standing in front of one of six sperm whales washed up dead in a rare mass stranding at Parara Beach near Ardrossan in 2014, a distressing event which received national attention. Image source AFP/Getty Images