NOOSA –Dr Howard Ralph is an eminent Australian wildlife vet who on Monday night featured on ABC-TV's Australian Story, which told of his epic and self-sacrificing commitment to Australia's bush creatures.
Howard Kenneth Ralph, we knew him as ‘Howie’ but I doubt this was his preferred mode of address, taught in the highlands of Papua New Guinea in the mid-1960s and has for many years now been known one of Australia’s best-known, most reclusive and most revered wildlife vets.
Howard trained as a cadet education officer at the Australian School of Pacific Administration in 1962-63 alongside me and other worthies who had committed some years of our youth to the then Australian jointly administered territories of Papua and New Guinea.
We arrived in PNG to start our new careers in November 1963, a week before President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
Howard initially went to Navuneram in East New Britain for a final practice teaching before his first formal posting to Mt Hagen Primary School in the Western Highlands.
In 1965, he was despatched as teacher-in-charge to Nunga between Mt Hagen and Banz, where he stayed as for two years
Howard lived a solitary life at Nunga, focusing on his school duties and on saving money to undertake the medical degree he had yearned to acquire. He lived frugally, when I visited him there in mid-1966, he was living on brown rice, kaukau and tinned mackerel pike.
He didn’t make it into medical school first up, but in 1967 began studying veterinary science at the University of Sydney. After graduation, he practised as a vet for three years before embarking on a medical degree at the University of NSW.
Graduating from there, Howard decided to become a GP while continuing to work in his veterinary practice. The combination became too difficult to manage, especially as he’d also taken on further studies for a Diploma of Fine Arts and then a master’s degree in veterinary science specialising in wildlife medicine and particularly in anaesthesia for wildlife.
This rich combination of expertise has directed his life until the present.
At first the weighting was to medicine and he took up a position at Calvary Hospital in Canberra working in emergency medicine, skin cancer surgery and anaesthesia.
He and his wife Glenda, a physiotherapist and veterinary nurse, bought a property east of Canberra at a small place called Tarago, near Braidwood.
Here they were to establish their veterinary hospital – for wildlife.
The hospital is dependent largely on voluntary contributions and voluntary labour.
Howard’s wildlife work, perhaps considered by his peers to be a bit beyond the mainstream, has never been the recipient of significant funding nor even the recognition that might be expected.
But his commitment is unwavering, despite serious illnesses and a roof-fall at Tarago that may have killed a lesser person.
Howard is now in his early seventies and, as Australian Story showed, he is beginning to turn his mind to ensuring his legacy as a friend and protector of Australian wildlife continues long after he is able to continue.
Judging by the passion and dedication of the people who support him, he’s well on the way to ensuring this.
Credit: Images are screenshots taken from the ABC's 'Australian Story'