University of Melbourne Magazine

Creature comforts

  • Dr Stephen Cutter (BVSc(Hons) 1995) founded The Ark animal hospital in Darwin in 2006, the only veterinary clinic in the area that treats wildlife and domestic animals.

    Over the past 16 years, Stephen has also established canine health programs in more than 100 Indigenous communities. Dr Ella Richardson (BSc 2012, DVM 2015) moved to Darwin this year to work with Stephen. They spoke to Erin Munro (BA 2006).

    Dr Ella Richardson and Dr Stephen Cutter

    Dr Ella Richardson and Dr Stephen Cutter. PICTURE: GLENN CAMPBELL


    One day an owner brought a freshwater crocodile into the clinic. We also get lots of pythons, lots of reptiles and bird species that are native to the Northern Territory. It’s very different to the wildlife I had seen in Victoria.

    I had wanted to be a vet since I was a little kid. Coming through the veterinary course at Melbourne I found that I also loved problem solving, so it was more than just a love for animals.

    My partner and I both decided that we’d like to move to a different area, and we’d wanted to move up north for a while. Last year I came up here with Liz Tudor (BVSc(Hons) 1973), a professor at the uni, and did de-sexings in Arnhem Land. I absolutely loved it and found a passion for public health.

    Stephen does all the work with the bush trips and the dog de-sexings out in Aboriginal communities, so when I saw an advertisement for a job at The Ark I made an application.

    “I had wanted to be a vet since I was a little kid.”

    I started work here in January. We are a small-animal clinic so we don’t work with any large animals like cattle or horses. There are a lot of dogs, and then obviously all the wildlife that comes into the clinic through Ark Aid, which is the spin-off wildlife charity that The Ark runs. As a vet student you don’t get a lot of opportunities to work with wildlife; the course is focused on domestic animals, so it’s been great to get the opportunity to treat wildlife. It’s different when you’ve got a wild animal. You have to consider how we go about rehabilitation.

    One time a pelican came in from the Territory Wildlife Park. Stephen was out on a bush trip so it was down to me to treat this bird, which had been grabbed and injured by a freshwater crocodile in one of the billabongs.

    Stephen goes out on a lot of bush trips, so he’s in and out of the clinic a lot, but he’s great. As soon as he walks through the door he’s happy to give his time and I never feel as though I’m annoying him. He’s got a wealth of experience, especially with wildlife, so you can always rely on Stephen if you’ve got something tricky.

    I’ve been out on one trip with him so far. I’d love to go out more, but, given that I’ve just started, I need to be in the clinic and learning on the job. The clinic is always very busy. There’s always something to do, and something new to learn every day.


    I grew up in Alice Springs where there’s lots of wildlife and we had lots of pets. I spent most of my childhood denying that I was going to be a vet, even though most people told me, ‘Oh, you must want to be a vet’. But it turns out I did want to be one.

    On the application for Melbourne University, you had to write why you wanted to become a vet. One of my reasons was I wanted to de-sex dogs in the Aboriginal communities. I already had that passion. I’d grown up in an Aboriginal community, so I knew how important dogs were to the people, and I’d seen how badly a lot of people outside of the community treated them.

    I’ve been living here full-time since December ’99, but for three or four years before that I commuted back and forth between the top end and Victoria.

    I spend about four months a year travelling, but it’s scattered through the year in one-to-two week blocks. My practice area covers the north-western corner of Australia. I go to the Pilbara and the Kimberleys as well as down into the Central Desert. I’ve done de‑sexings at the base of Uluru and in the Kimberleys.

    We see a lot of exotic animals. We treat over 1000 wildlife cases a year, and a lot of exotic pets. It’s more reptiles and birds than mammals; we treat a lot of snakes, goannas and crocodiles. We also have a dedicated sea turtle facility – we treat about six or seven sea turtles a year that come in for a variety of reasons, like being hit by a boat.

    I’m naturally quite a cautious person so I tend to always think about safety first. Most of the hair-raising and risky experiences I’ve had have come from being persuaded by various people to do something.

    “We treat over 1000 wildlife cases a year, and a lot of exotic pets . . . We treat a lot of snakes, goannas and crocodiles.”

    In Aboriginal communities people go out into swamps and places like that to collect food. I’ve certainly been in crocodile habitats with people who know it, and it’s their country, but there has been a risk.

    I haven’t had any close calls that I know of, but there’s always the potential.

    Ella’s great. She came here for a variety of reasons, but one of her motivations was to get involved with the dog programs in the community. She’s picked things up very quickly; she’s a conscientious worker and is very caring and compassionate about wanting to learn and to do the right thing. She has a general interest in a lot of the things I’m interested in, like exotic animals and dog programs, so we’re a good team.