OUTBACK EDUCATION IN THE ‘NOT TOO DISTANT’ PAST (30)

Warburton Ranges (WA) in 1974-75 (30)

Dogs were very much an integral part of life at Warburton. There were few families without dogs, often in multiples. The dogs were thin, underfed, and many were riddled with disease. Heartworm was prevalent, the telltale signs being loss of condition, depletion of energy, dull coats, hair falling out and skin taking on permanent scaliness. Eventually the dogs would collapse and die. Very sick dogs were often attacked by other canines, the object being to kill and eat them. In similar vein, dead dogs were carcasses to be attacked and consumed by dogs remaining alive.

Hunger drove dogs to extraordinary lengths as they tried to sustain themselves. Rubbish bins, 44 gallon (120 litre) drums were jumped into by dogs looking for morsels of food to eat. Before burning accumulated rubbish in the bins, it was often necessary to shoo dogs away. I witnessed dogs who happened across unopened cans of food, work those cans over with their teeth until a hole gouged in the can revealed the contents. The dog would suck at the punctured tin until it was empty of contents.

At one stage in 1970 an artist, Mrs Souness, the mother of our headmaster’s wife, visited Warburton. She did a series of sketches of life around Warburton including her take on the impact of dogs. She gave me a set of her drawings which I have preserved to this day and would be happy to share by copying for others. Appropriate credits would apply. Her sketches and depictions were very true to life and showed just how dogs interacted with children and adults at Warburton.

During the cold winter months, nighttime temperatures often hovered in the single digits area on the thermometer. Windchill exacerbated coldness. People huddled in camps often with a minimal number of blankets and around meagre campfires, used their dogs to create body warmth as humans and canines huddled together. Common parlance described the environmental conditions as anywhere between ‘two dog’ to ‘six dog’ nights. The colder the night the higher the aggregate assigned to dogs to describe the level of cold.

The value placed on dogs meant that none were ever destroyed. Neither was there any veterinary attention given to these animals. The dogs were prolific breeders because neutering was not practised. Young pups quickly became ill because of heartworm and lived with their lives with this and other afflictions. They took their chances of survival in a world as harsh as any in which dogs have ever been asked to survive. They were a key and integral element of the community’s social fabric. While many dogs may have been inclined toward viscousness, this behaviour was dampened by their sickness and consequent lack of energy.

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