Meet the desert vet who befriended Red Dog, WA’s most famous canine

By Justin Gilligan 3 May 2023
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The story of Red Dog captured the hearts of a generation when it first came to light, but few people knew how much he owed his survival to country vet Rick Fenny.

Two weathered, wide-brim hats live on the passenger seat of Rick Fenny’s red-dusted Landcruiser, reflecting the hard-working nature of the man who wears them against the harsh elements of Australia’s north-west.

Rick was the real-life vet of Red Dog, the kelpie who famously roamed WA’s Pilbara in the 1970s, and about which a movie of the same name was made. The two were companions to the end when Rick was forced to make the difficult decision to euthanise the much-loved canine after he was thought to have been poisoned by strychnine in November 1979.

The vet and the famed dog first crossed paths in 1975, soon after Rick opened a private veterinary practice in Karratha, in the Pilbara. “A wounded kelpie was brought in for treatment,” he recalls. “I thought nothing of it at the time, treated the injury and sent it on its way.” A few days later a different owner brought in the same dog and then, by the third visit with a different owner, Rick realised this was a community dog.

Station life

These days Rick is still a working vet, but he’s also turned entrepreneur, which has seen him twice nominated for the Western Australian of the Year. His Rick Fenny Group comprises his veterinary practice franchise, branded as Pets and Vets, Shark Bay’s Ocean Park Aquarium managed by his son Ed Fenny, Maitraya Luxury Private Retreat in Albany, on WA’s southern coast, and several pastoral properties.

Rick often joins his son Sam Fenny and Brown Dog at work on the neighbouring Carbla and Woodleigh stations, east of Shark Bay. Sam oversees the day-to-day running of the properties that have a backdrop dominated by low-lying acacia, samphire, spinifex and red sand that stretches to a shimmering horizon.

These days, Carbla is transitioning from sheep to goats due to pricing and demand. “It’s ideal country for goats,” Rick explains. “We’re heading toward the domestic retail market, [with products] such as Carbla saltbush lamb and goat.” The Fennys are also moving into carbon farming, which encourages farmers to conserve native vegetation while earning a passive income.

Carbla borders the eastern shore of Hamelin Pool, which supports thriving patches of stromatolites in its sheltered water.

“All of the David’s have been here,” Rick jokes. That includes David Suzuki and Sir David Attenborough, who filmed picturesque stromatolites that are easily accessible from the shore of Carbla Station. The property homestead itself is built from solidified coquina shell blocks from a nearby coastal quarry.

The old car

Carbla Station is steeped in history, with many remnants on the property – reminders of the station’s colourful past. Its previous owner, who was born there in 1935, was told a story by his father of an old car on the property. He shared the tale with Rick.

The old main road along the WA coast used to run through Carbla, bringing the station infrequent traffic in the early 1900s. Around the outbreak of World War II, a young man looking to enlist broke down driving his car from Carnarvon to Perth. He walked into the station and waited for a lift south with the mail man and said he’d return to pick the car up after the war, but never did.

“We’re waiting to hear a knock on the door to say he’s come to pick up his car, which is getting less and less likely now,” Rick says. “I’d love that story to get out there because maybe somebody knows this man.” 

Desert vet

Rick has also become the star of a reality TV show Desert Vet. The series follows Rick’s adventures around remote areas of WA, but cuts back to what’s happening at the coalface at Pets and Vets.

The series aims to showcase WA, demonstrating the beauty of places such as the Pilbara, Shark Bay and the Gascoyne. “It’s as much about beautiful visuals of the locations as it is about the colourful characters and animals we meet along the way,” Rick says.

“Like everything I do, it has a strong family element, working alongside Sam and Ed, and my daughter Louisa [the Holistic Vet]. Those three are central characters, but it’s also about the staff at Pets and Vets, who are also part of my extended family.”

With so many commitments, Rick, now in his early 70s, is showing no signs of slowing down and finds a fresh challenge in everything he does. He says he enjoys maintaining a busy lifestyle and the experiences he gets along the way. “I like the beauty in the landscape and the people around me. It’s rewarding to have that beauty and stimulation to keep me going.”

Related: Meet the world’s largest plant: a single seagrass clone stretching 180 km in Western Australia’s Shark Bay