Meet the UQ graduate who turned a veterinary science degree into a business empire
By Andrew Kidd Fraser
Dr Rick Fenny is as Western Australian as the Nullarbor Plain, Kim Beazley, and the Fremantle Doctor.
He’s not only been a vet for 50 years in most parts of rural Western Australia, but also has a media profile as the real-life vet to Red Dog, the kelpie who famously roamed WA’s Pilbara region in the ’70s. In recent years Fenny has also become a reality TV star in the series, Desert Vet.
Now in his early 70s, looking after creatures great and small has been the centre of Fenny’s life. But he has also branched out from being an animal vet to becoming a serial entrepreneur, using the veterinary facilities he set up to establish a broader business empire.
The Rick Fenny Group remains privately owned and consists of not only veterinary practices branded as Pets & Vets, but also farms, pastoral stations, the Ocean Park Aquarium, and Maitraya Private Retreat.
As it turns out, Fenny (Bachelor of Veterinary Science '71) is not the only veterinary science student to have developed an entrepreneurial streak – UQ graduate Graham ‘Scroo’ Turner, later to start up travel agency Flight Centre, also studied at the UQ School of Veterinary Science at the same time.
The two knew each other at university, but after graduation Turner went to London, where he got the travel bug and set up Top Deck Travel, which later morphed into Flight Centre.
“He gets upset when people say he’s never practised as a vet because he says he spent a week as a locum in London!” says Dr Fenny.
Image: Rick Fenny Group
Image: Rick Fenny Group
Fenny himself is a big guy in the west. He’s twice been a finalist in the Western Australian of the Year Awards, and has lived almost all his life in the state. But it’s the almost that’s important, because ‘Mr Western Australia’ spent five years, from 1967 to 1971, obtaining his veterinary science degree in Brisbane’s western suburbs at The University of Queensland.
“There wasn’t anywhere else to go to,” he says with a laugh, jovially crackling down the line from Perth when asked why he came to UQ.
“Perth didn’t have a vet school until the 1980s. And in the 1960s, the only vet schools in Australia were in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
“Sydney and Melbourne tended to look after their own, so I went to Brisbane. New Zealand didn’t have any vet schools either, so they came across as well. It was a pretty diverse bunch from all over the place.”
Fenny’s childhood and adolescence were spent in Albany, on Western Australia’s southern coast. After finishing school, he made the move to Perth, quite the change for a quiet country boy.
Perth was ‘the big smoke’, very different from Albany. Fenny completed the first year of his vet science degree at the University of Western Australia, doing science subjects such as Biology, which formed the basis for the rest of his degree.
At the time, Fenny was a cadet with Western Australia’s Agriculture Department, but he wasn’t alone in crossing the Nullarbor for his training – six of them got on the train at Perth for the four days it took them to get over to Brisbane.
Yet while he was a long way from home, Fenny, like many Western Australians, felt at ease in Queensland.
“Maybe it’s because both Western Australia and Queensland are frontier states, and both have a strong tradition of no bullshit. They’re both very practical people. Anyone who tries to be pretentious gets short shrift,” he says.
“And we had a good group in the vet school. Many were a bit older and hadn’t come straight from school. A lot had been to Queensland Agricultural College or had worked in rural industries. There was a bit more maturity about the vet students.”
Dr Fenny started at UQ in 1967, and in his first year at UQ – although it was the second year of his vet science degree, his year at UWA counting as the first – he struggled with study, to the extent that he failed and had to repeat the year.
“Looking back, I probably wasn’t mentally prepared. But in retrospect, failing that year and having to repeat was one of the best things to happen to me. It was a bit of a slap in the face and taught me to get real and grow up a bit. What it also did was to set me up for a lifetime of setting goals and working towards them.”
The late ’60s were, of course, a time of radicalisation on campus and, while Dr Fenny admits he’s hardly left-wing these days, he was one of the 4000 UQ students to march from campus into the city in September 1967, in what was the first of many major street marches.
“I saw a photo from the march a couple of years ago, and I’m almost certain that it’s me in the background getting dragged away by the police. I didn’t get arrested, but I did get dragged off the street.
“There was a lot of stuff floating around on campus, and Brian Laver used to stand up on a table at the refectory to address the students at lunchtime – mostly about the Vietnam War and civil liberties – but he wasn’t getting much traction.
“But then Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen brought in this legislation that limited the right to protest – I think that having more than three people on the street was an illegal gathering – and that got me and a lot of others stirred up. Civil liberties became a big issue. So off we went.”
Image: Rick Fenny Group
Image: Rick Fenny Group
Fast forward to 1971 and graduation, Fenny returned to Western Australia and the Kimberley region to work out the bond to the Agriculture Department that had helped him financially through his study.
But when that finished, he wanted to explore the potential for a private practice in the Pilbara, which he saw as a country full of adventure and opportunity, where mining was starting to dramatically change the physical and psychological landscape, and new towns were springing up.
Being a vet in such a remote area required a different kind of practice than a city one – snakebites, for example, were more common, with the area having many brown snakes, whip snakes and death adders – while heatstroke was a common ailment in an area where 40-degree temperatures were not unusual.
He initially opened a practice in Roebourne, then set up a veterinary hospital in Karratha, before opening other practices in Perth, Albany, Newman and Tom Price, before branching out of Western Australia into East Sussex and Wales in the UK, and Victor Harbor in South Australia.
He also branched out into other areas, building up tourism and pastoral businesses. His celebrated claim to fame was when Lady Gaga stayed at one of his properties on the remote coast near Albany, becoming so moved by the spectacular surroundings that she composed two songs on the piano.
But it was Red Dog, the 2011 film about a dog in the north-west whom no-one owned but who belonged to everybody, that brought Dr Fenny to a wider audience.
Red Dog actually existed back in the 1970s, just as Dr Fenny was setting up his practice in the north-west, and he often came across the peripatetic kelpie in his travels, often giving the dog a lift.
He had to treat Red Dog several times for various ailments but in 1979, after what he suspected was a dose of strychnine poisoning, he had to do the most humane but hardest act of all when forced to euthanise the much-loved kelpie. The Red Dog legend was established in the north-west well before the 2011 movie – a statue of the dog sits on the outskirts of Dampier.
So, while Dr Fenny has become known as the ‘Red Dog vet’, the Red Dog of movie fame is only one of several important red dogs in his life, the first being his boyhood dog, Pip, in Albany.
Dr Fenny has worked the theme of four red dogs, all representing different eras of his life, into four planned books. He has already released Red Dog vet – Pip, my first red kelpie, which deals with his early years, while the second – which he is still writing – will deal with his years at UQ. The third in the series will focus on his times in the Kimberley region, while the final one will be set in the Pilbara region and will include true, never-before-heard stories about Red Dog.
“Four dogs, four eras, four different geographic locations. That’s the plan, anyway. And my life has always been about setting goals and then reaching them.”