NOT even Paul Hogan can say he was the one who actually eased Charlie the Buffalo to sleep in the Australian classic, Crocodile Dundee. In truth, it was a Queensland veterinarian who was bestowed the honour.
Kel Small had been working for the Northern Territory government since the early 1980s. He was familiar with buffalo after spending his first 10 years in the Territory eradicating tuberculosis from the breed.
So, after a last minute call from a colleague, the young Queensland vet found himself on a movie set flanked by Hoges himself and a lookalike stunt double, who was ready to step in should the buffalo scene go off-script.
“Charlie the buffalo came from the Research Farm and a few of the farm staff were training the buffalo, but he had not been trained to lay down,” Kel said.
“Before I injected him with the muscle relaxant the director asked what was going to happen. I replied that as I had not tried this before I was not sure, but we will soon find out,” he said. “Charlie was tethered by a hobble chain and luckily fell down on his chest.
“There may have been a stunt double, but Hoges was pretty bold himself. He had the buffalo by the horns pulling Charlie onto his side to finish the scene.”
Kel was paid a carton of Fosters for his services, and later encountered Charlie at the Adelaide River Hotel where the buffalo had retired. Unfortunately, with old age, Charlie had fractured his scapula and had to be destroyed. Yet, his body remained in the Hotel, a taxidermist’s dream.
It was a little bit of fame for the boy who was born in Beaudesert in 1955, and some more adventure to add to his already adventurous childhood, which included living at the Chinchilla Club Hotel when his father, Greg, was the publican.
With two older siblings, Bill and Judy, Kel recalled their days spent “climbing up fire escape ladders onto the hotel verandas and waving directions to the railway crew shunting carriages on the adjacent railway yards.” After a fire burned down the nearby Commercial Hotel with several fatalities Kel’s mother, Elva, decided to move the family off the premises.
In 1970, the Small family moved back to Brisbane so Greg could re-enter the less adventurous world of accountancy. Similarly, Kel swapped bars for books as he had “plenty to do, lots to learn” at the University of Queensland.
It was not just veterinary science Kel learned, but also lessons in love when, in 1976, he married one of his parasitology tutors, Lois, who was also a biochemistry student and had her Masters and Honours degrees in parasitology.
Upon graduation, Kel began work at a small animal clinic on the Gold Coast. But, in early 1980, he left the position to travel around Australia with Lois.
“We went to Victoria and picked grapes for a while, South Australia, Western Australia and ended up in Darwin,” Kel said. “And, by the time we ended up there, we had run out of money.
“So, we stopped there for 28 years before we finished the tour and got back to Queensland,” he said.
Lois had completed her Diploma of Education so found a job teaching high school science, while Kel started work with the NT government as a vet mainly working with commercial livestock – buffalo, cattle, dairy, poultry and pigs. Lois later took up the position of Parasitologist at the Berrimah Veterinary Laboratory.
“The NT cattle industry was a harvesting industry, particularly in the Top End. Most of the cattle and all the buffalo were wild, feral animals and when the market was right, mustering contractors would go out. If the market wasn’t right, not a lot happened,” Kel said.
“There was not a lot of development on properties, but between Darwin and Katherine there were four export abattoirs and very few controlled herds.
“About that time, BTEC (the brucellosis and tuberculosis eradication campaign) was progressing across the rest of the country, but there hadn’t really been a start in Darwin at all. Due to the nature of the industry, and the level of infected buffalo and pigs, people thought tuberculosis was impossible to eradicate.”
Kel said the coastal floodplains were a feature of the Darwin region and the fertile, extremely productive seasonally inundated plains supported high stocking densities of cattle, buffalo and pigs – suitable conditions for the transmission of tuberculosis.
“The tuberculosis was at such a level that mustering contractors didn’t bother mustering some places as there was such a high condemnation rate when the stock were slaughtered at the abattoirs.”
But, Kel believed there could be change.
“The main thing was to convince the rest of Australia and the bureaucrats in Canberra that buffalo weren’t much different to cattle and with suitable compensation funding to remove them, and applying the same system to buffalo that applied to cattle, we felt it was possible to get rid of the disease.”
This ideal turned into a reality with persistence, a national campaign, and a little luck, and Kel watched the Top End transform from a place of harvesting industries to one of good infrastructure, fencing, and improved breeds of cattle.
The little bit of luck was an important part of the transformation as the positive changes brought with them negatives; people involved in harvesting feral animals were now out of employment, and producers had to carry the expense of improved infrastructure for stock control and often total herd replacement.
“It was fortuitous that the live-export market was developing a demand for the quality Brahman cattle being produced as the export abattoirs never really paid a good enough price to justify the development of the stations.”
Distance to the market was no longer a concern to NT producers, with nearly all Top End turnoff being shipped out of Darwin and progress seemed to envelop the Territory.
However, Mudginberri abattoir soon found itself embroiled in industrial dispute, which put a stop to the TB destocking programs. In 1985, Kel, along with Dave Russel and David Thompson, travelled to Mudginberri as volunteers to provide inspection services to get the cattle industry operating again.
Picketers had been stopping vehicles on the main access road and Kel was uncertain of the reception they would receive; however, upon arrival at 10pm, all the picketers were asleep. Jay Pendarvis gave them a warm reception and killing recommenced early the next morning.
Kel’s next project was to stem scepticism about the chances of achieving tuberculosis freedom in cattle when infection levels in feral pigs were high. In 1992, an extensive survey of 790 pigs confirmed that over a period of about 20 years, while the eradication was happening in cattle and buffalo herds, the prevalence of the disease in feral pigs had gone down from 19 percent to 0.25pc.
It was around this time Kel got his first international assignment – disease-testing buffalo for export to Indonesia.
“The young buffalo were being supplied for the Indonesia Transmigration Project, where people from the heavily populated parts of Java were being moved to Sumatra. Part of the project involved the Indonesian government providing people with land and a draught animal.”
Kel travelled with one shipment to Sumatra and then flew onto Jambi to see the NT buffalo being put to good use, ploughing fields. It was a trip that nearly cost him his life as the jet pilot overshot the runway when landing and the passengers had to disembark down a ladder. If the passengers had used the aircraft’s stairs, they would have descended down an embankment into a dam.
In 2001, Kel travelled to Carlisle, England, as part of Australia’s effort to assist the United Kingdom in responding to its foot and mouth disease epidemic.
“The scale of human and animal suffering was daunting, but the principles of eradication were the same as those planned and trained for in Australia.
“After four weeks on the job, there were 200 veterinarians working out of the Carlisle control centre and it took many more months to control the outbreak.”
Back home in the Territory, Kel and Lois had since purchased Camp Creek Station near Darwin to pursue their interest in cattle production.
In 2008, Kel and Lois moved back to Queensland. Their three sons – Adam, Riley, and Garth – were all grown and living throughout the Sunshine State and NSW so Kel and Lois decided it was time to move on.
“We probably saw ourselves as Queenslanders and while we enjoyed living and working in the NT it was time for a change.”
Kel and Lois chose a tree change and bought a cattle block, Seaview, at Mt Kanigan (where the Gympie weather radar is situated) so that they could continue their cattle interest.
However, with the birth of his first grandchild in Darwin, a link to the Territory and Kel’s life work still exists.