Changemaker- Liz Walker

Dr Liz Walker is the CEO of Lort Smith Animal Hospital.

Lort Smith provides veterinary care at a reduced cost for the pets of people in need as well as shelter services for injured, surrendered and abandoned pets that have no-one to care for them.

This week we feature Liz in Changemakers- a weekly column that examines inspiring people and their careers in the Not for Profit sector.

Liz said Lort Smith’s commitment to the value of the human/animal bond inevitably means that care for the animal must include concern for its human companion.

As a result, Liz and the Lort Smith Hospital work closely with case workers and community organisations to deliver emergency boarding services for pets of the elderly and infirm, victims of domestic violence and the homeless.

Liz also oversees the Lort Smith’s community projects, such as the Pet Therapy program, where volunteers take their dogs to more than 50 aged care facilities, the children’s hospital, hostels and palliative care units across Melbourne.

Partly, as a result of the success of the pet therapy program, she is also part of a group pushing for recognition of the importance of pets in ageing lives and aged care facilities. She believes for someone who has lived with animals for 75% of their lives, to be forced to be denied the company of an animal for the last 25% is a form of torture.

Other areas of focus for Liz have been the feminisation of the vet profession and the implications this has for the industry and the role of the companion animals in building social capital in our communities.

Liz graduated as a veterinarian from Melbourne University in 1989. She began her career as a vet in a private small animal practice before moving into research (in sheep parasitology) and teaching. In 1995 she entered the corporate world with Uncle Ben’s (now Mars Petcare) and then Bayer Animal Health where she held positions in sales and marketing while completing a Masters of Management at MGSM. She was appointed General Manager of Gribbles Veterinary Pathology in 2004 and became CEO of Lort Smith in June 2010.

What are you currently working on in the organisation?
My main objective is to bring the services of Lort Smith to more people. We are expanding our Emergency Welfare Service, which already provides help for people who suddenly find themselves in difficult situations and unable to care for their pet.

The most common reasons people need this help are physical or mental health crises and domestic violence. The Lort’s goal is to keep people and their animals together wherever possible, so we assist by taking the animals in and caring for them until their human companions are back on their feet.

We already have a sophisticated foster care network as part of the recovery and rehabilitation program for animals surrendered to our shelter, but I am working to develop this into a platform for partnering with other shelters and commercial pet boarding businesses to provide efficient, pro bono emergency animal housing across the State. We work closely with social and case workers and they will be able to tap into this network and find crisis accommodation for their clients’ animals.

I am also involved in the introduction of team-led consultations to improve efficiency in our clinic. We are following a similar model to that used in hospitals where nurses are empowered to do more of the initial consultation and primary care while vets focus on diagnosis, treatment and surgery.

What drew you to the Not for Profit sector?
I admired Lort Smith for its commitment to the human/animal bond and to social welfare. I realised that it was the perfect opportunity to bring together my skills and experience as a vet in animal health and as a manager in the commercial sector to try to make the world a better place.

What do you like best about working in your current organisation?
I love the unique vision of the Lort which focuses on animals and the people who care for them – the respect for that relationship and the recognition of the importance of animals in our lives. And of course, the people who work here are tremendous as well, because they all share that compassion and commitment too.

I consider my greatest achievement to be...
The establishment of the first clinical ethics committee in any animal hospital in the world. In this regard, the Lort is following the model of human hospitals, but of course with different issues.

For example, in relation to euthanasia we must weigh up the experience and outcomes of treatments, and the resulting quality of life for animals. I’m also proud of the culture of continuous improvement that is now in place at Lort Smith, making us more efficient and effective.

I’m always being asked …
How I fit everything in.

School taught me …
That I could be whatever I wanted, if I was prepared to work for it. I just went to the local high school, but I had wonderful teachers who really gave me the confidence to pursue my dreams.

What does a typical day for you involve?
I wake up at about 5.30am and do about half an hour’s paperwork, but the most important job at this time of day is to take my dog ‘Princess Esther the Great’ for a walk and come home via the bakery. We then have a mad rush of breakfast, lunch preparation and getting four kids ready for school. I get to the office at about 8am and start working on various projects, with breaks to visit the shelter and cattery to say hello to various furry friends. I also like to get around the hospital and see what’s happening on the wards and in the waiting room.

I leave work between 6pm and 7pm, sometimes to do after school sports pickups and that sort of thing. Then the focus is dinner, baths, homework and bedtime stories. Once the kids are settled, my husband Lewis and I catch up on our days, then a flurry of dishes, laundry, catch up on emails and finally hop into bed – usually with our cat Erroll squeezing in too – at about 11.30pm.

What inspires you? Who inspires you?
I’m inspired by people who are committed to their cause and not afraid to say what they think – so they aren’t necessarily people I agree with all the time. In the area of animal welfare, I admire Hugh Wirth, President of the RSPCA Victoria.

Hugh is outspoken and can be polarising, but you never have any doubt that he’s for the animals. I find his commitment humbling. I’m also inspired by Lyn White, Campaign Director of Animals Australia. She’s determined and passionate, but very measured and rational in her argument and that combination is inspiring.

I’m also inspired by one of our vets, Leanne Pinfold, who operates an orphanage in Kenya, and one of our long time supporters, author Felicity Jacka who operates an orphanage in Bangladesh. Both these women saw a need and filled it – they weren’t put off by the enormity of the general problem of poverty, they just decided they could make a difference and went for it. The world needs more people like that.

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