Insights from new ACVO Dr Beth Cookson

07 Feb 2024
ACVO Dr Beth Cookson 1.jpg

(ACVO Dr Beth Cookson. Image: Andrew Watson)

I have recently been appointed as Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer following the retirement of Dr Mark Schipp, and wanted to take the time to introduce myself and share some of my priorities as I step into the role.

I started writing this article as my family and I awaited Tropical Cyclone Jasper’s arrival in Far North Queensland in mid-December 2023. We escaped relatively unscathed by the cyclone and the intense rainfall in its aftermath, but many were not as lucky, experiencing impacts to human and pet health, and personal assets, as well as broad scale disruption to businesses and agricultural production in the region.

Severe weather patterns have continued in other areas of Australia over the summer months. It serves as a timely reminder of the climate outlook and its implications for disaster planning and readiness, including implications for biosecurity. In particular, the increased need to promote associated preparedness and good biosecurity practices within Australia. A role that all veterinarians in Australia can play a part in. But more on that in a later edition!

From St Lucia to Murray Bridge

My career has progressed in what sometimes feels like an accidental manner, but just goes to show the diverse opportunities our veterinary profession opens up. When I was a veterinary student at the University of Queensland in the late 90’s and early 2000’s I planned to work in mixed veterinary practice and to live and work in western Queensland. At that point I had no inclination that I would work for government, let alone be appointed as Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer some 20 years later.

I hope the brief career summary that follows serves to provide insight into my own career journey and possibly even some inspiration for those veterinarians out there considering their next (or even first) career choice.

It began in my fourth year of university when I was enjoying being part of the veterinary student community in St Lucia, Brisbane, with plenty of time spent at the RE and attending the infamous ‘smokos’ at the veterinary school, and of course undertaking clinical and public practice rotations to help prepare us for our inevitable graduation.

I recall undertaking my public practice rotation with the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries with the wonderful Dr Allison Crook (now Chief Veterinary Officer of Queensland), which first piqued my interest in government veterinary work, an area I really had no visibility of prior to that experience.

(Dr Beth Cookson when working with AQIS. Image: AQIS)

Around that time the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS), now the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, advertised for applications to their Rural Veterinary Bonded Scholarship Program, and I applied on a whim with no expectation of being successful.

To my surprise, after going through the selection process and my first ever ‘government’ job interview, I was awarded one of six scholarships which provided a bursary during my final year of study in 2004 and an 11-month placement in a mixed-practice veterinary clinic after graduation.

So instead of working in rural western Queensland as I expected, my very supportive fiancé (now husband) and I found ourselves in Murray Bridge, South Australia where I worked as one of nine veterinarians in a busy mixed rural practice which provided small animal as well as horse, alpaca, dairy and beef services, not to mention on-plant veterinary services at the local export abattoir, disease testing as part of the Johne’s disease control program and the pro bono wildlife work that comes with our profession.

Northern Australia to Canberra

That was the first of six interstate relocations we would make over the next 15 years as my motto of ‘not saying no to an opportunity’ took us next to Darwin, then Cairns, back to Darwin, Canberra and finally back to Cairns in 2022.

During that 15 years I worked first in private practice, then as a field veterinarian and program manager delivering exotic animal disease surveillance across the vastness of northern Australia. This included working alongside Indigenous rangers and their communities to raise awareness about diseases and build animal health surveillance capacity. There was also time spent working offshore with counterparts in our near neighbouring countries of Indonesia, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea to address regional disease threats.

(Dr Beth Cookson at Cairns airport with a biosecurity dog and handler. Image: DAFF)

In 2019, I was promoted into a senior executive position in Canberra leading a team of technical experts responsible for establishing import conditions for animal and animal products that underpin our trade conditions and protect Australia’s favourable animal health status. We also negotiated technical market access for live animals and reproductive material. To be successful in this job I developed knowledge of international standards, trade rules and import risk analysis and honed skills in people leadership, trade negotiation, financial management and corporate governance. This role took me to France, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore amongst other countries as we engaged with trading partners and advanced our trade positions, which is necessarily always a two-way engagement.

I then worked at the National Recovery and Resilience Agency where I led the community engagement team, and worked with communities affected by bushfires, floods and other disasters. This role served to remind me not only of the reason we work as public servants to design and implement evidence-based and community-led public policy and deliver critical services to benefit the Australian community, but also provided me with new knowledge and experience in whole of government emergency management systems, which are critically important to our national infrastructure, including during disasters that impact agriculture, such as biosecurity emergencies.

Into the Office of the Chief Veterinary Officer

My appointment to Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer in March 2022 provided an opportunity to return to northern Australia where I became the primary technical advisor on emergency animal disease preparedness in the north, and led the department’s work strengthening engagement and capacity building in the region.

(AVCO Dr Beth Cookson. Image: Andrew Watson)

And now, as the Australian Chief Veterinary Officer I am the primary representative of, and advisor to, the Australian Government on matters relating to the maintenance and improvement of Australia’s animal health status and the systems that support it. I am also the Australian Delegate to the World Organisation for Animal Health, ensuring that we meet our international obligations for reporting, as well as contributing to standard setting that supports the safe trade for animals and animal products. I am also privileged to not only become a member of Animal Health Committee (AHC), but its Chair this year. AHC brings together Chief Veterinary Officers across Australia, and colleagues from key partner organisations, to deliver strategic policy, technical and regulator advice. I look forward to AHC’s ongoing national leadership on animal health and biosecurity matters.

My appointment to the role comes amidst significant challenges in our regional and global environment. We have seen the global spread of animal diseases, such as high pathogenicity avian influenza, lumpy skin disease and African swine fever, including in our region, as well as changes in the geographic distribution of foot-and-mouth disease, which are placing more pressure on our biosecurity system and trading relationships.

Addressing these challenges and others like the global threat of antimicrobial resistance and veterinary workforce challenges in Australia and abroad, will take a collaborative and concerted effort across government and non-government sectors. I am looking forward to sharing more about the work we are doing in these areas and about how we can work together to address some of these priority issues.

For the latest updates on the work of the Office of the Chief Veterinary Officer, please follow the social media channels of the Australian Chief Veterinary Officer on Twitter/X and LinkedIn.